Be careful of those pastors, church leaders warn

In light of yet another cult-like church operation in St James, religious leaders are urging Jamaicans to be mindful, for their safety, of the pastors to whom they render themselves in the name of holiness.

Rev Merrick “Al” Miller, senior pastor of Fellowship Tabernacle in St Andrew, told the Jamaica Observer that the fundamentals are contained in the scriptures, and that’s what people should bear in mind.

“God is love. God is just. When we talk about the love of God, it is love that is based on principles that seek only the good and the development of people. And so anything that is not seeking the best development, the best welfare of others, the best interests, then you always look at it with suspect. It is a sensitivity consciousness that we must have,” he said in an interview last Tuesday.

“God is governed by principles of love, justice, truth, openness, honesty. And where those fundamentals are in question, back away from them.”

Miller added that as Christians there is the belief that the scriptures are God’s words to people and, therefore, everything ought to be tested if found to be in violation of the basic principles of the scriptures.

“It is always rooted in love and care for another – never self-serving or self-interest. Anything other than that is a red flag. Anything secretive, quiet, nobody can know about it, nobody wants to mention it – suspect right away! Because where it is love and God, it is open. Nothing to hide. People must be on guard. What these things are doing is making people being fearful and suspicious of the spiritual, Christianity, or pursuing the spiritual life, welfare.”

Presiding bishop of the Christian Holiness Church in Jamaica Rev Dr Alvin Bailey said people have been untrustworthy of newly established religious groups with unconventional imported religious practices and leaders that are eccentric in conduct, character, and adorning.

“They can also be detected by their open intolerance of established churches’ denomination and leaders. They are known for isolating themselves to avoid public scrutiny and visibility of legislative authority, which is often an obvious indication,” he told the Sunday Observer.

“Charismatic, autocratic in style, and unshared leadership that demands unquestionably loyalty, lacking of accountability, and teach vows of secrecy are indisputable characteristics of these cultist groups,” Rev Bailey continued.

Twenty-three children were put in State care after being removed from the Bayith Yahweh compound in St James where there have been allegations of forced marriages and other abuses.

The children, who are between one and 17 years old, were taken before the St James Family Court on Wednesday, June 7, as the authorities moved to protect them. The police also reportedly detained a number of adults from the facility during the early morning operation.

Commanding officer for the Area One Police, Assistant Commissioner of Police Clifford Chambers, said there were reports that a number of infractions — as outlined under Section 11 of the Child Care and Protection Act — are suspected to have taken place at the compound.

Bishop Courtney Beason, pastor at Mountain View New Testament Church of God, said throughout history there have been instances when “charismatic individuals” have used religion to manipulate and deceive others.

He said that false leaders may distort religious teachings, promote their own self-interests, or engage in abusive practices while claiming religious authority.

“False religious leaders often prey on people’s vulnerabilities, exploiting their fears, desires, or lack of critical thinking. They may use persuasive techniques, emotional manipulation, or even fraud to gain followers and control over their lives. In some cases, these leaders create exclusive groups or cults that isolate their followers from the outside world, making it harder for individuals to question or escape their influence,” Beason said.

Beason reasoned that “people should be able to use good judgement and sense to realise when they are being led astray by false religious leaders and guard against it. This is possible by exercising critical thinking, studying religious teachings independently, and evaluating the behaviour and teachings of leaders against established moral principles”.

He added that building a strong foundation of knowledge, seeking diverse perspectives, and fostering a healthy scepticism can also help individuals identify and avoid manipulation by false leaders.

Montego Bay is no stranger to controversial groups that claim to practise religion. The nation was shocked in October 2021 when police stormed Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries to prevent human sacrifices being performed at the behest of the organisation’s leader, Kevin Smith.

One woman’s throat was slashed as part of the ritual and another of Smith’s followers was stabbed, shot in his back, and an attempt made to cut his throat during the mayhem inside the building in Albion, St James. Cops shot dead a believer who ran towards them with a knife.

Kevin Smith later died in a car crash before he could stand trial.

Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries is located within walking distance of the Bayith Yahweh compound.

Anglican Bishop of Kingston Garth Minott reiterated that religious practices are and should not be above the law.

“This is my view and it ought to be shared by every well-thinking Jamaican and, indeed, everyone who has the interest of all vulnerable persons at heart. Religion is for bringing people together and in unity, pursuing a common objective of wholeness, integrity, and well-being. There is no room for human trafficking, abuse of children, and other vulnerable persons,” he said.

Minott argued that in the Christian tradition, Jesus speaks of fullness of life and suggests that people must pursue peace and justice at all cost.

“… Even if it means exposing practices of religious and other leaders that are not healthy for human flourishing. Since religious leaders are not above the law, any practice that is against human growth and development must be condemned, and where infringements are identified, the full weight of the law must take its course as nothing must be said or done to undermine treating people with unconditional love.”

Rev Herro Blair Jr, director of Jamaica Youth for Christ, told the Sunday Observer that deep, blind involvement in cults is not surprising.

“If a man can get caught up in a church with something like that, why not? They get caught up in a JLP [Jamaica Labour Party] party and kill each other, family kill family and fight within the country over political party because of what they’ve been drawn to.”

From a church perspective, he continued, the Bible does declare that a man is drawn away by his own lust.

“People are always searching for similar minds, but not just similar minds. People, especially men, are searching for somebody they can believe in, searching for something that they can see or feel is something worthwhile — whether it is good or bad,” he said.

“That’s why so many churches, cults, political groups are able to exist — because we are the way we are. I won’t even use the word gullible. The people living in the area who are not a part of it and identify that something is strange with a church, cult, or a group, then they have a responsibility to say and do something.”

Meanwhile, Miller added that the Bible is laced with practices of all kinds of worship that have been detrimental.

“It is not restricted to religious leaders. Cults are not just religious, and it happens all around the world. It is not just what we would call religious and certainly not Christian, in that people tend to be gullible. They are looking for answers and to deal with the issues of life. We see them used to offer children in the fire… sexual overtones. So all of that has been through the history of humanity, and the scriptures speak against them,” he told the Sunday Observer.

Similarly, Beason pointed to Matthew 24:11 (NIV) in which Jesus warned, “And many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.”

“He warns about the rise of false religious leaders who will deceive many people. Finally, it is important to note that the actions of false religious leaders in Jamaica should not be taken as representative of all religious leaders. Most religious leaders are sincere in their beliefs and strive to guide their followers towards spiritual growth, moral values, and communal well-being,” Beason said.