Radical spirit has believers in world of trouble

They have only 27 members but some regard them as dangerous, Neil McMahon writes.

Sunday Morning Herald, Australia/August 6, 2005
By Neil MacMahon

He is not your average preacher.

David McKay is married to Cherry, his high-school sweetheart, extols the virtues of regular masturbation, encourages people to give away their spare kidney, and expects his followers to share or give away all their worldly goods.

The leader of the Jesus Christians also wants to spread this gospel around the world, a mission that led Australian couple Roland and Susan Gianstefani to Kenya. They are now trapped there, accused of kidnapping and fearful they may face years in prison.

It is the latest turn in the unlikely tale of a group based on the idea of "voluntary poverty", as practised by Jesus Christ.

The Jesus Christians, founded by McKay in Victoria in the early 1980s and now based in Sydney, claims just 27 members worldwide, but it has been targeted by campaigners who consider it a dangerous cult.

To Susan Gianstefani, that is "just a word to generate fear" - a lot of fear, apparently, if her experiences are any guide.

Originally from Melbourne, she and her husband were first battered by a media storm five years ago in Britain, where they were charged with contempt of court for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of a 16-year-old boy, Bobby Kelly. Now in Kenya, they have been charged with abducting a 27-year-old woman.

The case presents dilemmas for Kenyan authorities: as with Kelly in 2000, Betty Njoroge says she was with the Gianstefanis of her own free will. They are, Njoroge told the Herald, victims of a plot by her wealthy father to stop her joining the sect.

Her father, Fred Njoroge, is extremely wealthy, she says. Susan describes him as "not just rich, he's very rich".

It is influence they say he used when his daughter, having met Susan on a Nairobi street handing out Jesus Christians literature, announced her plan to spend time with the group.

It was early June, and she had taken the couple to meet her parents. "They were very hostile," she recalls, particularly to her intention to take her seven-year-old son, Joshua, "but if I was going to do this, he was going to have to live with me and be a part of it, so I had to see if he could adjust to it."

Njoroge went ahead regardless but on June 17 her father took action. As Roland Gianstefani proselytised on the streets, four police officers pulled up in a black Mercedes-Benz and took him into custody.

He was held for 10 days without charge, despite Betty Njoroge assuring police she had not been kidnapped.

After inquiries by the Australian High Commission, Roland was charged with abduction on June 27, but still not released on bail. In the meantime, police had issued a warrant for his wife's arrest. Njoroge went into hiding from her family. "They were very hostile and I felt very threatened by that."

Roland was released on bail on July 11; his wife has since been charged, and they will both appear in court on September 2. They fear Njoroge's father has the money and influence to make the lack of evidence irrelevant.

"It's very scary that this guy has so much power," Susan says. The couple could be convicted and jailed. Or, they have been told, the trial could be adjourned over several years, leaving them trapped because their passports have been taken from them.

She says Betty Njoroge's experience brings back memories of her family's reaction when she joined the Jesus Christians after leaving school in Melbourne 18 years ago. "They tried to stop me, they even went to the press." The relationship has not improved, buckling further when she followed the lead of David McKay and donated a kidney to an American man she did not know. Several members claim to have done it, prompting moves in Victoria to stop the practice amid claims McKay was urging a "living sacrifice" to God.

Back in Waterloo, McKay contemplates this latest storm with the equanimity of a man used to controversy.

A native of New York, he came to Australia in 1968 and founded the Jesus Christians after a brief attachment to the Children of God, also known as The Family, in the 1970s.

He abandoned that sect due to its philosophy of "free love" and its treatment of children.

He bridles at the word cult. "It's worse than axe murderer, worse than pedophile." Besides, he says with a wry chuckle, with only 27 members the Jesus Christians wouldn't have the wherewithal to abduct or brainwash anyone, even if they wanted to.

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