I Finally Left One Of The UK’s Most Controversial Churches — But Many Black Women Still Remain

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“Everyone worshipped Tobi. Everyone viewed him as God. People in the church were very much simping for him. If he told them to jump, they would jump.” Kayowa is a 24-year-old creative (@1kayowa) and is an ex-member of SPAC Nation (Salvation Proclaimers Anointed Church), a controversial church group known to recruit young Black people specifically, and has faced widespread accusations of being a cult, something which its representatives have fervently denied.
SPAC Nation has had a rollercoaster of media attention over the years. Led by former property developer Tobi Adegboyega (who stepped down in 2020), the London-based church was first hailed by the media and politicians alike, as helping to crack down on youth violence in 2018. But less than three years later, police launched investigations into SPAC Nation, over allegations of child abuse, fraud and financial exploitation. The Met Police’s investigations found “no safeguarding issues” and suspects were released under investigation, with no charges — they dropped their investigation in 2020. It later became the subject of a BBC Panorama documentary Conned By My Church where young worshippers alleged that they had been forced into debt by church leaders. Whilst all of this seemed to come to a head in June 2022 when SPAC Nation had its charity status revoked, in July 2023, Forbes published an investigative piece that highlighted the link between Women of The City Magazine (WOTC) —  a business magazine which claimed to empower women — and SPAC Nation. Despite having renowned celebrities on the cover of the magazine, Forbes reported multiple claims from women business owners who paid to feature in the magazine, yet promised interviews “never materialised”. According to Forbes, Mariam Mola, an infamous SPAC Nation member and convicted fraudster is thought to be the mind behind the publication (2020 BBC documentary Catch Her If You Can feature the victims of Mola’s alleged scams).  While former WOTC CEO Anais Bienvenu told Forbes, “Mariam Mola has never worked for WOTC” other SPAC Nation representatives told the publication that she "helps within her capacity a few of the women-led businesses in our community; one of which was WOTC.” Despite all the allegations, the so-called church keeps making a comeback, with many of its members — mainly young Black people from vulnerable backgrounds — remaining fervent supporters. 
Kayowa attended SPAC Nation from ages 10 to 11 in 2010 and says she saw the lack of protection for minors and vulnerable young people firsthand. “There was no safeguarding,” she explained to Unbothered. “It was so sad because people were getting abused in these homes that were meant to be safety hubs. There was child sexual abuse going on — my friend got raped,” alleges Kayowa.  As it’s been widely reported, SPAC Nation has a number of residential homes they call “Trap Houses” intended as safety hubs for young people to live, however, back in 2020 were raided following shocking evidence of abuse within safe houses,” according to sources at Huffington Post. No one from SPAC Nation has been charged and the church has denied any wrongdoing, per Huffington Post. SPAC Nation’s spokesperson, Daniel Ogoloma, told the publication in 2019, “These houses are rented by individuals and the church encourages individuals to take in people and help them. That is at the will of the individual. The church does not refer people to houses, it only encourages members to help others.”
Unbothered has also reached out to SPAC Nation multiple times for comment but they have yet to respond. Kayowa, who believes SPAC Nation is a cult, told Unbothered that she had friends who lived in these houses. “That’s the classic formula for cults, keep everyone under one roof so that we have control of coming ins and going outs.” 

“It was so sad because people were getting abused in these homes that were meant to be safety hubs."

In what appears to be a bid to avoid the bad press it has attracted over the years, SPAC Nation has rebranded itself as “Nxtion Family” with Tobi Adegboyega back at the helm, as well as “over 200 ordained ministers and pastors and “12 community units across London” By the looks of its social media pages, SPAC Nation is still preaching its prosperity doctrine as one of its recent videos sees Pastor Tobi Adegboyega wearing Louis Vuitton trainers and stepping into flashy cars. The ‘prosperity gospel’ is a doctrine or teaching that leads with the idea that God rewards all his faithful servants with material wealth, however, it’s widely contested amongst Pentecostal denominations, especially as it often dictates that the lack of material wealth is innately ungodly. SPAC Nation clings to this doctrine by encouraging members to take extreme lengths to show what they call “seed”. For example, “seed” can be money invested in the church or given as a gift in order to receive blessings from God in material wealth. This has led young people to take out loans that eventually put them in debt, as reported by HuffPost. Once again, these are allegations SPAC Nation has routinely denied, with a representative recently stating to Forbes that it “does not take offerings and tithes like other churches or charities within the U.K.,” adding, “we are far from lacking in resources.” 
In major cities across the UK, Black-majority churches are thriving community hubs for faith-based worship, as well as safe spaces for mental, financial and interpersonal relationship support. Yet, recent research by the Independent estimates that there are also more than 2000 cults operating in the UK, however relevant UK-based statistics in relation to just how many Black people are targeted by cults is scarce. 
Kayowa was first introduced to SPAC Nation by her mum, who was also a regular attendee. The 24-year-old describes the environment as full-on. “In SPAC Nation, I found it funny how everyone was in church every single day of the week, from Monday to Sunday. I found that weird because I was coming from another church in South London and that church would be done within an hour and a half. The only thing [the other church] would have in the week would be youth club, but it was very fun and not indoctrination,” she explains. “But in SPAC, you would spend the whole day in the church from 9 am until sometimes 7 pm. It was horrible, especially as a child.” Kayowa credits studying psychology in school, where she learnt about cult leaders like Charles Manson, as what convinced her to eventually leave SPAC Nation. 
SPAC Nation isn’t the only cult-like group that is seemingly targeting young Black people. New Heaven, New Earth, or Shincheonji, which claims to be a branch of Christianity, has also been in the limelight in recent years for its reputation as a “doomsday cult”. Representatives of Shincheonji denied allegations that it is a cult, stating to the Independent that the term is a “derogatory, stereotyping label”. According to the publication, the group “has bases in London and Manchester but its reach is much wider, with hundreds of people attending Zoom meetings.” I was approached by New Heaven, New Earth in November 2022 via Instagram, one of their most popular recruitment methods 

“A few months into the course we were told that God has sent ‘New John’ to be the only person that can give the world the revelation."

*Hope on new heaven, new earth
At first, the Black woman who messaged me asked for some help with a mentoring project. She seemed very friendly throughout the voice notes sent over and, because she was close to my age, we connected on similar interests, like growing up in South London. Eventually, the conversation progressed to asking for a WhatsApp number to talk in more detail, insisting that Instagram isn’t the best form of communication and then a phone call. I avoided engaging in a phone call as our communication had started to feel like borderline harassment and I had doubts.
Then, she invited me to a virtual Bible study meeting. At first, I considered it as I was looking for new ways to connect with more Christians. When she told me the name was New Heaven, New Earth, I Googled to find out more as I hadn't heard of it before. Amongst the top results, was this Independent article that spotlighted the shocking experiences of former members of New Heaven, New Earth who described it as “a doomsday cult”. This was more than enough evidence for me to discontinue speaking with the lady who invited me to join. 
Hope* found out about New Heaven, New Earth through a mutual friend and joined around April/May 2022. Sharing her experience when she first joined, Hope said: “It was really good. I wasn’t in a great place mentally and was extremely desperate to have a deeper relationship with God. It was perfect timing to be fair and the team leaders and other young people in my session were really welcoming.”As time went on, Hope says some teachings became alarming to her. 
“A few months into the course we were told that God has sent ‘New John’ to be the only person that can give the world the revelation,” Hope says, explaining that they were referring to the Book of Revelation in the Bible, which speaks of the second coming. “You were also advised to not share much with friends and family as some may discourage you or not understand exactly what was being taught in these sessions.”
In New Heaven, New Earth, the “New John” in question is a South Korean man called “Lee Man-Hee” who claims to be a chosen messenger of Jesus to bring about the news of the second coming (Christianity teaches, in the finished work of Jesus the Messiah, that his followers are waiting on his return to join him in heaven). Lee Man-Hee was convicted of embezzling church funds in 2021 and handed a suspended jail term. Explaining her final decision to leave New Heaven New Earth, Hope tells Unbothered: “I left because of personal circumstances and the course became quite intense. Finding out about ‘New John’ didn’t sit with me too well. However, I did not want to just drop out because I really had prayed for a Bible study group to come along during this period. But, I then spoke with a close church friend who prayed with me and suggested that I ask God for guidance as they too were quite concerned by what was being taught [by New Heaven New Earth]. Soon after, I asked the team leader if I could take a break and they agreed.” 
Black Theologian and Professor Robert Beckford at Winchester University has worked in this profession for over 30 years. He believes that the lack of qualifications for leaders in Black-majority churches is what helps cult-like groups to thrive. “South London has the largest concentration of Black independent churches outside of West Africa and in how many of them are the pastors trained? Very few,” he says.  
“I’m not saying you need a theological degree to be a minister but I’m saying it helps a lot,” he continues. “I would say we should be introducing minimum standards, like a diploma that people can recognise and say they understand the key themes in the Christian tradition and understand what it means to counsel people.” Delving deeper to help distinguish the difference between a church and a cult, Beckford notes one of the key ways to differentiate is that cults are often more authoritarian. Cults often have one person leading the congregation who is thought to be a God figure, on an equal level or above the God in the Bible. 
Speaking on a specific incident he had in relation to SPAC Nation, Beckford shares: “About four or five years ago, I was contacted by one of the local authorities about the church as [it was based] within the boundaries of that local authority. The [local authority] asked me to support them in helping the church to engage with child protection. The church [SPAC Nation] refused to engage.” 
As a Christian myself, I am sensitive to situations where “church” is used to describe cult-like groups that claim to be Christian. The church is the people (Matthew 16:18), and a safe place for Christians to commune together in faith. Yet it is humanity’s integral need for community and safety, especially amongst vulnerable groups like young people, that cult communities take advantage of in their recruitment methods. For young Black women like Kayowa and Hope, leaving these two cult-like groups meant escaping a place that used safety as a means of control. 
“Leaving a cult can be a traumatic experience and many cult leavers lack support in rebuilding lives in the wider society,” explains UK Charity The Family Survival Trust on its website, which is working to prevent coercive control and cultic behaviour. “An individual recruited into a cult will typically have their entire life course altered and may experience great financial, personal, psychological, social, career, and health consequences. Unwilling involvement in criminal activity led by the cult may also result,” they write. 
 As the charity found in 2022, it can be difficult for UK ministers to “legally distinguish between religion and semi-criminal cults, yet, for me, it’s simple. In the Bible, Jesus uses the church to describe his people (Acts 20:28). Christianity also believes in God as a three-in-one God (Father, Son [Jesus] and Holy Spirit) —this is the only God to be worshipped in Christianity and no human is to be worshipped or exalted higher. However, a common tell sign of cults is that there is often a leader who is magnified or added in addition to God in some sense of exclusivity.  
Before deciding to join any group that claims to be Christian, it’s important to examine their beliefs to reduce the risk of finding yourself in a cult. Most churches have websites or social media platforms that hint at their core values that can help you better understand if they align with the gospel that Christianity teaches. Or, like in my circumstance, a quick Google search of the church you are considering joining may reveal the experiences of those who have attended the church. Many churches cater to a wide range of age groups and have youth ministries as part of that, which is often a good sign that they aren’t just targeting vulnerable young people. Essentially, it’s important to research the church you’re considering joining before deciding to attend. As it says in John 8:32, “The truth will set you free”. 
Unbothered reached out to SPAC Nation and New Heaven, New Earth for comment on the allegations in this piece, but has yet to receive a response.
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity

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