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Jesus Christians: The cult luring young, vulnerable people away from home.

Andrew Rule and Mark Buttler (7 min read)  [Sunday Herald Sun, February 6, 2021 - 4:00PM]

After four decades of creating controversy, the man who preaches dumpster diving and kidney donation is still luring young people away from home.

Pic 01Dave and Cherry McKay, leaders of the Jesus Christians, have been known to recruit teens straight out of high school.

David McKay is getting old and his tiny “Jesus Christians” sect is shrinking, but after four decades of creating controversy, the man who preaches dumpster diving and kidney donation is still luring young and vulnerable people away from home.

The American-born McKay and his wife Cherry live in a group house in Melbourne’s north with their followers and preach the virtue of extreme voluntary poverty.

McKay used his own four children to help recruit other young people when they launched the group in Melbourne in 1981 and now it’s happening again: distressed parents in Australia and the United States are blaming him for persuading school-age dependants to run away and join the group as soon as they turn 18.

A Sydney family recently took court action after their son vanished two days after his 18th birthday. He was taken to Melbourne and allegedly prevented from communicating with them for a year.

Some call them a cult, many more call them controversial. Andrew Rule explores the intriguing history of the Jesus Christians.

In another case, a Melbourne mother who has not seen her daughter for more than three years says she does not know her whereabouts but suspects it might be Mexico.

Her once “headstrong, stubborn” girl changed her name and got married within five weeks of joining, and her mother worries about her every day. She had given her a prepaid mobile telephone so she could call in an emergency, only to have it mailed back to her from overseas without explanation or greeting.

Just four weeks ago in a small town in rural South Dakota, USA, Heather Kelly went to school on January 7 and her family has not seen her since.

Heather’s mother Linda Kelly has described her ordeal to the Herald Sun as a warning of the dangers of naive teenagers being groomed by religious sects online in much the same way that sex predators groom potential victims.

The mother of nine believes David McKay duped her daughter into believing she wouldn’t have to work for a living after leaving school “because God would provide for their needs.”

Mrs Kelly writes: “Heather was naive and trusting and … thought her parents just didn’t understand, but I believe Dave ‘love bombed’ her and convinced her that she would be making a real difference in the world by giving him all her money, following the ‘true’ teachings of Jesus (i.e. Dave McKay version of the Gospel) and living the life of a carefree spirit going wherever the wind blew or wherever Dave McKay directed.”

She claims that McKay has warned her to “just get over it” and not to react angrily or to describe the Jesus Christians as a cult or she would lose any communication with her daughter.

Pic 02
McKay with Ashwyn Falkingham who had his offer of kidney donation rejected by the Toronto hospital after his mother expressed concern he was brainwashed by a cult.

“As a mother my heart aches and my blood boils for the manipulation, lies and the evil this predator spreads.”

Mrs Kelly’s distress is heightened because her husband is being treated for cancer.

Names and dates are different but the fear and anger of parents has not changed. Similar scenarios have played out many times since McKay founded the Jesus Christians in the 1980s.

The McKays arrived in Melbourne from California as a young married couple in 1968 and McKay briefly joined the soon discredited cult the Children of God, which he left within months because of sexual exploitation of followers.

The McKays have never been accused of sexual offences or financial fraud but they preach a bizarre brand of Christianity which effectively leads followers to beg and scavenge to survive, picking up only a few cash “donations” for distributing their propaganda publications.

Ever since the group was accused of kidnapping a 16-year-old in England, it seems to target only those who have turned 18.

The sect exploits the fact that young adults have the right to leave home, to go where they like with anyone they like, and to renounce property and money by pooling assets with the group.

But families of young “recruits” feel uneasy, if not angry, when their loved ones do these things under the influence of strangers.

It is little comfort to worried parents that McKay presents as rational and intelligent. They accuse him of deliberately isolating young “recruits” from their families in order to impose his beliefs on them, a process some call “brainwashing”.

The words “creepy” and “controlling” are often used to describe the group. Families feel intimidated by the implied threat that McKay can cut them off completely from their child. His influence has been obvious in the past.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the Jesus Christians is McKay’s history of urging followers to donate a kidney to complete strangers, an act of extreme selflessness usually confined to family members or close friends — or loyal employees such as the late Kerry Packer’s helicopter pilot, who gave a kidney to his boss in 2000 and later got the title to an expensive Sydney house.

Pic 03
David and Cherry McKay’s sect of the Jesus Christians is slowly shrinking.

McKay’s influences appear to be as much Hollywood as holy writ: he got the kidney idea from a film on a flight from Los Angeles in 1999.

The film, A Gift of Love, based on the true story of a high school footballer who saves his grandmother with his kidney, fired McKay with what one academic calls “a fantasy of heroic virtue” subsequently imposed on his followers through his religious authority.

Heroic virtue appealed to McKay’s instinct for theatre and publicity. For 40 years he has attracted attention by setting up media stunts with an exhibitionist edge.

One trick was throwing cash — coins and $1 notes — to a crowd in a busy city street. Another was to burn paper money or to glue banknotes to the footpath in Sydney’s Martin Place to spell out messages like “Trust God, not Money”. Sect members also wrote religious messages on thousands of bank notes and passed them on.

In 1985, a group of young Jesus Christians made news by walking across the Nullarbor without any money or support, essentially begging their way for two months to prove that “God will provide” — the same motivation that led to “dumpster diving” for food.

One of the Nullarbor walkers was McKay’s 15-year-old daughter Christine. The youngest in the group, Rachel Sakamaran, was only 12. Given the isolation and extreme heat, it seemed risky and totally contrived to push McKay’s belief that “God will provide”.

In the 1990s, Jesus Christians waded in open sewers in India, for no apparent reason except publicity. One of them became seriously ill.

Despite the attention drawn by these stunts, Jesus Christians did not become notorious until 2000, when they made headlines in the UK after recruiting a teenager in the street.

The tabloid Daily Express declared that Jesus Christians members Susan and Roland Gianstefani had “kidnapped” 16-year-old Bobby Kelly in Essex after he read some of the group’s literature.

Public and police interest ran high, with the BBC banning broadcast of interviews the schoolboy gave from a hidden location, in which he insisted he was safe and happy. After two weeks, he was found camping in a tent in a New Hampshire forest.

The Gianstefani couple were charged with several offences but after Kelly gave evidence in their favour, a judge declined to jail them.

The “kidnapping” attracted the attention of English journalist, author and filmmaker Jon Ronson, whose promise that he would not demonise the Jesus Christians persuaded McKay to let him film the group’s members for several months as they arranged to donate kidneys to strangers.

Ronson started out keen to correct what he saw as unfair media treatment but ended up disliking McKay, who at one stage bombarded him with hostile emails.

The result was a documentary named Kidneys For Jesus. It shows how one Jesus Christian, Australian Susan Ellis (alias Gianstefani) slipped into London’s Guy’s Hospital pretending to be a patient to plant business cards in the dialysis waiting room offering a kidney to patients.

Ronson filmed Ellis telling a seriously ill Scottish woman she would not give her a kidney after all because she’d had a dream she should give it to an overweight man. Ellis took the dream to be the voice of God.

The lucky fat man was an American, who was delighted that this Aussie “angel” had arrived to give him the gift of life, with no strings attached apart from a film crew.

Meanwhile, in 2002, two other Australian sect members — one, Casey Crouch, just 23 years old — had given kidneys to American recipients they’d never met. Also with a film crew in tow.

Casey Crouch’s parents are not interviewed in the documentary. But another young Australian, Ashwyn Falkingham, had the ABC filming his mother’s reaction as he prepared in 2007 to donate his kidney to a Canadian woman old enough to be his grandmother.

Ashwyn’s mother, Cate, and stepfather, Nick Croft, themselves practising Christians, were alarmed when they listened to the propaganda their boy relayed from the sect.

After the Crofts warned Canadian authorities that Ashwyn did not know the recipient and might have been coerced to agree to the transplant, the hospital aborted the operation.

The transplant went ahead the following year in Cyprus, where medical authorities dismissed the tangled ethics of the case. Falkingham returned to Sydney to be a part-time graphic artist and full-time “squatter” and agitator for social causes.

A total of 19 Life Christians (of 25 worldwide) donated kidneys, including David McKay. But if there was ever any financial incentive for the donations, it has never come to light. McKay is accused of persuading people to leave the security of home, family, education and employment, but not accused of profiting from it in any way apart from boosting his ego.

The Herald Sun sent McKay a list of questions earlier this week. One of them asked if he considered himself “the messiah”. He declined to respond.

Two days later McKay sent a message that he had briefed a lawyer to protect his reputation. The real messiah would, of course, turn the other cheek.
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