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The SPAC Nation scam allegations show the danger of obedient silence

12 Nov 2019

A still from BBC Three’s Escaping Gangs: Death, Jail or Redemption, courtesy of BBC

SPAC Nation sounds good on paper. The Croydon-based youth church’s aim was to allow its congregants to center their lives around a positive force and to foster a community of caring, humble, kind people. Made up mainly of ex-gang members, it provides housing for youth in need and gives hope to a generation of young, mainly black people, that seek to be “liberated from poverty”. However, rather than being an asset to London, SPAC Nation has become a menace, using religion to position itself as the moral authority over people’s lives while allowing rogue pastors to act with impunity. Some of the preachings within the church have distorted elements of Christianity for financial gain and silenced victims.

After a series of troubling features and documentaries, the church is facing an onslaught of criticism. On Twitter, there were whispers of dodgy loans prompted by accounts like @SpacExposed, a dedicated SPAC-sceptic YouTube channel called The Exposer and dozens of posts from concerned friends and family. Members of the congregation posted videos asserting that they were still in support of the church despite being in suspiciously large amounts of debt. In one video a boy passionately tells the camera: “My bank account was formless, it was void,” after revealing he’s £10,000 in debt. “But giving seed has to drain you so you can know what you can produce from nothing.” Then in September, the church was the subject of an MTV documentary, Reggie Yates Meets World, although, given the depth of claims mounting on social media, this doc was noticeably paper-thin. Another online sleuth revealed that Reggie’s cousin is a minister at the church.

Undoubtedly, the biggest blow came from the Huffington Post’s Nadine White and Emma Youle, who have published several features and short films as part of a shocking exposé into troubling practices within the congregation. This included senior people at the church befriending vulnerable young people, promising them wealth, and taking sometimes over £10,000 worth of loans out in their names. Some were advised to defraud banks by starting companies and taking out overdrafts, over 50 of these suspicious companies exist. The news outlet also alleged abuse in the church’s shared accommodation (dubbed “trap houses”). There’s now an active investigation being conducted by the Serious Fraud Office.

How could this happen in a church? Well, it’s all about context. SPAC has bounced back from a series of accusations mostly due to the fact that the alleged fraud of several of their members is messily intertwined with people’s spiritual beliefs. Churches should be, and many times are, a community that you can trust. The very nature of religion is grounded by faith.

SPAC is not unique in bringing together vulnerable people – many congregations have had people pass through their doors in their lowest hour. Having grown up going to church I’ve heard people’s testimonies about being broke, caught up in crime, struggling to find their way out of forced sex work, addiction, abuse and more. Pastors can be marriage counselors, family therapists, mentors, and sometimes provide shelters and meals for the homeless. Finding a group of people to support you in your time of need is vital, and of course, the thing that unites church communities in their activism and friendship is their belief in God. The scam artists within SPAC’s ranks exploit all of this.

It’s not uncommon for churches to have collection plates or to ask churchgoers to “tithe”, but when you have a number of young people taking out loans to give hundreds of pounds worth of “seed” money, other members of the congregation need to speak out. There are videos of people preaching that God was in debt to the Earth and so you too must start your spiritual journey in debt. It’s completely perverse to manipulate people into thinking that this is what Christianity entails and whether you’re an atheist, a SPAC Nation attendee or a concerned Christian, it needs to be called out.

“Using religion positions them as the moral authority over people’s lives while allowing rogue pastors to act with impunity”

Not to go all Dot Cotton on you but one of the bible verses that stuck with me the most when I was younger – mostly because of the strange image it conjured – was that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”. So to see a church instructing their congregation to display their wealth (like Tobi Adeboyega, the leader of the church flossing with his Lambo while living in a multi-million pound house), to attract new members rather than promoting the actual belief system first and foremost, is uncomfortable.

Yet Tobi has received glowing praise from then-prime minister Theresa May’s chief of staff, for tackling knife crime. He also won a leadership award sponsored by the London mayor and was filmed up-front at the Tory party conference in Manchester. A BBC Three doc last year said the church was “radical”. Meanwhile, other senior members have a close relationship with the Conservatives with pastor Jayde Edwards, 20, running in a local by-election.

Until you consider that perhaps the allure of wealth is what ensnares young people who have left a gang lifestyle behind and want to find another route to stability, it might be difficult to understand why SPAC was so revered in the first place. Croydon has the highest rate of low paid workers in south London, it also has the third-highest number of homeless families in the entire city, in wards like Fieldway, nearly half of children aged under 16 live in poverty.

The story of SPAC is a complex cocktail of factors that have led to the paralysis of tackling real concerns. It received so much praise (and subsequent disdain) because of the unique make-up of the congregation: young, black kids who are vulnerable to crime and poverty. People have raised concerns that if it was while children being manipulated perhaps there would have been more media attention.

It’s true that SPAC may have helped some, but it also may have devastated others. Where some churches can go wrong is by fostering a dutiful culture of silence, an inability to question authority and that is sadly paired with each member’s desire to only see or focus on the good in the community. Also, with Christianity on the decline on the whole in the UK perhaps there’s a substantial fear that loudly denouncing bad practice publicly draws negative attention to the faith and further taints the public opinion of religion.

But, it is important that other Christians within these congregations (and in other nearby congregations in the community) listen to people’s concerns and mobilise against predators. Uncovering abuse, homophobia, bullying, embezzlement, fraud and so on within the church should not be seen by believers as an attack on Christianity. On the contrary, the congregation of SPAC and beyond need to support accusers to keep the church free of the evils they constantly pray against. The most important thing to be protected are the vulnerable youth, some of whom have already experienced trauma. For SPAC members, and any other bystanders being silent on these issues almost makes these practices seem part and parcel of church. In the end, these young people still need to feel supported and cared for, and if other churches don’t want this to become indicative of the religion as a whole, they could step up and show them a less warped interpretation of religion.

I’m not going to pretend this is the first church scandal of all time. Sometimes feigned enlightenment is merely another vehicle to bully, coerce or manipulate others – as has been seen in multiple religions the world over. However, I truly believe that places of worship can be forces for good. Someone who has found an opportunity to corrupt a well-meaning situation for their own game will only achieve success on SPAC Nation-levels if the people around them remain silent. It needs to be stamped out early. SPAC Nation’s behaviour is not a winning argument for atheism, or proof that gangsters can’t reform, it’s a cautionary tale about unchallenged greed.