Just call me Jesus: Inside an Australian cult

Illawarra Mercury, Australia/May 1, 2013

It's after 1pm when I pull up outside the house on Chinchilla Wondai Road in Kingaroy, inland from Queensland's Sunshine Coast. The lantana is in bloom, its purple flowers a welcome luxuriance after the blanched paddocks and dusty roads along the four-hour drive inland from Brisbane. The house is a restored Queens-lander and, even from beneath its stilts, I hear the clamour of excited voices and shuffling footsteps. I feel anxious, though. I had intended to be here earlier and, despite my profuse apologies, I get the sense that my tardiness isn't appreciated.

Kingaroy is home to former computer systems engineer and property developer Alan John "A. J." Miller and a group of about 100 people, including my hosts today, who believe him to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Miller and his partner, Mary Luck - a former humanitarian aid worker whom he claims is his lover across time and space, Mary Magdalene - are the leaders of a New Age sect called God's Way of Love. They believe, among other things, that the planet will soon undergo a series of cataclysmic events, called Earth Changes, in which billions of people will die. The events, as Miller has described them, would not be unlike those depicted in the apocalyptic Hollywood thriller 2012, starring John Cusack. In fact, Miller has used it as a prop in his online seminars about "the end times".

In order to gain access, I've had to agree to being filmed at all times by two of his followers, a husband-and-wife duo from Ukraine and Russia - footage that Miller said would serve as an unedited and unbiased account of our encounters. When I asked him to reconsider the terms, his emailed reply ran to more than a thousand words: "We have a responsibility to act in a manner that is loving and truthful at all times, and to encourage the same behaviour in others. This is the reason we created the requirements in the Participant Release Form," he wrote. "I am sorry if I somehow indicated that our requirements were negotiable in any way, since they are not."

And so, upon introducing myself to the group of men and women congregating around the front door of the house today - all followers of Miller's - I have not one, but two video cameras thrust in my face.

"I'm Joy," says a friendly-looking older woman as she holds the door open. "Come inside. We've been waiting for you." Joy Harris, a 68-year-old grandmother from the Gold Coast, moved here to be close to Miller, a decision that caused some consternation among her adult children. "The first year was, like, 'Shock, horror, Mum has joined a cult,'?" she tells me, an anecdote the group has clearly heard before and finds amusing.

Harris seems to have a thing for charismatic leaders. She spent 18 years following American self-help guru Tony Robbins and about $100,000 on his programs, a decision she regrets. Doesn't her past experience at least raise the possibility in her mind that A. J. is not Jesus, I ask. Her answer is as cryptic as it is brief. "It's possible," she says with a beaming smile, "but it's not likely."

Louise "Luli" Faber, a 39-year-old former neuroscientist from the UK, is the owner of this house. She first heard about Miller in 2010, when she was working at the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland. Leading me into the kitchen, she invites me to help myself from the dishes of vegetarian food the group has prepared for my visit. Miller is a vegetarian and, as a result, his followers are now, too.

The house, which is well lit and airy, has a welcoming air. The living room's centrepiece is a massive flat-screen TV which appears to be flanked by more copies of Battlestar Galactica than the educational DVDs Miller distributes free of charge (there are, allegedly, 100,000 copies in circulation). Several people have told me they first came to Miller's teachings through the DVDs.

Miller's philosophy is not unlike a fractal: the more closely one inspects it, the more complex and esoteric it becomes. He believes that by examining trauma, both in this life and in lives that have been lived previously, one can move up a spiritual ladder, each rung taking you closer to a perfect relationship with God. All of the things that could impede a follower progressing up the ladder - addiction, failed relationships, even cancer and childhood illness, Miller tells me - are brought about by malign spirits who cause us to act in "unloving" ways, ways that displease God and distance us from His love.

Miller claims that he has returned to shepherd his flock along a path that will lead them back to God through the performing of good deeds and spiritual exercises. Miller also teaches that each of us comprises one half of a whole spirit, and that only by finding our other half, which he calls a soul mate, can we ever truly feel whole.

The promise of a personal relationship with God; the possibility that our misfortunes are not of our own making and can be corrected with support from Jesus Himself; the potential to find a real and true soul mate together with a strong group code based around proto-Christian ideas of kindness and charity ... put them all together and it becomes possible to see how Miller is capable of attracting a significant following.

We assemble in the living room, nine of Miller's followers sitting on a pair of sofas opposite each other and me on a bar stool at the edge of the room. Cutlery scrapes on plates in the uncomfortable quiet before anyone speaks. Slowly, a conversation starts up about how each of them has arrived here, what they've left behind and their reasons for believing Miller is the Messiah.

Faber tells me she was in her 20s when she first started to feel disillusioned with the course of her research and changed her focus to studying the workings of religiosity on the brain, a decision her colleagues mocked. "I guess I was in my mid-20s when I started seeing the shortfalls of medicine and science when it came to explaining things," she says. "I just needed more answers." She first came across Miller's teachings in 2010 when a friend gave her one of his free DVDs to watch. She says it opened up a new world to her.

How do her parents feel about her decision to abandon a promising career in academia to follow Miller? "They respect the decision I've made," she replies. "They don't necessarily agree with it or believe that A. J. is Jesus, but they respect that this is what I want to do with my life."

Does she believe A. J. is Jesus, I ask? "That varies," she answers, laughing. "At the moment, probably not. Not in my heart. Intellectually, it seems like a very likely thing, but I don't know it."

The others nod in agreement and laugh nervously. Later, as I leave for my hotel, the camera-woman, Lena Shakhanov, asks me whether I'm excited to be meeting Jesus in the morning. "It's going to be amazing, you'll see," she says with a broad smile.

Miller is doing the ironing when I arrive at his house early the next morning. He and Mary Luck occupy a small ranch-style home off a dirt road on a property that sprawls out into the bush. They sleep, however, in a raised tent - complete with large bed, swish bathroom and a claw-foot porcelain bathtub - set up in the bush about 100 metres or so from the home, supposedly because this is more in keeping with a philosophy of simplicity and favouring spiritual over material wealth.

His landholding is surrounded by dozens of properties purchased by his followers, although towering gum trees and scrub screen it from full view. There are about 100 followers living on the properties around Miller, who also claims to have several thousand followers around the world, mainly in the US and UK.

Miller, who's nearing 50, has shoulder-length hair and a muscular build. Today, he's wearing a wrinkled Billabong jumper and appears not to have shaved in several days. He flashes a megawatt smile, though and, for a moment, it's possible to see why followers such as Shakhanov describe him and his influence in such breathless terms. Luck, who is 10 years his junior and a striking beauty despite the dark circles under her eyes, is wearing a cardigan and tugs gently at the ends of its sleeves as Miller talks. Conversation turns immediately to the question in which I'm most interested: whether or not Miller can understand why people may not believe that he is Jesus. He understands perfectly, he says, again flashing that high-beam smile. "When I claim I'm Jesus, most people automatically assume that means I'm claiming a lot of things," he says. "They assume it means I'm claiming I'm God, and I'm not. They assume it means that I'm claiming that everyone should listen to me, and I'm not. In fact, I tell people they need to always analyse things through their own experience."

Luck has said in recordings of their seminars that when Miller revealed to her that she was Mary Magdalene reincarnated, it was one of the worst experiences of her life. She felt angry and confused by the disclosure. But something has clearly changed over time and now Luck sits at Miller's side, staring at him with a disconcerting degree of intensity. The way the Bible is recorded is flawed, continues Miller, and thus the way in which modern Christians practise their religion is also flawed. God's Way of Love offers an alternative model. God, he says reasonably, wants people to be happy. "This concept that God is vengeful, a God who punishes the wicked, that's not my experience of Him and it wasn't my experience of Him in the 1st century," says Miller.

Of course. We must remember that Miller believes he is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. He claims he has been born twice - most recently on March 10, 1963, in Loxton, South Australia, amid a close-knit farming community on the banks of the Murray River some 246 kilometres east of Adelaide - and previously, more than 2000 years ago, in a manger in Bethlehem, 10 kilometres south of Jerusalem. His parents in this life are Maxine and Alan Miller, both members of the Jehovah's Witnesses church. And in the 1st century his parents were the peasant, Mary of Nazareth, and Yahweh, the God of the Jews.

In the 1970s, Miller's family moved from Loxton to the Adelaide Hills. Alan was a shy, deeply spiritual teenager who came out of his shell only when discussing Jehovah's Witness theology, according to a former close friend who speaks to me on condition of anonymity. Miller followed the Jehovah's Witness tradition of spending his holidays preaching door-to-door with his sister, Jenni, rather than pursuing the activities that many other handsome young men his age were exploring. He was considered to be one of the best-looking boys in town, the former friend adds.

Miller left high school in 1979, at the age of 16, to complete a course in computers at Adelaide's Regency Park Community College, eventually opening what he describes as a successful business called Expert Computer Solutions offering IT advice to mid-tier companies and government departments. He married his first wife, 19-year-old Sheree Newman, whom he'd met as a teenager through the church, before his 21st birthday. Miller was an exemplary member of the close-knit Jehovah's Witness church and rose through its ranks to become first a "pioneer" (the term for a full-time proselytiser) and then a church elder in Port Lincoln, a sleepy coastal town with a population of fewer than 15,000 people.

By this time he was in his early 30s, with two young sons and a beautiful wife, and Miller should have felt on top of the world; instead, he was struggling. He says that, for as long as he can remember, he has lived with harrowing memories of his life as the historical Jesus and its culmination in the crucifixion. These memories - of the nails tearing through the flesh of his hands and feet as he was nailed to the cross, the lancing of his side - he found so distressing that he never spoke of them to anyone. Yet they wouldn't be suppressed. He suffered from panic and anxiety attacks. "I felt I was going crazy," he says. "I felt it couldn't be possible. I sought professional help, but didn't find it very effective."

And then, at 40, he had what he calls an epiphany. Truths, he says, were revealed to him by God, and as he began the process of writing them down and formulating them, he sold his businesses and some properties he owned and began a process of spiritual examination. He told his mother and his sons for the first time that he believed he was Jesus. They understood, he says, and graciously accepted his "coming out". He began to devote himself to a way of life that would become known as God's Way of Love.

His marriage to Sheree did not survive this epiphany, however. She now lives in Adelaide where she has remarried and works as a housekeeper. She has declined requests for comment, telling me she doesn't want to jeopardise her relationship with the two grown sons she shares with Miller.

Dean Alan Sims is a round-faced Texan who met Miller during a visit to Dallas in 2008 and was immediately taken with the charismatic Australian who claimed to be Jesus. Sims was, and still is, a devotee of a body of esoteric writings known as the Padgett Messages.

James Padgett was a 62-year-old American lawyer who, in 1914, claimed to be receiving messages from his recently deceased wife, which he was able to record using a technique called automatic writing. He would enter a trance and simply write down the messages that were being communicated to him without conscious awareness. The Padgett Messages, which are enjoying something of an internet-fuelled renaissance, are significant for having introduced several spiritual ideologies that outlived Padgett - namely, a belief in the existence of soul mates, in the possibility of life after death and the hope of achieving immortality, and in the idea of Divine Love. Miller has co-opted, almost verbatim, nearly all of these ideas into God's Way of Love.

It was into a New Age community in Dallas that Miller and Natalie Lewis - a British woman serving as his helper in the crucial years following his coming out as Jesus - arrived in 2008. (Lewis, who now advertises her services as a psychic and clairvoyant on Psychicstuff.co.uk, also declines to comment, fearing Miller might retaliate "on the astral plane" if she angers him.)

"Early on, he seemed very kosher," Sims tells me from his home in Texas. "I was willing to suspend any disbelief and try it."

Over time, their relationship became close. Miller wanted to spread his message but, to do so, he needed recording equipment to make videos of his sermons, and recording equipment costs money. Sims, who says that Miller's spiritual presence held an almost magnetic grip on him, was only too happy to help.

"You don't have to give him money but if you want access, the quickest way to get his attention is to give him a donation," says Sims. "I used to send him money monthly. I bought the recording equipment he uses." Sims estimates that he gave Miller just under $4000 during that first year.

Several of Miller's followers in Kingaroy tell me they frequently make small donations, either in person or through his website. The donations seem to explain a great deal about how Miller and Luck are able to maintain a comfortable lifestyle despite not working. It also goes a long way to explaining how they afford the plane fares and hotels on their frequent proselytising trips overseas, most often to the US, the UK and the Caribbean.

Over time, as more and more followers flocked to Miller and as his tone grew ever more imperious, Sims says he began to have doubts. He had particular difficulty accepting a practice that Miller continues to this day - informing some couples, even married couples, that they are not yoked to their soul mates and they'll never achieve happiness while they remain in their current relationship. (Former followers tell me Miller uses this technique to control the group, splitting up those who fall out of favour and shunning the offending partner, who then either distances himself or herself from whatever behaviour has offended Miller or leaves the group.) Reluctantly, Sims decided to cut off contact with Miller in 2009.

"I wish I was wrong and A. J. was right," he says. "I'd much rather have that be the case."

It's impossible to know just how much money Miller has accepted from his followers because the organisation doesn't release financial reports. Miller claims he doesn't demand that his followers give him money, but some of them, like Sims, maintain that making a contribution is the most effective way to gain access to him.

Strangely, given that he maintains a website and conducts seminars on God's Way of Love around the world, Miller insists that, to him, it is immaterial whether or not anyone follows his philosophy. He also professes not to care what happens to the hundred or so people now living around him. "The only person I'm responsible for is myself and whether people make the choice to listen to what I say and attempt to practise it ... I don't feel that I have any responsibility unless I've said something inaccurate or incorrect," he says.

Miller has already incorrectly predicted the date of what he calls "Earth Changes" - a series of global cataclysms - at least three times. On each occasion he pushes the date back further and on each occasion his followers accept that communicating with spirits is not an exact science. In May 2011, for example, he claimed on Twitter that "a big awakening" was coming in 2012, while in September 2011 he warned of "100-foot tidal waves" turning Kingaroy into beachfront property. He then claimed last September that the "Earth Changes" would be coming in early 2013.

Nowhere is this blind faith more obvious than on a 242-hectare property on the other side of Chinchilla Wondai Road. Angela Griffiths and her partner Robert, both acolytes of Miller, look after the property - bought by a group of Miller's followers, allegedly on his orders - and are building a learning centre for God's Way of Love that at present is little more than foundations and a wooden skeleton. They live in a tin shed on the property with their three children, who are aged 16, 14 and 11.

Miller and Luck directed them to "restore Eden", Angela tells me with a faraway look in her eyes as we walk through a field of tall grass. "When we're in a more loving condition and don't need laws or rules, there could be a hundred families living here," she says in a monotone.

Although Miller insists he has no direct involvement with the property, Sims says he remembers things more like Angela. "I was still on the reservation when the property purchase was initiated," he tells me, meaning that he was still a believer. "He wanted them to purchase that. There was another, more desirable, property, but it wasn't right next to where he lives."

In the end, I'm not able to ask Miller about Sims's concerns, or why people seem afraid to talk to me about him. When I leave Kingaroy, it is all smiles and handshakes. Seven hours later, though, as I land in Sydney and turn on my mobile, I find a 1554-word email from him telling me I've caused deep offence to the group and I'm to have no further contact with him or his followers until I've learnt some respect.

Over the next few weeks, I receive almost 20,000 words in hostile emails from more than half a dozen of Miller's followers. Perhaps Miller didn't like being challenged. Perhaps it had to do with my scepticism regarding his Earth Changes.

Ultimately, the experience has left me with a sense of foreboding. I feel concerned for Miller's followers. "When you keep making these predictions about Earth Changes and nothing happens, you're painting yourself into a corner," Sims tells me. "And, frankly, that scares me."

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