See Part 2 of this Article.
The Jesus Christians don't consider themselves to be a cult - their movement is only about two dozen strong around the world - but they are unusually committed to their faith. Following their leader's example, most of them are offering one of their kidneys to a stranger in need of a donor. As the operations begin, Jon Ronson asks them why.
On a Friday afternoon in January 2002, Susan Ellis sneaks past the security staff at Guy's hospital, London. She's pretending to be a patient, although nobody asks. She catches the lift to the fourth floor, finds the kidney dialysis waiting room, and whispers to me, "It's perfect."
Donating kidneys to strangers is illegal in the UK. When I called the Department of Health (DoH) to ask why, they said, "You mean, strangers selling kidneys?"
"No. Just giving them away."
There was a silence: "Giving them away?"
"You mean, when the donor is dead?"
"We'll get back to you," they said. They did, with a prepared statement: "Ultra [the Unrelated Live Transplant Regulatory Authority] insists on confirmation of an emotional relationship between a donor and a recipient." The DoH's view, they explained over the phone, is that anyone who wants to donate a kidney to a stranger must be in it for money. If they're not, they must have psychiatric problems, and so need to be protected from themselves. No one would go through such a traumatic, invasive operation for sane, altruistic reasons. When I met Ultra's chairman, Sir Roddy McSween, he said he was sympathetic to altruistic donors in general, but added that the law's the law, and any infringement would result in three months in prison and a £2,000 fine.
Susan already knows about the illegality of strangers donating to strangers, so her plan is this: once a recipient contacts her, they will together concoct a story about how they've been best friends for years. They will prove this long-standing friendship with faked photographs. Some of Susan's wedding photos, she says, could easily be doctored - a recipient's head superimposed on to a bridesmaid's body, etc. If this plan fails, Susan will try to donate abroad.
Susan is a Jesus Christian. She has long forsaken her possessions to live in a camper van currently parked next to a jogging track in Catford, east London. Even though the Jesus Christians have been widely labelled as a sinister cult by the media and anti-cult groups, there is nothing externally odd about them - no unusual rituals, or anything like that. They simply spend their days keeping fit, discussing theological matters, and hanging around shopping precincts handing out cartoon books that look like Simpsons comics but, in fact, depict, among other parables, the persecution of the Jesus Christians by the courts, the media and the anti-cult groups.
The lifestyle is the thing. The Jesus Christians alone, they believe, are obedient to the teachings of Jesus, particularly Luke 14:33: "Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple." They have forsaken everything: families, possessions, jobs, homes, their place in the outside world, and are now in the process of giving up their spare kidneys, too, en masse.
A year ago, their leader Dave McKay was flying home to Australia after visiting his followers in the UK, India and the US. The in-flight entertainment was Transplants: A Gift Of Life, a TV movie about a boy who donates his kidney to his grandmother. Dave was profoundly moved, and that's when he had the idea. In a round robin to his followers (there are around two dozen Jesus Christians worldwide; Dave's strict lifestyle criteria tend to keep the numbers down), he emailed his own intention to donate a kidney to a stranger. He also wrote, "If anyone else is interested in doing the same, let me know." The majority took him up on the offer.
Dave imagines that, when the world learns of his mass kidney donating plan, we'll regard it in one of two ways - either as a really lovely thing for the Jesus Christians to do, or as the self-destructive act of a religious cult acting under the spell of a notorious, charismatic leader. I am surprised to learn later that he is not only expecting the latter response; he is hoping for it.
Susan has been researching and strategising. As well as the business cards, she's been posting messages on internet chatrooms where people with failing kidneys support each other emotionally while they queue, often in vain, for a transplant. At an internet cafe in Sutton, she checks her account to see if anyone has responded to her latest messages. There are scores of emails for her. The first is from the chatroom host: "I do not wish to be associated with anything that could be construed as illicit as this would risk the group being shut down. I will discuss this matter with my son who's a police chief inspector and get back to you."
Susan laughs nervously. "Whoah!" she says.
She clicks on to the next email, which reads: "You are probably using this opportunity to get into the USA. Sorry, but no black market organs here. Stay in your own country."
"Why is everyone taking this the wrong way?" sighs Susan.
She clicks on to the next email, from Portsmouth: "What are you? Some kind of sick moron? This is no fun. Don't mess around with us. We have a severe illness. Can't imagine anyone would donate a kidney to a stranger without any strings." And then the next one: "You're sick. How can you give people false hope like that? A lot of these people are on dialysis, waiting for a kidney, and Mrs Christianity has got two good ones! Whoopee for you! What are you going to do? Eenie, meeny, minie, mo, or a raffle? You're one sick attention-seeker. If you're for real, why be so desperate to send so many ads? You sound sad, lonely and unwanted. The gate you'll be touching when your number is up is bound to be hot."
There is a silence.
"Hasn't he got a point?" I ask. She looks hurt. "Not the 'going to hell'," I clarify, "but the..."
"The eenie, meeny, minie, mo?" says Susan. "Sure. But that's like Schindler's List, right? He had an eenie, meeny, minie, mo situation, too, but what was he supposed to do - nothing? Just because there's a greater need than what you can give, doesn't mean you shouldn't give."
And then she clicks on to the next email: "Hi, I just received your email about you giving away one of your kidneys for free. I'm curious why you would want to do such a thing, and for NOTHING? I'm sorry, but I find it hard to believe. I don't want to be rude but I'm 36 years old and I had a kidney transplant - my third - about five years ago, and have been told it's failing and will be needing dialysis shortly. I'm not looking to get your kidney. I'm just interested in hearing your reasons. Sincerely, C."
Susan is thrilled. "I'm jumping up and down. I'm so happy." She says she'll write back to C, who lives in Scotland, and perhaps strike up a friendship with her.
And then Susan returns to her camper van and her eight-year-old son, Danny, who is unaware that his mother wants to donate one of her kidneys to a stranger. Whenever I'm in their van, and we're talking about kidneys, and Danny runs in to ask his mother a question, we have to stop talking abruptly.
At the same time, in the US - where altruistic kidney donors are welcomed at a handful of hospitals - two Jesus Christians are ready to donate, in Minneapolis, on February 21. Robin is 36 and has been a Jesus Christian for 21 years. Casey is 23, and joined the group only in 2001. Like Susan, they decided to donate after Dave sent his email. I telephone Casey in early February, three weeks before his scheduled operation. "Have you told your mother?" I ask him.
"No," he says.
"Why not?" I ask.
"If she's opposed to the idea, she's going to be opposed to it whenever I tell her. So I'd rather get the operation out of the way first, and then tell her."
I email Dave. I say that I think Casey should tell his mother. Dave's response is this: "Although he's nearly 24 years old, and not a child, I can understand that it sounds cowardly, and maybe inconsiderate, not to tell her ahead of time. However, I'm the LEADER of this sinister little cult, and I am not telling relatives because they reacted so strongly when I first mentioned it. It's just a nuisance when people start raving and treating you like you've lost your mind. If it would make YOU feel better, I think he would probably agree to telling her. It's only three weeks now until he donates, so it'll have to be pretty soon. I personally would feel better if she DID know, so it won't be so much of a shock when she finds out afterwards, as long as she does not try to make problems with the hospital where the transplant is taking place. See, in our case, she would only need to phone and say he's part of a religious 'cult' - the magic C word - and the operation would probably be off."
A few days later, Casey decides to test the water with a chatty email to his mother. "It was full of mundane things," he tells me. "Small talk. How are her days going? And I just mentioned in the email that I'm thinking of donating a kidney. I haven't heard anything yet."
"How do you think she'll respond?" I ask.
"She may have the impression that I'm being coerced," he says.
"Does she feel that way about the Jesus Christians, anyway?" I ask.
"She does feel conflicted by our unity."
"That you're a live-in group?"
"That we hold ourselves accountable to each other. We make group decisions. It isn't the kind of personal freedom she feels I should have, I guess."
During the pre-op psychological tests, the doctors soon realised that Robin and Casey's altruism was part of a group scheme. "Will your Christian friends think less of you if you don't donate?" they asked.
"No," said Robin.
"What if you have an accident in later life?" asked the doctors. "Maybe you'll need your spare kidney in the future."
"The Bible says we must step out in faith," replied Robin. "We must do the good we can do today and not wait until tomorrow."
They were given questionnaires. They had to tick the statements that they felt most applied to them: "I hear voices most of the time"; "I feel I have a tight band around my head most of the time"; "I've always wanted to be a girl". The doctors told them to answer honestly, because they had ways of telling if they were lying.
"I don't hear voices, but I do get stressed out," Casey tells me. "But they don't provide little boxes where you can explain these things." Casey is feeling stressed out, in part because he feels the process is taking too long. "I wish it would all go quicker because I'm pretty committed," he says.
They passed the tests. The hospital warned that "even a hint of publicity" would result in the operations being abandoned. I send Casey and Robin a video camera, to film the trip to Minneapolis.
That night, I receive an anxious email from Dave in Australia: "Jon, I am taking a big risk by sharing this with you before we have donated. Even the slightest leak could sabotage the entire project."
A flurry of emails follows from Dave, more than 60 in all. Sometimes they are chatty. Often they are tense: "You and I both know that the idea of a 'cult' donating kidneys en masse is a 'sensational' story. Susan said that you were talking like you still suspect that members are being coerced into donating, that they are getting paid for donations, and that the money is going to me. She said that she thought you were quite nervous about being seen with her placing the business cards in waiting rooms. You've asked us some hard questions, so I think it's time for us to ask you a few. ARE you thinking of writing something nasty about us?" Sometimes, Dave seems to regret letting me in on the secret and I begin to wonder why he did. Does he have a plan for me that I'm not aware of? Am I a pawn in some grander scheme of his? Yes - I soon discover - I am.
Dave McKay is a 57-year-old native of Rochester, New York. He was born into a family of Nazarene Christians. He married young, moved to Australia in 1968, and joined the Children of God sect that was famous for "flirty fishing" (dispatching attractive female members into the secular world to have sex with potential recruits). They preached the virtue and practice of pedophilia, too. Dave was horrified by their sexual teachings, so he split from the Children of God and formed the Jesus Christians in 1982.
Dave has always admired martyrs who behave provocatively - the Buddhists who set themselves on fire to protest the war in Vietnam, and so on. In fact, he once seriously considered setting himself on fire, in India, when a local orphanage was threatened with -closure. More recently, when Abu Sayyaf guerrillas took 25 people hostage in the Philippines, Dave offered himself in their place, and tried to set up an international hostage exchange programme, in which philanthropic Christians would swap places with hostages at a moment's notice. "I think they were just spiritual tests to ascertain whether I'd be willing to take such extreme steps," he tells me. "We don't want to sound a trumpet about how great we are, especially when we haven't actually done anything - at least, not yet."
Like most people, I first heard of the Jesus Christians on July 14, 2000, when they were splashed over the front page of the Daily Express - "Cult Kidnap Boy Aged 16". Susan and her husband Roland had apparently spirited away a 16-year-old boy called Bobby Kelly from Romford High Street, Essex. Bobby had picked up a Jesus Christians cartoon book outside Marks & Spencer. Within hours, he had forsaken his possessions and moved in with the group. The police were called. The airports and docks were put on the highest alert. The Jesus Christians were suddenly - in the eyes of the authorities and media, tabloids, broadsheets and television news alike - a sinister, brainwashing, child-kidnapping religious cult, under the spell of their charismatic leader.
There was an emergency high court action to "rescue" the boy, which led to Bobby's photo being circulated. That's when the Jesus Christians panicked and went on the run, with Bobby in tow. They became fugitives for two weeks. (It was a rather provincial run: they went to Hounslow because it has free parking, to Heston service station for nightly showers, and to a campsite on the Surrey-Hampshire border.) When the Jesus Christians tried to put their side of the story to Radio 4's Today, an injunction was taken out forbidding the BBC from broadcasting the interview.
"Isn't that classic!" wrote Dave at the time on his website. "Now that our critics have succeeded in slandering our name all over Britain, they want to gag us. And yet some people still tell us that we should have blind faith in the British system of justice! No, something is very wrong here." The scandal ended peacefully. Bobby was found safe and well at a campsite, and was made a ward of court. I interviewed him soon after. He spoke highly about the Jesus Christians, and it became clear to me that some of the reporting was biased and verging on the hysterical. This is why Dave decided - a year later - to give me the story on the kidney endeavour.
See Part 2 of this Article.