FBI agents on Thursday stormed three churches across the South, all of which are located near military installations and have previously faced accusations of being cults.
One, the Assembly of Prayer Christian Church in Augusta, Georgia, is situated less than three miles from Fort Gordon and has for years been accused of sinister activities. Now, one ex-member is speaking out, comparing the organization to the infamous People’s Temple and its leader to Jim Jones, who convinced more than 900 of his followers to commit “revolutionary suicide” in 1978.
Former parishioner Gladys Jordan told The Daily Beast on Friday that she hasn’t been able to see her 28-year-old son, Cesar Vargas, since she left the church nearly six years ago.
“Basically, you leave the church and you’re excommunicated,” Jordan said. “That’s it, they separate you from your family. I haven’t had contact with my son since I left in September 2016. Every time I call him, he doesn’t even call me mom, he says, ‘Ma’am, how did you get this number?’”
Vargas, who has previously dismissed the “cult” label, is now some $50,000 in debt thanks to the church, where he serves as a minister, Jordan continued. He has never held a real job, she said, and dug himself into such a severe financial hole by spending money he didn’t have on materials necessary to conduct services.
“And I know because my son still receives mail at my house,” Jordan said, adding, “The cult leader, Rony Denis, is infatuated with Jim Jones. This is a modern-day Jim Jones cult. That’s my scare, that he’s gonna take my son to another country and do the same thing that Jim Jones did.”
Denis lives in Augusta, according to local reports. He has not been charged with a crime, and no arrests were reported following the raid. The Assembly of Prayer is also known as the House of Prayer, and the names are used interchangeably, Jordan said.
The voicemail on Denis’ cellphone was full on Friday, and he was unable to be reached for comment.
In 2020, advocacy group Veterans Education Success called for an investigation into allegations of abuses of the GI Bill program at the House of Prayer Christian Church’s seminaries. Veterans alleged that the church “targets veterans in order to access GI Bill funding, VA disability compensation, and VA home loans,” according to a letter asking the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to probe the organization.
The church intentionally picks locations near military bases, where it can draw from a steady stream of service members with steady paychecks and educational benefits under the GI Bill, Jordan alleged.
“They have a fraudulent Bible college and a so-called ‘home’ for the soldiers,” she told The Daily Beast. “They bring them in and give them a home-cooked meal, and from there... they have them lie to the VA to get into the Bible college, they steal their benefits, and they never get a diploma from there that’s worth anything because it’s not valid.”
In a statement to the Augusta Chronicle, a Fort Gordon spokesperson said, “Fort Gordon was aware of the organization called the Assembly of Prayer Church through our law enforcement channels but the installation had no bans against the organization or any official dealings with them (despite their websites claims).”
The Assembly of Prayer Christian Church in Killeen, Texas, was also raided by federal agents early Thursday. The church stands just under six miles from Fort Hood, the most populous U.S. military installation on the planet. Dozens of reviews of the church on Google and Facebook make allegations that the congregation is a “cult” which has habitually recruited Fort Hood soldiers, according to the Killeen Daily Herald.
Amber Fitz-Randolph, a local resident and administrator of the Ft. Hood Fallen Facebook page, which honors servicemen who have died, told The Daily Beast in a text message that from what she had heard from within the Ft. hood community, House of Prayer/Assembly of Prayer is “absolutely a cult.”
“The ones in Killeen were sneaking into barracks at all hours to torment and threaten soldiers who wanted to stop going, or wouldn’t give them enough money,” said Fitz-Randolph.
And on Thursday morning federal agents executed a separate warrant at the House of Prayer Church in Hinesville, Georgia, which is located around six miles from Fort Stewart. In a statement, the FBI told WTOC it was conducting a court-authorized search warrant and that no arrests had been made.
The station also reported that the church has been the subject of controversy for years, with former members sharing allegations of abuse and leaders isolating worshippers from their families.
“The concern is that he has made us merchandise,” former member Jessica Wright told WTOC. “It’s no longer a church. It’s just a fraudulent, money-making empire.”
The FBI confirmed to KWTX that the raids in Hinesville and Augusta were connected, but it’s not yet clear if the Killeen search was part of the same investigation.
To Jordan, the raids came as welcome news, she told The Daily Beast.
“I tell everybody, if the FBI wants to put all of us in a room, each and every one of us will give our testimony [about House of Prayer].”