Mon | Sep 28, 2020

Mark Wignall | Control the mind, own the body

Published:Thursday | November 7, 2019 | 12:00 AM
A heated stand-off between members of the St James police and worshippers at the Qahal Yahweh Church in Norwood, St James.

A few years before crazed, religious cult leader, Jim Jones, convinced about 900 of his followers to end their lives by drinking cyanide-laced syrup in 1978 in a place called Jonestown in Guyana, 17-year-old Penny was on the verge of giving over her mind and body to the Children of God cult, through a local chapter set up in Jamaica.

It is difficult to know what made Penny such a perfect target. Living with her family in the comforts of Kingston 6, she was attending one of the elite high schools and would be certain to pursue medicine at university. Anyway, she made the decision and, three months in, it was tearing apart her family.

Her brother Tom and I were friends. We were at a bar in Vineyard Town. A day in 1976. ‘Wiggi, mi just gwine go dey and grab her the #!*! out of there.’

His mother was not for the ‘grab’ part although she expressed sympathy for the move. “Let us go and visit her.”

The cultists wore flowing white robes and it would be typical to see them operating in small groups in Half-Way Tree. For the women it would be no pants, no standard dress. Just a basic smock. They would hand out tracts and also solicit money. Their leader was someone calling himself Moses David.

We visited her one day at the sprawling uptown compound. It was a huge house on ample land. Fancy tents had been erected for added accommodation. We sat on a gazebo. The place was weirdly magical. Every person seemed to have a smile constantly printed on the face. Some were walking, holding hands. The tranquillity seemed to have been contrived for our consumption.

Penny was caught up in the strange fog of this heavenly illusion on earth. After we left, her mother suggested to the leadership that they allow Penny to visit for a day. She came home but looked distant. Where was that smile of inner peace?

The mother made another request for Penny to visit. She was turned down by a very forceful ‘No!’.


In the end, the grab theory was applied. Tom and his big brother wormed their way into the trust of the local leaders, got close to their sister and snatched her one late evening.

Some of Jamaica’s newest churches know that simply to control dollars is only to pinch the penny. They sell you religious tokens, a higher plane of existence and misdirected routes to your soul’s redemption. But to do this they need more of you.

For many in Jamaica, an uncertain wage at the end of the week cannot make for anything special attained. Some take to the bottle. Others take it out in aggression towards those whom they swear they love.

In politics, the biggest Jamaican cult exists in diehard supporters of the People’s National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party. It’s a simple recipe. The party is God and God is all-powerful and never wrong.

Many of us too are scared of making decisions on our own. What if I screw up? What if an organisation or a group or a church, or a … could reaffirm me by freeing me of my pain and fears?

Maybe something sinister lurks in the bushes outside the Qahal Yahweh Church in Montego Bay, or it is us who are the duppies. The recent tense standoff between the security forces and the church indicates that the police know little about dealing with cults.

And yes, Penny practises medicine somewhere in Canada.