Montreal -- The Nation of Yahweh had much to celebrate when members gathered in Montreal, their "New Promised Land,'' last week.
Their leader and messiah, Yahweh Ben Yahweh, 65, just got out of prison after serving nearly 10 years for his part in 14 Miami murders in the 1980s. Their numbers are growing again, and they have come out of hiding.
But the question is: Is their message the same?
In the 1980s, the best of it was to make blacks feel empowered. The worst of it was to brainwash those who became Yahwehs to the degree that they would shout that they would "die for Yahweh . . . kill for Yahweh.''
Then do it.
At their Montreal conference last week, attended by about 600 Yahwehs in characteristic white robes and turbans, there was no promise to either die, or kill for Yahweh.
Yet, more than ever before, most Yahwehs cast themselves as a nation of believers at war with nonbelievers, and the old message of self-esteem has been crowded out by one that elevates their leader to "Grand Master of All, the God of the Universe, the Grand Potentate, the Everlasting Father and the persecuted Messiah.'' The new message also is more stridently jingoistic, including a "Pledge of Allegiance'' to Yahweh Ben Yahweh.
"What's different now is that the U.S. is not just a corrupt society in their eyes, it's one that the global nation of Yahwehs is ready to take on. We have become the Infidel,'' said Richard Scruggs, former Yahweh federal prosecutor.
Yet Wendelyn Rush, a Yahweh member and attorney, cautions against demonizing their mission: "It's not a violent war, it's a war of words,'' she said at an August federal hearing to decide on Yahweh Ben Yahweh's parole restrictions.
But in the late '80s, Miami police started tracing the bodies of blacks, who denounced the religion, and random whites back to the Temple of Yahweh and the teachings of their leader. By 1993, the Yahweh empire was in bankruptcy, the members dispersed, and Yahweh Ben Yahweh and six of his closest followers were in federal prison for conspiring to commit murder after murder.
At Yahweh Ben Yahweh's trial in 1992, federal prosecutor Scruggs noted that Yahweh Ben Yahweh had gone from being a poor kid in a dusty Oklahoma town to an Air Force airman to a Black Muslim leader to a radio Christian evangelist to a self-declared prophet the center of the religion he founded, to saying he was the Son of God.
"It took you a while to work your way up, didn't it?'' Scruggs said.
"Certain things were revealed to me with time,'' Yahweh Ben Yahweh replied.
During the Montreal "Feast of Tabernacle'' held at a ballroom in the downtown Hilton, he remained in Northwest Miami in his four-bedroom home on a lake, because of parole restrictions, but his leadership role at the "feast'' was apparent during the week of eight-hour-a-day sessions.
One session began with a female Yahweh elder saying, "I was just on the cellphone with Yahweh Ben Yahweh and he said to bless all of you.''
"Praise Yahweh!'' hundreds of Yahwehs responded in unison, harkening back to a response of old.
In fact, there was much that was reminiscent of the old days: The meetings began as they did back in the glory years in Miami with Yahweh sentinels, usually men over six feet tall, frisking all participants for cameras, tape recorders and weapons. Then, the sentinels were posted around the room and outside. (Nevertheless, the meetings were audible in adjacent public rooms.)
Then elders talked about the greatness of the God Yahweh Ben Yahweh: "He controls nature,'' an elder told the devout. "He controls our souls. He controls one-ten-thousandth of the length of a hair that no one can see, The Father of Stars looked to see if there was any other God but himself and he found none.''
The elders' sermons were followed by audiotapes of Yahweh Ben Yahweh talking: "I have had to learn to grow out of my imperfect feelings,'' he said. ``You could not do that. I am the only one. . . . I used to be just like you with no wisdom at all. I didn't even know how to blow up a balloon.. . .I had a Batman and Robin mind. . . . But I became greater than Solomon. I had to be really audacious to come here by myself and stand above the planet Earth. . . . I am self-ruling, self-proclaimed, self-ordained, self-educated. Yahweh is God of all Gods, King of all me. Yahweh is God!''
After the taped sermons in Montreal, where the Yahwehs have convened three times in the past year, collections always followed. In fact, solicitations are much more frequent now than in the 1980s because then the Yahwehs generated their own income by putting the faithful to work in volunteer jobs in Yahweh businesses. But now the group is more dependent upon donations. (The hotel rooms were paid for by The Nation of Yahweh with checks totaling close to $200,000.)
"Please raise your hands if you need an envelope,'' an elder called out every few hours. "If you have a bowl of soup can I have half?''
The repeated reply came in unison: "If I have a bowl of soup, you can have half!''
Then, worshipers -- bothmen and women -- stuffed cash and checks into envelopes, while jazzy music played. Typical lyrics: "Babylon is falling. Satan, we're going to tear your kingdom down. Yahweh, we're going to build your kingdom up.''
At one meeting, a Yahweh elder told the Montreal congregation, made up of Yahwehs from all over the United States, but mostly California and Florida, that the Sept. 11 disasters were ``retribution for the unjust persecution of the great God Yahweh Ben Yahweh.''
In support, a Yahweh went to the ballroom microphone and gave a testimonial: "The night of Sept. 10, I dreamed that two huge fireballs went from the Earth up into the clouds and Yahweh Ben Yahweh appeared in the clouds, in white robes with his hands out and caught them,'' he said. "It was his way of warning that the evil ways of America would cause the planes to hit the twin towers.''
Yahwehs were continually exhorted by elders: "The battle belongs to U-Hay Wa-Hay [their Hebrew pronunciation for "Yahweh'']. Fight in the name of the living God, U-Hay Wa-Hay!''
Followers recited, "I pledge allegiance to Yahweh.'' They sang, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the great Yahweh.'' They referred to the U.S. government as "the government du jour'' saying, "Yahweh has it on his shoulders, and the laws of Yahweh are forever.''
A quiet debate on whether Yahwehs should cast themselves as warriors ready to do battle took place among elders between meetings. A female elder who called Yahweh "my father'' told a male elder: "My father wants us to love all the children the sun shines on. His joy is our peace.''
The male elder replied: "But what about the deceivers? He does not want us to support those who are false. This is what he told me: We must get rid of the deceivers.''
In the middle of every ballroom session, dozens of children in the room lined up and chanted: "He is the God, the Mighty God, the Chosen One, the Perfect One.''
After their recitations, the children gave testimonials. A 14-year-old girl stepped to the stage and said: "I do not believe in the goodness of Martin Luther King [whom Yahweh used to call "that dead-dog preacher'']. I believe in the goodness of Yahweh Ben Yahweh.''
The adults applauded and cheered wildly.
At least one Yahweh who had gone to prison for participating in the murders was there. And repeated thanks for organizing the festival was given to "Sister Judith,'' the former Linda Gaines who was second only to Yahweh Ben Yahweh in the religion's hierarchy and who also went to prison for her part in the murders.
Yahweh adults gave repeated testimonials about leaving the sect and returning because ``it is the only true religion,'' and testimonials about finding true peace, away from substance abuse and their biological families, with Yahweh.
Repeatedly, Yahwehs sang a gospel-like song with these words: "Clap your hands for the power of U-Hay Wa-Hay. It's a brand new day, a brand new mind.''
Near the end of the week-long festival of praise and dedication to Yahweh Ben Yahweh a young man summarized the rise, fall and re-emergence of the Nation of Yahweh. He spoke of coming to Miami from Jacksonville in 1993 as a teenager to see "the Kingdom, firsthand.''
"But by then the Temple was shut down. So were the stores and hotels. And I had to write Yahweh Ben Yahweh in prison,'' he said.
The result: "The King sent me a message from prison telling me to keep studying and believing in him, and the Kingdom would some day be restored.''
"I believe that day has finally come,'' the young man joyfully concluded.