‘Threats, grooming, exploitation’: How we escaped the evangelist church ‘cult’

Metro, UK/May 17, 2023

By Sarah Ingram

Every Friday for three years, Rachel Baptiste was subjected to ‘deliverance’ services at her local church.

Forcibly held and interrogated, she alleges that she and other members of the congregation would be put through humiliating, frightening and physically painful ordeals that lasted up to an hour, leaving them sore and bruised.

‘They put their hands on your head, and then they started moving it around,’ explains Rachel, now 40.

‘Your whole body would be moving back and forth. The only way you could get out of it, was just kind of act it out with them. But it hurt. My neck would always be in pain afterwards. I would always leave with a headache or feeling heavy, like a ton of bricks were on my shoulder.

‘The pastor could be dripping with sweat, but it would go on. We were told first the minions demons needed to manifest, and then the chief demon. It could take a long time.

‘You felt like you had to just go along with it. Because if you don’t, they’re not going to leave you alone.’

The aim of these services, says Rachel, was to rid the person of the demons inside them – much like what you’d expect from an exorcism. Except, according to the church, it wasn’t one.

In fact, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God’s website is very clear: ‘Unlike some Christian churches including Roman Catholics and the Church of England, the UCKG HelpCentre does not practise exorcism.’

In an additional lengthy statement to Metro.co.uk, they said: ‘We do not practice or believe in exorcism. As a Christian church, we practice strong prayers, as instructed by the Bible. And, we offer weekly deliverance services designed to pray for spiritual cleansing from all negativity, which can help those attending our services to gain greater peace of mind.’

However, Rachel argues that her experience of the church was very different.

When she initially joined her local UCKG as a young teenager, she recalls it being a fun, warm and welcoming place. Her mother was a member, as was most of her family.

But soon, the 13-year-old was being told how to behave and what to wear.

‘The pastor’s wife would tell us we can’t wear tight jeans and we have to be careful about what tops we wore,’ alleges Rachel, now a dental nurse living in Battersea, south London.

‘On a Sunday especially, you couldn’t wear thongs. You’d have to wear granny pants.’

Then came Friday’s ‘deliverance services’.

‘You knew what was coming,’ Rachel explains. ‘The pastors would say if you were having a specific pain, if you were unable to sleep, had a bad week or were down, then you should come to the front.

‘It was like something from a horror movie. There would be screaming and shouting. It felt like a war zone and you felt really vulnerable, scared that you would be the one that manifests. That the demon is inside you.’

There was no option to skip Friday services, Rachel claims. Those that didn’t show up would be told their demon was trying to hide.

Then there were the ‘tapes from hell’.

Rachel recalls how every few months, the church lights would be dimmed and the sound system turned up, before the room began to fill with an ear-splitting noise.

The recording had been taken from two men who dug so deep into the ground in Siberia they had heard hell, the congregation were told, she says.

‘They played us this horrific noise of screaming and shouting for a good ten minutes,’ adds Rachel.

‘There were young children inside of the church. It was so distressing. I’ll never forget that. They told us, “If you leave the church, you will go to hell; you will burn for eternity.”’

While the scenes Rachel describes may sound like something from a sinister horror movie, the actions of the UCKG were very real, according to several former members who spoke to Metro.co.uk.

In a rebuttal to these accusations made against them, UCKG insists many of the claims are ‘absurd’.

An evangelical, Pentecostal church, it has more than 50 UK branches, including in Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow and Belfast, and many in London. Formed in Brazil in 1977, it now operates in 100 countries, with an estimated eight million members worldwide.

The church operates under a strict hierarchy of pastors and bishops, then assistant pastors and assistants.

It was enough to make Rachel fall into line – until she fell in love with a boy at the church when they were 16. The couple were scared of the church’s wrath, but they were determined to be together.

When Rachel became pregnant in 2001 aged 18, she was excited to meet her daughter.

However, when she showed the scan to an assistant, he told her ‘the child would be a devil, because I wasn’t married’, Rachel says. ‘I just felt so sad. It disconnected me from the baby.’

When asked about this allegation, a spokesperson for the church responded: ‘The Bible is very clear in relation to out of marriage relations, which we accept and promote. We expect our pastors and the volunteers who generously give their time to the church’s work to live up to the high principles set by the church, even though these principles do not necessarily converge with some societal views in 2023.

‘Ordinary members, young and old, are completely free to live as they choose. And, no one, whether member of the church or not, will ever be discriminated against by us because of their choices and actions.

‘The Bible makes no reference to any child being a devil,’ they continued. ‘To state that any child would be a devil in the manner described in this allegation would be contrary to the teachings of the Bible.

‘Furthermore, the Lord Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 19 verse 14 is that any child is a blessing, and this is what we believe and proclaim.’

Meanwhile, Rachel is adamant such a conversation did take place, and says that it upset her and her then-partner so much, that they decided to move to Croydon for a fresh start.

When the relationship sadly ended, she later joined branches of the UCKG in Tooting and Hammersmith. It wasn’t long before Rachel was in financial straits.

She claims that the church asks for members to tithe 10% of their income, and held campaigns to ask for more – which Rachel says has seen her give away thousands over the years.

‘It’s emotional manipulation. The pastor would say, “You’re not of God if you’re not taking part.” You feel like you don’t have a choice,’ she explains.

‘Once, when I wasn’t working, I sold the TV so I could donate. I have taken the whole of my benefit money and put it inside the envelope and put it on the altar, leaving me and my children to eat porridge for the whole week.

‘It’s so sad to know that I did that. I feel ashamed as a parent.’

Rachel would give so much, she couldn’t afford public transport. She would walk for over an hour from Battersea to Tooting, with her kids and double buggy in tow. ‘I was too afraid to touch the tithe,’ she remembers.

In 2017, two significant events occurred that enabled Rachel to pluck up the courage to leave for good. The church had been telling her she kept failing her driving test because she didn’t tithe enough – one of the claims that the church says is ‘absurd’. When she did finally pass, she realised that couldn’t have been the case.

However, there was another tragedy that Rachel believes the church is responsible for, which made her leave for good.

Her mother, Justina, had been ill with pulmonary fibrosis for many years, before developing type 2 diabetes and was prescribed insulin.

‘There were times that I heard her on the phone to her pastor. She was told not to take the insulin, to use her faith and she would be healed,’ recalls Rachel.

‘She was told that the insulin was the devil. I would beg her to take it.

‘She finally agreed and I was so happy. Ten minutes later, she called me back and she said, “I’ve just spoken to a pastor again. And they said no, I’m not acting my faith”.

‘A couple of months later, she passed away from diabetes.’

Rachel believes that if the church hadn’t convinced her mother, who was just 64 when she died, not to take the medication she needed, she might still be alive. ‘That’s what hurts me so much. And why I can never go back to that church. They took her.’

Like Rachel’s mother, Divine Grace claims she was also told not to take prescribed medicine.

The 21-year-old nursing assistant from Birmingham joined the Lozells Branch when she was 17. And like Rachel, she believes she was groomed and manipulated.

Divine found the youth group fun in the beginning, but remembers: ‘The fear that you are not going to make it into heaven is inscribed into everything. It made me scared.’

She also gave away money she couldn’t afford, admitting: ‘Sometimes, for me, I sacrificed my whole salary. I emptied my whole account of over £500.’

Divine sold three bin bags of her clothes to a wholesaler, ending up with £15 which she put in an envelope on the altar. She was left with just two outfits. Her mum had to stop her selling her laptop, which she used for college.

Eventually, she alleges, she gave up so much money that she ended up dependent on the church’s food bank. ‘They shamed me for that. They told me, “you’re no longer serving God.”’

Saying that she was expected to be at church ‘every day, all day’, Divine continues: ‘You come in at six in the morning and leave at eight or nine. You would attend services, you would clean, evangelise, fundraise. There was always a job to do.’

Divine was also suffering from anxiety and had been on an NHS waiting list for years. But when the help finally arrived, the church told her to reject it.

‘You need to have faith. You need to tell the GP that you don’t want medication,’ she recalls them saying. ‘So I went back to my psychologist, and I said, “No, I’m fine. I’m all good. I don’t want any medication anymore. I’m doing well”. I was not doing well.’

Instead of psychological treatment, Divine too was subjected to ‘deliverance’.

‘They tell you if you have illness or disabilities, you have demons in you. You attend a Friday service, which as soon as you get in there, you realise is exorcism,’ she explains.

‘They basically just put you in a headlock and twist your head. Your heart is racing, you don’t know what is going on, and they tell you, that’s the Holy Spirit. You’re hearing people screaming and shouting. Of course they’re going to scream because they’re hurting you physically.’

In response to both Divine and Rachel’s claims about the church trying to influence any decisions concerning health issues, UCKG told Metro.co.uk: ‘We promote that all prayers and purposes of faith in relation to health are only and always in complement to a doctor’s advice and any medical treatment a person might be undergoing. Our pastors will not tell anyone that they are to stop any medication as this is against our Christian principles.’

Divine says she began to pull away from the church’s clutches this year, but more bad luck befell her when she ended up in and out of hospital with low iron, ulcers and thyroid problems.

She recalls: ‘The pastor told me it was because I wasn’t attending church frequently. That I wasn’t sacrificing enough of my time or money to God. “The demons are making you sick”.

‘He told me that if I stopped coming to church, the demons would kill me before the end of the year.’

Ignoring him, she left and never looked back, but she says the church hadn’t given up.

‘I got a text sent to me saying I wouldn’t make it past 2022. I was taken aback. Then I got another threat.’ She told the police, and says she didn’t hear from the church again.

Describing Divine’s accusation as ‘absurd’, the UCKG added that they have never been contacted by the police in regards to this allegation.

Meanwhile, another former member, Rachael Reign, from Lambeth, south London, tells Metro.co.uk that she now regrets giving up so much of her youth to the UCKG, a church that she has described as ‘very dangerous’.

‘I believe it is a cult,’ she says. ‘It is a matter of coercive control, financial, mental and spiritual abuse, isolation and exploitation.’

Rachael joined at 13 in 2007 and rose through the ranks, in a process she compared to grooming. ‘They actively target the vulnerable. I came from a single parent household,’ she explains.

‘It’s almost like they smell it out. It’s like love bombing.

‘However, it quickly becomes an environment in which you’re coerced into doing things.’

Rachael says that she was also told what to wear and even what colour nail varnish to use.

‘They took everyone’s iPod, they deleted all the songs and uploaded UCKG-approved songs,’ she shared. ‘The level of control was crazy.’

The church denied these claims, saying they were ‘completely untrue’.

Before long, Rachael, now 29, was also giving 10% of everything she had. She soon became ‘the poster girl’ for the church, travelling all over the country.

She was delighted to be promoted to an assistant, but was told she would have to buy her uniform – which cost £300. And the role put her in situations that, at just 15, she wasn’t equipped to deal with.

‘You’re not given any kind of training on how to deal with people who’re going through crisis, mental health training, safeguarding – you’re literally told to buy the uniform and go and pray for the people,’ she remembers.

‘I had to speak to young people who had been sexually abused, to married women who went through abuse. That’s horrendous. I was a kid. I had absolutely no business doing that.’

According to a church spokesperson, assistants – which are the highest level of volunteering and considered a calling – can only be raised to the position when they are 18 years of age or more, after completing their safeguarding training and obtaining their DBS clearance. They add that they are required to wear a specific uniform, a sacred garment that emphasises their calling and commitment to serving God and cost can vary depending on suppliers’ charges.

Rachael adds that members were told it was a sin to think badly of the church.‘They would call it “bad eyes”,’ she claims.

‘It’s “bad eyes” to think anything negatively about the church or anything about the pastors or their wives. And I just remember that fear in the pit of your stomach.’

She was also expected to spend hours fundraising in the community, alleges Rachael.

‘You have to dance and sing and make a fool of yourself. If you don’t you’re told you’re not in the faith,’ she says.

‘You have to make targets. We had to do it all day during the weekend, after college. And the worst thing is that you don’t know where the money is going. You’re not told.’

She argues: ‘They tell you to say you’re fundraising for the youth group. But you’re not. Nothing is free in the youth group. Or they would say it is going to the food bank. But we know the members and local supermarkets fill the food bank. So the money is not going there.

‘Where is the money going? Because the members never see a penny.’

In response, a church spokesperson explained: ‘The emphasis of the fundraising campaigns we have undertaken in the last few years has been the support of our community activities that are open to all and benefit the general public, and not for the church itself.’

Her final year with the church was dark for Rachael, she says. She felt suicidal at times, and the oppressive teachings bought on panic attacks. She was also terrified her family – who were not members of the church – would go to hell.

‘It’s something like being in an abusive relationship. You don’t like the abuse, but you’re used to it,’ she adds.

By the time it got too much, and Rachael had decided to leave, she was already isolated.

‘I’d cut off all of my friends from outside of the church. So it took a lot of time for me to get the courage, because I knew that leaving the church, I would lose anything,’ she remembers.

‘But it got to the point where I just couldn’t take any more. I just wanted to be happy. I just wanted to listen to Beyonce or Rihanna.’

With the support of her mum, who she lived with, she severed ties at last.

After founding the Surviving Universal UK group last year, Rachael is now supporting around 300 ex-members of the church, who claim to have similar tales of control, coercion, manipulation and fear.

Both Rachel Baptiste and Divine are members of Surviving Universal UK.

Rachael Reign adds: ‘I knew that I wasn’t the only one going through it. I wanted to bring it out into the open and encourage others to tell their story. I was sick and tired of the UCKG luring in vulnerable victims, and I wanted to do something about it.’

Meanwhile, the church also continues to grow and is as successful as ever.

It has recently opened a branch in Nottingham and its Sao Paulo headquarters boasts a $300million temple. The church’s founder, Edir Macedo, is nicknamed the ‘billionaire bishop’ because he travels by private jet.

However, a church spokesperson was keen to point out: ‘The UCKG in the UK does not own any private jet, and none of our Pastors or personnel travel that way.’

After putting the church behind her, Rachael now feels optimistic about her future. She is working hard at university, and has plans to become a lawyer.

Looking back over her time with the church, she says: ‘I was broke, I had no ambition. I didn’t know what I was going to do in life. I was estranged from my family. I lost some good years.

‘Leaving the UCKG was the best thing I ever did.’

Response from UKCG

A spokesperson for the church told Metro.co.uk:

The UCKG is a Christian church and organisation, and a registered charity in England and Wales. It operates HelpCentres nationwide with a daily schedule of prayer services that are designed to help people engage with God by faith with a view to overcoming their earthly struggles and problems and finding abundant life with God, here and in the afterlife. Therefore, it does not “target”, “coerce” or “exploit” the vulnerable, it exists to HELP the vulnerable and lead them, and anyone else for that matter, to a blessed life with God by faith.

As a Christian church, we preach the practice of tithing, as instructed by the Bible, and as practiced by many other Christian churches in the UK and worldwide. We do not force anyone to pay 10% of their income. We also do not control who gives their tithe or who does not. We also encourage donations from our followers, like all churches do. However, no one is obliged or pressured to give.

We think it would be absurd for anyone to say members are told they cannot have any negative thoughts about the church, and is not part of the teaching of our church.

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