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Pray for Kabeer, Chapter II: The Pastor, the ‘Cult’ and Its Troubled Past

Retired Packers star Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila made headlines last winter when two members of his religious ministry were arrested for trespassing, while armed, at a school Christmas program—and that ‘KGB’ sent them. In the second chapter of our Serial Longform series, we take an unprecedented look at the controversial ministry he is now a part of, its history and why so many who were once close to him desperately want him to get out.

Editor’s Note: This story contains accounts of sexual abuse and attempted suicide. The number for the National Sexual Assault Hotline is 1-800-656-HOPE. The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK.

Two sisters pace along the grassy bank of a small creek. They’re middle-school age—if they went to school—dressed in long skirts and scarves that cover their heads. The younger sister looks up at the highway running above her head and watches the cars pass. She tries to work up the courage to run up onto the road, stop a car and beg someone to take them anywhere else. Her back is bruised from a recent beating. Her older sister is in worse shape; her hair has been falling out in clumps and her forearms are covered with the scars of several suicide attempts.

While they have every intention to run away from the religious compound they’ve grown up on, the fear of leaving is even more stifling than the fear of staying. Now, they sit frozen beneath the highway, the crescendo of what has become their routine: sneak into the barn; pick the crickets out of the peanut butter barrel and fill their jars so they’ll have something to eat once they make it off the land; follow the creek a couple of miles to the overpass until the overwhelming dread of what might happen to the rest of their family turns them around again.

SI daily cover on ex-Packers star Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and the 'cult' he joined

CHAPTER 1: The School Play, the Minister of Defense and the Fall of a Hero | CHAPTER 3: The Followers, the Courtroom Drama and the Next Chapter

Some claim to have found peace and meaning with the Straitway Truth Ministry, a group that former Packers star Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila joined after denouncing Christianity. KGB and other ex-NFL players who are now in Straitway give glowing testimonials about Straitway’s leader, Pastor Charles Dowell. KGB tells of Dowell’s emotional and spiritual support in the aftermath of his family’s leaving, and the kindness and respect he showed to his father, who has Parkinson’s disease. He still struggles to understand his ex-wife’s reluctance in spending time at the ministry’s headquarters in north-central Tennessee, or why many now encourage him to cut ties with Straitway.

But details shared by those who lived on the group’s compound paint a bleak picture for more vulnerable members of the ministry. Numerous former followers tell of an existence ruled by an unbending adherence to the Old Testament, under the watch of a controlling leader who limits members’ interactions with the outside world. There are allegations of mistreatment of women and children, lack of access to proper health care, animosity toward the queer community and at least two instances of aggressive recruitment of teenagers against the wishes of their families, all while onerous financial demands make it difficult for anyone to leave.

Straitway members acknowledge that many believe they are a cult, whether it’s YouTube testimonials that address then dismiss the perception, or when KGB, in his interview with Sports Illustrated, called attention to his shirt, emblazoned with the word CULTURE—the CULT offset—across the front. Whether you call it a church, an extremist group or flat-out a cult, this is where Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila has pledged his faith and dedicated his life.

* * *

The younger sister, who we’ll refer to as Esther—a pseudonym in order to protect her and her family’s identity—says she and her older sister were sexually abused at Straitway, and by the same man. It was her mom’s “husband,” not Esther or her sister’s biological father, but the man that her mom was set up with when she moved to Straitway. (The older sister declined an interview request, citing a reluctance to discuss the trauma of her childhood. SI is withholding the identity of the husband in order to protect the women’s identities.)

Esther lived at Straitway in Tennessee from the early 2000s until 2015. The abuse started when she was just 11 years old, and it went on for over a year. Esther’s mom, Ruth (also a pseudonym), noticed that her husband paid an unusual amount of attention to Esther’s older sister. She says he’d spend long hours on his computer every night, editing then printing photos of her two older daughters. Ruth didn’t know what was going on, but she knew something wasn’t right.

When he checked on the kids in the middle of the night, he’d be gone for unusually long periods of time. Ruth started asking her oldest daughter to please tell her if her “dad” was touching her—she denied it until she found out Esther was going through the same thing.

Esther says she remembers waking up to the man touching her in the middle of the night. Ruth says her older daughter didn’t share many details except to say that she would wake up to her “dad” shining a flashlight toward her legs. He’d tell her that he was looking at the bruises on her legs because he was worried about her. She also told Ruth that their brother would sleep in the sisters’ shared bedroom whenever he could to protect them.

As soon as her daughters confirmed her suspicions, Ruth went to Charles Dowell, the pastor in charge of the ministry. She never considered the police an option—at Straitway, that betrayal would damn you to hell for sure. Ruth now purposely avoids speaking Dowell’s name because she never wants to hear it again. Instead refers to him as “the leader,” but back then, she saw Dowell as a father figure. He was her protector. Adds Esther: “Dowell is God and government there.”

(Despite posting multiple YouTube videos acknowledging SI was reporting a story on his ministry, Dowell did not respond to requests for comment, made via phone through intermediaries at the Lafayette, Tenn., compound and through Gbaja-Biamila, and via email. The email included a list of the accusations detailed in this series.)

KGB, who didn’t join the ministry until years later, says there is zero tolerance for violence against women at Straitway, and that the ministry has ways to guarantee that an abuser will not make the same mistake twice. But Ruth says Dowell did little to punish her daughters’ abuser. Her husband, who had been very close to Dowell, lost some of his responsibilities and therefore his reputation suffered, though she was not allowed to tell anyone why. Dowell had the sisters sleep on cots in his home office for a few weeks so he could keep a close eye on them. “And that’s when we were told we made everything up,” Esther says. “We were told [by Dowell] that the guy that did it to us was a man of Yah, and we were lying and acting under the influence of the spirit Jezebel.” (Jezebel, a Biblical queen who promoted the worship of false Gods and arranged for an innocent man’s death, is an archetype for a wicked woman. “Jezebel” is a catch-all term Straitway members use to describe any woman who doesn’t know “their truth.”)

Ruth says Dowell would not allow her to move out from her husband’s home, so she and the two daughters he had abused continued to live with him, along with her son, and her youngest daughter, whom she’d had with the “husband.” Ruth couldn’t sleep at night and constantly woke up to check on her husband’s whereabouts. Esther says she tried to hang herself off her top bunk several times using hay that she pulled from the hay bales and then braided together. Each time, the twine broke. Once, she says, her sister walked in on her. They cried together, deciding right then they had to leave.

Around the time her daughters were becoming young women, Dowell introduced polygyny (when a man takes multiple wives)—which Ruth didn’t agree with—and men in the community were starting to size her girls up as prospects for marriage. Ruth remembers a conversation with Dowell about her daughters’ future when she told him she didn’t want her daughters sold off as brides to men in the community; she wanted them to fall in love. She says he told her, “Well, they can always be concubines.” Ruth was stunned, and that reality convinced her they needed to leave.

Ruth arranged for her oldest daughter to leave first—along with her health problems, Ruth believes her daughter’s beauty had made her a target of mistreatment by other women in the community—with the help of Ruth’s mother. Esther remembers that, a few days later, a family friend picked up Esther, her mom, and her younger sister at dusk while the rest of the community was occupied at an evening Bible study. They’d already packed to be ready and frantically loaded boxes into the U-Haul. Ruth’s son decided to stay behind.

“As a female there, you don’t matter,” Esther says. “I grew up learning to hate myself and learning how to be basically a man’s b----. But men are taught they are Yah’s gift to earth.”

* * *

Dowell is a forceful speaker with a deep, slow drawl. His body language is often over the top. He strokes his beard, claps loudly and stands with his legs wide apart to take up space in obvious power stances. He demonstratively gestures his arms to show off his muscular biceps and usually has an assault-style weapon or two hanging on the wall behind him in the YouTube videos shot from his office. When Dowell speaks at Hebrew Israelite conferences around the country, he travels with several of his ex-military “brothers” flanking him as a personal security detail.

After separating from R.G. Stair’s Overcomer ministry in the early 2000s, Dowell moved away from Pentecostal Christianity and adopted Hebrew Israelism, a belief system based on the tenet that black people are the true Hebrews of the Old Testament, God’s chosen people.

Some Hebrew Israelite groups are rife with misogyny, antiqueerness and prejudice against Jewish people (Straitway is not representative of all Hebrew Israelite groups). In YouTube videos, Dowell claims that homosexuality is “an abomination and it will get you to burn for all of eternity,” and “the only way you can gauge [how much a woman loves you] is by her obedience to you.” KGB says that before he found Straitway, he had an opportunity to get involved with a Black Hebrew Israelite group, but he passed after the friend who shared the group with him said he’d need to divorce his then wife because she is not Black (his ex-wife, Eileen, is Filipino). Straitway, however, is more inclusive. They have a significant number of white members, like KGB’s two “brothers,” Ryan Desmith and Jordan Salmi, who were arrested for trespassing at his kids’ Christmas program in Green Bay. Dowell cites a verse in the book of Romans that says gentiles can be “grafted in.”

Hebrew Israelism as an ideology includes Jesus, and most groups that appeal to Hebrew Israelism view Jesus as the Messiah. Straitway is no exception. They use the full Christian Bible while also incorporating some Hebrew vocabulary. “The Jesus appeal in some ways allows for people in the movement to have both Jesus and an authentic nonwhite-dominated religious experience,” says Dr. James Hudnut-Beumler, an American religious history professor at Vanderbilt and former dean of the divinity school.

Pastor Charles Dowell

Pastor Charles Dowell

Dowell also added ideas often associated with survivalism and sovereign citizenry—a belief that they are not answerable to government or the law—and some popular debunked conspiracy theories, like the flat earth and the more recent 5G-coronavirus theories. Straitway followers are preppers; they are instructed to sell off unnecessary possessions and pool their money and assets with other followers to escape “the wicked beast system of debt slavery” and prepare themselves for the end-time. Phoebe (a pseudonym to protect her identity), who along with her husband followed Straitway for about six months, first came across the group while searching for videos on how to store rice in bags for long periods of time. More recently, Dowell added polygyny into the doctrine, which caused a large group of members to leave.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has received several tips about Straitway Truth Ministry as a potential hate group, particularly because of anti-LGBTQ and anti-Semitic ideology and concerns that Dowell is a dangerous leader. Currently, neither Straitway nor the Overcomer Ministry are classified as hate groups, though SPLC periodically monitors their actions.

Straitway’s finances are unclear. According to records, it appears Dowell pays property taxes to Macon County on the land in Lafayette. It is not registered as a 501(c)(3), though in the past Dowell has had the Church of Jesus Christ House of Prayer as an incorporated business. (According to records from the state of Tennessee, it is not currently active.) In 2017 they received $7,000 from the National Christian Foundation, a 501(c)(3) that collects donations and distributes them to smaller Christian organizations across the country. NCF no longer contributes to Straitway. Dowell said in a video posted to Facebook in February that Straitway’s supporters can no longer donate through NCF because the organization found the practice of “biblical marriage” (polygyny) in conflict with their conservative evangelical faith statement. An NCF spokesperson declined to comment as to whether they stopped sending money to Straitway due to any of the group’s specific actions or beliefs.

Along with soliciting direct donations, Dowell has a Patreon account, a platform that allows him to charge subscribers for his videos. He offers six tiers on a pay scale for his followers, Glory, Faith, Praise, Honor, Shalom and Power, which range from $1 to $100 per month. Recently, Dowell has used his video platform to promote an essential oil made by DoTERRA, a multilevel marketing company. He says that he and several members of the ministry have been involved in selling DoTERRA products for the last five years. In the midst of coronavirus pandemic his promotion has become heavier—he cites the On Guard protective blend as the way he is keeping his community protected from COVID-19. (In 2014, the Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to DoTERRA for marketing their products as possible treatments or cures for the Ebola virus.)

According to former members, the main source of Straitway’s finances are that, when people move to a Straitway chapter, they are required to donate their savings and any property, like cars or trucks or trailer homes, and most—if not all—of any income they earn while there, to the ministry. If they choose to leave later, they don’t get anything back. Some men in the community are allowed to work in the outside world, in hourly roles at warehouses or stores like the local Wal-Mart; they hand over their paychecks to Dowell (Ruth says that they sometimes would receive a percentage back as an allowance). Michael Burkhow, who was part of Straitway from age 10 to 12, says his oldest brother worked in manufacturing and gave all of his earnings to Dowell. If anyone needs anything, they have to ask Dowell for approval. Phoebe says she was shocked when a man in the community asked Dowell for permission to buy $11 guitar strings. Ruth remembers Dowell’s saying no when she asked for extra money for diapers.

While Dowell’s home is nicer than the others on the Lafayette land, it’s far from a palace. Brian Howard, who was a Straitway follower for about eight months, described it as a one-story house made of cinderblocks, with three or four bedrooms. Gbaja-Biamila and other former NFL players in Straitway are adamant that Dowell has never tried to exploit them financially. However, Ruth says Dowell always took more time for community members with money and power, and the resources of those ex-players have been put to use by Straitway. For instance, KGB’s property in Green Bay holds services for the ministry, and a former Colts player recently purchased 59 acres of land in northern Indiana for $450,000, where that group—which includes a second ex-Colt—will homestead.

Burkhow says his brother gave around $20,000 in savings and his income for three years by the time he was excommunicated from Straitway—he married a woman without Dowell’s permission. Phoebe and her husband, who served in the Marines, drove their 2.5-ton military truck to the Lafayette compound to have some fun riding around. They also brought their .50 caliber rifle and ammo so their new friends at Straitway could try shooting it. She says they never intended to give Dowell the truck or the guns, but when they arrived, Dowell announced, loudly, in front of the congregation, “So you are going to give this, Brother?” Her husband was too embarrassed to say no in front of the group, so he went along with it and ended up signing over the title to Dowell. When they left and asked for the truck, gun and ammo back, Phoebe says Dowell told them they could bring all the police, the FBI, the CIA with them if they wanted it. They cut their losses and moved on.