House of Judah: Two women who left the cult talk about life on the inside

Michigan Live/June 28, 2013

Allegan County, Michagan - In the 1970s, Celia Green and her new husband were looking for a place to belong.

They found it with William A. Lewis, with a self-styled prophet in Chicago. He led religious classes and aired a weekly program on the radio. He eventually set up a commune-style community in southwest Allegan County.

"There was no House of Judah until we were there. It started with five of us, and grew from there," Green said.

Everything was fine in the beginning. Then things began to change.

"The first thing they do is break you off from your family," Green said. "They say, 'You don't need family. We are your family.' That's a cult. I didn't know that then."

In 1982, Lewis had followers sign agreements to accept punishment - beating, burning, hanging and stoning of adults and their children – for their misdeeds.

He had a whipping block constructed to hold follower's heads and hands while they were beaten.

Green soon saw no way out. The beatings were becoming more vicious. Armed "goons" patrolled the perimeter of the camp. People started ratting each other out, leading to more beatings. Stories spread about punishments for those who tried to leave.

She used to tell her husband: "'Somebody is going to lose their lives,' and that's exactly what happened. The way I saw it, somebody would have to die."

John Yarbough, 12, died July 4, 1983, of beating injuries.

"That child didn't have to die. There was no reason on God's Earth that child had to lose his life. I mean, a part of me was lost when that child lost his life. That was the life, that was the child, that was that person that lost his life – I feared somebody was going to die. I wanted to get out of there, but I had no way to go."

Green, who said she shared her story in hopes it could help others, is convinced Lewis brain-washed his followers. She used to see things happen in camp, and question what she really saw.

She said God eventually opened her eyes. But it took more than the boy's death to get her to leave.

Lewis held sway over many. Green left the Allegan County camp, only to re-join Lewis at a new compound in Wetumpka, Ala. Others followed.

Ethel Yarbough, the victim's mother, moved to Alabama after she served a 4- to 15-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter for her role in her son's death.

Her daughter, Latoya Yarbough, fought her mother's efforts to regain custody of three younger sons. She feared her mother would stay at the Wetumpka camp. The daughter, however, eventually moved to the area, too, records showed.

"I had a good, hard lesson," Green said. "I can't say I'm ashamed. It happened. It happened to a whole lot of people other than me. People be aware: There are people out there to destroy you."

Her regret, she said, is that she stayed so long. She left in the late 1980s.

Lewis was later brought up on federal slavery charges related to the boy's death and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Another former member, who asked that her name be withheld, said she met her eventual husband when she came home from Northern Illinois University. He followed Lewis.

"I happened to fall in love with someone involved in something," the woman said.

The former member grew up in the Methodist church. Her father was a Sunday school teacher, and she graduated from a Catholic high school.

"I was never 100 percent there (in the camp), and I think they knew that. I was an outsider," she said.

The woman said living at the camp became a chore. Followers had to buy everything – from meals to wood for heating - from a store at the compound. Prices were higher than at a regular store. They also had to pay rent. Essentially, she said, all of their money went to the House of Judah.

When followers left the House of Judah after the boy's death, she and her husband left with Lewis for Alabama. She landed a job in a hospital.

"That's when I knew I had to leave," she said. "They really monitored everything you did. They knew when you would go to work, and when you would get off."

She said a co-worker helped her find a place to rent. She made it look like she was leaving her husband.

"I couldn't show fear. I didn't show fear. So they didn't know what I would do. I had reached the point I wasn't taking anymore."

She said she did not want to live at the camp with the "so-called prophet." She said he always made passes at her, so she was never alone with him.

After she got out, her husband did, too. She was concerned: They would be cutting ties with those who lived at the camp, including family members. They would be shunned around town.

She has eight children. Most of them turned out OK, she said.

The older ones remember being at the camp. Her oldest son has a job, but could've done more with his life, while her oldest daughter has her own problems, including a gambling addiction.

"I think it's my fault, I do."

She said her struggles can be attributed to "being at that place, and that will be true 'til the day I die."

Her oldest son was disciplined in the camp. She told leaders, "Don't put your hands on my children anymore."

But, she said, "I think I failed him there. I failed him."

Her other children have professional jobs.

She sees a lot of other grown children from the camp working at fast-food restaurants.

"All the ones there were kids (at the House of Judah). My God, is that all they do? You feel bad. It's probably because we failed them, told them they didn't have to do well in school."

The children were the real victims, survivors and authorities have said. She broke down when talking about how young John Yarbough was beaten to death.

"They just threw his body on the pickup truck."

Nobody talked about what happened, she said.

About a year later, two children died in a trailer fire at the Allegan camp. Their deaths were considered punishments from God, the followers were told.

"I'm like, 'Oh my God. This is sick. These people are sick.'"

Coming later today: The Prophet's son defends his father.

Coming Saturday: A veteran living next to the Allegan compound talks about his troubles with the cult.

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