My visit to Yahweh Nissi: Cult or God’s chosen people?

worshippers in the sanctuary
Worshippers in the sanctuary (Photo credit: Gracious Adebayo)

I was invited by the leaders of Qahal Yahweh (people called by Yahweh) to visit the group in Paradise, Norwood St. James, which I did with a childhood friend for four hours one Sunday. This was before the COVID-19 Pandemic started. The media calls the group Yahweh Nissi (Yahweh is my banner) because this is written on the front building on their compound but this is not its name, it is Qahal Yahweh.

The invitation                                                                                                            

The group invited me to visit because they said my public comments were “fair”. They heard me on television saying that I could not determine from the news about them if there were a cult. I needed evidence. I could not say the group was a cult because they ran their own school, resided on a compound, had an unfinished building and tents on the compound and so on. These things were not unique to the group. Moreover, I was awaiting the outcome of the court case against the members arrested for child sexual abuse. Since the public spectacle arrest of the members, I have not heard anything more publicly about the case. My role here is to report on my visit since the country knows very little about this controversial group except for media portrayals.

State allegations and media framing

The Jamaican state has made allegations against the group such as sexual abuse of female minors and forced marriage of older girls which led to the Child Development Agency backed by the security forces taking three girls from the compound into state care. The news reported that their “leader” and a female were arrested on charges including sexual abuse.                                                         

According to these three leaders, the media published former members and the Jamaican state’s version of events without getting their side of the story fomenting hysteria. The group said it has spurned the media because only “one-sided” news were publicized and the group was dubbed a cult.

 Some of the other allegations made in the media were that group members were prevented from leaving the compound, a male member physically assaulted his mother who visited him at the gate of the compound, and the group physically assaulted a member to get control of his land so the member left the group. I asked the leaders about these allegations.

            Three of the leaders Moshe, EliYah and Kephe spoke with us. They said the girls removed were ages six, 13 and 14. The leaders argued that a medical doctor saw the older girls and there was no evidence of sexual abuse. However, they allege that a relative who was not a member of the group sexually abused the six-year-old.  They also alleged that the relative in question was waiting outside to collect the six-year-old from the police. Therefore, one of the group’s leaders held on to the girl to protect her. The police arrested this leader and a female member for sexual abuse among other charges.

            The leaders said that the 16-year-old who was “married” got the permission of her mother who was no longer a member of the group. The young woman was “married” according to the rituals of the group to prevent fornication but there was no civil marriage. I told the group that although they had a right to practice their religious rituals they should “render onto Caesar what is Caesar’s” so they should ensure that they followed the laws in relation to marriage, especially as it relates to girls 16 years and younger. Similarly, the group was told to provide the data requested by the Ministry of Education in support of its application for its school to be recognized by the government.

            The leaders also stated that any member could leave the compound and we saw some people leaving at least twice during the visit. They also stated that the young male member did not physically assault his mother at the gate of the compound. The overjoyed mother fell as the rushed to enter the bus her son was in at the gate. The reporter came and saw the mother on the ground and enquired what had happened and she stated that she fell and the newspaper reported that her son assaulted her. The leaders played an audio-visual clip with a woman claiming to be the mother in question who stated that her son did not physically assault her. The leaders refuted that a former member was physically assaulted because he refused to give his land to the group.

Doctrine and mission

The leaders said their group included former members of Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah witnesses, Pentecostals, and Assembly of Yahweh among other Christian denominations. The leaders argued that they lived by the Bible (the Book) and they were Hebrews with Jewish practices such as keeping the Sabbath and eating Kosher among other practices, but they were not Christians. They also believed that it is not a coincidence that their community is called paradise and they live on lot number 144 which is a number of religious significance in the Book of Revelation.

According to the leaders, other religious groups do not follow the Book. Therefore, Qahal Yahweh was the only religious group in the world with the correct message through which people can be saved because they call God by his right name, Yahweh Elohim. Their group would grow exponentially and spread the message of salvation to the world. The group views the negative publicity they garnered in 2019 via the media as a fulfilment of the Book. Moreover, the group felt there were no coincidences with Yahweh Elohim including what I said about the group on television, and our visit and meeting with them. It was all a fulfilment of the Book. 

They also speak in tongues because Moshe and EliYah were caught up in the spirit one after the other and made loud incomprehensible utterances during the meeting with my friend and I. Kepha interpreted the message for us. We were also told that the female members wore long dresses and head covering because the Book says women should dress modestly. I exposed my itching belly while scratching it and was told by Kepha that I could not expose myself because there were women around.

 Income generation

The leaders argued that there are group members who leave the compound daily for work in western Jamaica.  Moshe and Eliyah, who are brothers, said their mother is a senior nurse who worked outside the compound in St James. The group, we were told, also sent people overseas to work and generate income on its behalf. We were not told how many members of their group work in secular society or how large the group was. Group members they stated also make a range of juices and bags among other things for sale in the market. However, the negative publicity from the raid by the security forces had reduced sales.

 Engaging the Jamaican state

The leaders stated that a group member owned the land on which they lived, and land tax was paid annually. The also said that they paid water and light bills. However, the garbage truck refused to collect their garbage. They argued that they were a misunderstood group whose rights have been violated by the state, so they were seeking redress. The leaders said that they had written to the prime minister, and the minister of education. They gave me a letter to deliver to another politician. They also wanted to get in touch with the public defender. I told them to practice their religion and uphold the laws of the state because I did not want a Branch Davidian type clash with the Jamaica state. The leaders stated that they were a peaceful group but they expected to be persecuted in fulfilment of the Book.

Christopher A.D. Charles is a psychologist who teaches at the University of the West Indies, Mona.

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