Are religious cults alive in Jamaica?Tuesday, October 26, 2021
My years as a university student were filled mainly with sports and social events. That, along with the occasional reminders from my mother that I was there for academic pursuits.
One day a freshman student approached me and asked if he could speak with me. I had tickets for the George Foreman vs Joe Frazier fight and I needed to be early, so I couldn't speak to him. He made a few subsequent attempts but, somehow, he always seemed to come when I was on my way to another engagement and I had to put him off.
One Monday morning bad news came. He had taken an early flight to his home on another island the previous Saturday and, when his family returned home from the stall they operated in the local market, they found him. This son, the first in this dirt-poor family to make it to high school, then, unbelievably, university, had taken his own life.
As if it would help, I threw myself into planning a memorial service with the help of a young priest named Father Richard Ho Lung. He spoke of caring for each other — really caring. But he seemed unable to hold back the words, “Where were you when he needed you?”
That was not my best day, but I think I learnt more from Father Ho Lung that day than the three times I graduated from the university.
Years later, I was a manager for a Social Development Commission (SDC) project. The aim was to train 300 young people to enter the early childhood programme. At nights I used to hear a small group clapping and singing religious songs, punctuated with the occasional “Hallelujah”.
One night, screams erupted during the singing. Pandemonium broke out and soon there was banging on my door. One of the participants was on the floor. She was unresponsive and only the whites of her eyes were visible. We ran with her to the nurse, whose annoyance was palpable. It was several days before that young woman was herself again.
The following day, however, the chairman of the SDC — a reverend himself — visited. He made it clear to me that those unscheduled, unsupervised activities were not permitted. That surprised me, coming from a man of the cloth.
When I returned to Kingston I related the incident to some of our most revered reverends. They all supported his position. Confused, I decided to do some serious research on the matter. What could possibly be wrong with worshipping God?
On April 9, 2016, many of our senior politicians made a pilgrimage to Montego Bay. It was in response to an invitation that read something like this:
Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries of Montego Bay is celebrating the “Royal Ascension Celebration Birthday and Ecclesiastical Enthronement of His Excellency Dr Kevin O Smith”, D D, D-C P C. The proceedings were to start “6 PM Sharpe”. During the celebrations he was hugged, kissed, and received wild cheers.
A few days ago I was surprised that the nation was shocked when “His Royal Excellency” was taken into custody in relation to the death of two congregants at his church.
I was forced to reflect on my research years earlier.
In the 1970s an Indian, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, started what he described as a “religious-less religion” that embraced sexual liberation. It was not long before he ran into difficulties with the Indian Government, so he purchased land in the US and started a commune there.
Followers grew by the thousands.
These included people who left high-paying jobs to just 'rough' it out on the commune. Americans in the area started to voice their disapproval when it was revealed that the group wanted to dominate regional politics.
He was deported after thorough investigations revealed that he was orchestrating a mass poisoning of locals in order to influence the upcoming election. Some 700 were poisoned, but quick action prevented any deaths.
Daniel Perez, a self-described “seer” who claimed to be a 1,000-year-old angel, led a travelling group of women through several states, convincing them he had to have sex with young girls in order to stay alive.
Over a 15-year period he fraudulently claimed millions in insurance from the deaths of his members. He is now serving life in prison for the last one he killed.
In 1970, Marshal Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles renamed themselves Bo and Peep. They took a road trip across the US, gathering followers with surprising ease. They were called The Crew.
The group existed for 20 years before Applewhite explained that the Earth was about to be “wiped clean” and it was best to “leave it”. First, they were encouraged to isolate themselves from family, friends, and the general public. They then rented a mansion in southern California, mixed phenobarbital with applesauce, then washed it down with vodka. The 42 of them then placed plastic bags over their heads, as directed by Applewhite, and died shortly thereafter.
The Children of God organisation was started in 1968, but came into its own in the 1970s. Female members were encouraged to bring in recruits by offering them sex — a practice they called “flirty fishing”.
The leader also advocated child sex.
In a letter to followers they were told, “God expects children to have babies by 12 or so.” As the group gained a reputation for paedophilia, some, like the parents of actor Joaquin Phoenix and actress Rose McGowan, felt it was neglecting its religious roots and fled the group, but most remained.
The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ was started by Jim Jones in Indiana in 1955. He preached a blend of Christianity and communism, along with racial equality. His following grew exponentially. Eventually, some of his practices came under scrutiny and the group moved to the jungles of Guyana and established a commune there.
Word reached the US, however, of abuses and unusual sexual practices there. Eventually, a congressman took a team to investigate. They were murdered by Jones' men.
Jones then told his followers that the end was near. They had mass suicide drills. By 1978 they were ready.
Jones had a drum of Kool-Aid laced with cyanide and ordered his followers to drink the lethal brew. One by one they obediently drank and died — all 900 of them — including Jones.
I say I am not surprised at this development in Montego Bay because these men could not have committed these heinous crimes without willing participants. One professor was asked on a TV programme if he thinks there are other such organisations here. He said he was not sure. I disagree. That is because this country is fertile ground for such men.
Again, it all goes back to the virtual disappearance of the family in many parts of Jamaica. Our boys have been raised to not accepting responsibility for anything. By the same token, our girls are growing up in the firm belief that their pelvic area is the centre of the universe. These two thought processes combine to create all the problems that beset our society — fatherless homes; burdened, impoverished women; poor educational outcomes; the need to feel validated; schizotypal thinking; and lack of accountability. These are all signs of low self-worth.
The above describes the overwhelming majority of Jamaican women. I dare anyone to show me 10 women at any rung of the socio-economic ladder who are not suffering from some level of depression. And the little tents and churches are mushrooming everywhere to ensnare them.
Cult leaders prey on folks like these. They are more likely to get swept up in a group that tricks them and tries to make them feel like they belong.
Some may say that the Government needs to monitor these “new” churches more closely. The difficulty is that, if they were not filling a need, they would be penniless and empty.
Glenn Tucker is an educator and a sociologist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com