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.
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.
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.
The military truck fits in with Dowell’s image, as he frequently reminds his members and his online audience that he is a veteran of the Army’s 82nd airborne division. Assault-style weapons are included in the background of many of his videos. When new people visit Straitway’s land in Tennessee for the first time (by calling ahead to the dining hall so they can be vetted before they’re given the address), their first day of training includes lessons on target shooting and knife fighting for both men and women. Dowell emphasizes on YouTube that this training is for only self-defense, but it’s clear he wants everyone watching to know that Straitway followers are always packing and tactically trained. Esther says she shot her first AR-15 when she was nine years old. She remembers shooting at human-shaped paper targets.
Vocab Malone, the pen name of a Christian author and critic, and an expert on Hebrew Israelism who publishes educational videos on religions to a popular YouTube channel, explains it this way: “These guys aren’t going to bother anyone. They just want to be on their compound and be left alone. But I wouldn’t want to be the federal agency that goes in there to take away their guns; it could be a Branch Davidian disaster all over again.”
* * *
At 10 years old, Burkhow knew he was gay, and he lived in an elevated state of anxiety, afraid he would be found out and rejected from the community. Dowell and Stair taught that homosexuality was a sin, and Burkhow describes the antiqueerness as a, “constant blast furnace of animosity.” To compensate, he tried his hardest to be perfect so he could avoid the physical “whoopings” he often saw Dowell inflict on other children. “Kids getting beaten with rods,” he says. “There was a teenage boy who lived there, and he had his pants pulled down and beat by Pastor Dowell in front of everybody in the dining hall.”
Esther, now in her 20s, says she still has faint scars from being punished with paddles and belts by multiple older men in the community, called elders and “holy men of Yah”, including Dowell. She earned her worst whooping when she forgot to address an older woman on the land with the honorific “Mother”—that beating left her bruised and bloody. She says she once threw up when she saw a boy being beat so badly by his father that he was shaking and couldn’t breathe.
“These poor kids have no help for what these [adults] are doing in Yah’s name behind closed doors,” she says. If a mother is concerned with the treatment of her child, there is no recourse within Straitway. “The mom’s voice will not be heard because Eve bit the apple in the garden of Eden.”
Dowell controls every aspect of life on Straitway’s land. Esther says he oversees everything from the ounces of butter used in cooking to the clothing people wear. “Living there you have really no access to anything normal,” she says. “I didn’t know how the world operated outside of there.” When Esther lived there, there was only one landline phone that everyone in the community shared. She says members are told not to call anyone from their past lives because those people are heathens and sinners. Ruth says that members had to wear a two-way radio on them at all times, so Dowell could summon them whenever he needed. And if a member did something wrong, Dowell would blast them over the radio. She says Dowell directed every minute of their lives from sunup until sundown.
Dowell assigns each family a job on the land, like caring for the cows or gardening, and attendance in the dining hall every meal is required. Esther says Dowell also controlled what and how much they ate. If Dowell thought someone was fat, he’d call them a “glutton” and require them to lose weight or face his constant rebukes. Ruth says those who earned Dowell’s favor, including her own family for a period of time, got more money and more food. When Ruth found out she was pregnant, her family moved into a nicer trailer home. But those select families were also hated by the rest of the members who were getting less. And everyone was afraid to ask Dowell for money or things that they needed because they didn’t want to be seen as a strain on the ministry.
School was a joke, both Esther and Burkhow say, a show to keep authorities from investigating. The children are all homeschooled, and when Esther left at 15 years old, she tested at a fourth-grade level. Burkhow, now 31, has just begun to study for his GED, at the same time when his partner is studying for his PhD. He put it off for so long because he was embarrassed.
Straitway followers have no access to proper healthcare, because they believe Yah will heal. As a small child, Esther tripped while holding a PVC pipe. The pipe pierced the roof of her mouth when she fell on it. She remembers choking on blood and Dowell instructing her to lie flat on a table for a week while her mother prayed over her. Burkhow says Dowell told the people the creek water was safe to drink, so he did, and then was extremely sick—he lost 10 pounds from vomiting and diarrhea, and the effects lingered for several weeks. His brother dropped a cinderblock on his foot and suffered for months. Ruth says she had a miscarriage from an ectopic pregnancy and nearly died because she wasn’t allowed to go to a hospital—nor did she want to go, because at the time she believed it was God’s will. She was bedridden for several months with bleeding and pain. Phoebe remembers a woman having a miscarriage in the outhouse at five months pregnant; she did not even receive midwife care. Her treatment was that Dowell allowed her to order a pizza (but no pepperoni; the Old Testament instructs not to eat pork).
Esther describes a different life for men on the land, and those, “chosen by Yah” (or, in this case, Dowell). The majority of members live in trailers and mobile homes without running water, central air or electricity, and share a bathhouse with several stalls of toilets, but Dowell and a select few live in actual houses with their own bathrooms and other relative luxuries. Esther remembers having a bucket in her mobile home that served as their toilet.
Dowell preaches against marriage licenses and arranges all the marriages among Straitway followers. Howard says that instead of marriage licenses, Dowell draws up his own agreements and inserts himself as the bride’s father, because he is the man of Yah, so he can collect the bride price from the groom. Ruth says when she was married early in her time at Straitway, Dowell did not collect money on her behalf, but a few years before she left, he started talking openly about how much women were worth as brides.
Often, the bride doesn’t have a biological father in the community, because the nature of the group leads to many members’ breaking all ties to their natural family. In the Gbaja-Biamilas’ case, Kabeer was the one who actually filed for divorce from his first wife, Eileen, and Kabeer says that he had to ask for Dowell’s approval to marry Bri Rainey, who was part of Straitway’s Kansas City chapter. Dowell shot down several other women Kabeer was interested in before he approved Bri. None of Bri’s natural family members are involved with Straitway so Kabeer also had to seek approval from the Kansas City community leader, who also played the father role for Bri. Kabeer says that he did not have to pay a bride price to marry his new “woman” (the term Straitway uses rather than “wife”), because the bride prices are for only virgin brides.
Along with financial constraints for those who live on the land, Burkhow and Phoebe say it’s difficult to leave Straitway because Dowell threatens people that their salvation is dependent on staying. Once you leave here, your next stop is the lake of fire, Phoebe remembers Dowell repeating.
“To the outside world they would be like, anyone is free to leave at any time! Woo!” Burkhow says. “But to the inside, it was, Yeah, you’re free to leave but if you leave you are going to hell and there is no hope for you. ... So with that hanging over your head it is a hard decision.”
After Phoebe and her husband stopped attending services, Dowell made a video titled “Judgement & Truth,” in which he rants about them, saying he had to cut off a brother because he submitted to his wife’s “Jezebel spirit.” He didn’t call them by name, but he didn’t have to. When Phoebe posted her testimony on The Net Team, a site dedicated to warning people about Stair’s ministry, she was inundated with comments from Dowell’s followers.
Burkhow developed a severe panic disorder after his family was kicked out. It took years to find the right combination of medication. Ruth is still trying to get a birth certificate for her youngest daughter, who was born on the land and has no documentation to prove that she is her mother’s daughter. She uses yoga and breathing techniques to mitigate her constant panic attacks, but she can’t shake the guilt of what happened to her daughters, and the guilt that her son is still there. She wants no part of organized religion ever again. Esther has a job, a car and a house, and she’s currently studying for the final portion of the GED. She’s proud of how far she’s come. It’s been five months since her last panic attack.
* * *
The misogyny at Straitway can be traced back to Dowell’s mentor, evangelist Ralph Stair. “Brother Stair” built a following by broadcasting his sermons over shortwave radio from South Carolina. He established the Overcomer Ministry, a Pentecostal Christian group based in Walterboro, S.C. He broadcast his sermons from the Overcomer farm, an idealistic self-sustaining Christian community, modeled off the early church described in the book of Acts, where the early Christians, “shared everything they had” and “sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need.” He gained new followers with his prophecy that the new millennium would signal the return of Jesus. He predicted that a 1998 gathering of 1,000 Saints (how he referred to his followers) would kick off the great tribulation, the three and a half years of persecution before the rapture.
Jesus did not return in 2000, but Stair’s Overcomer community is still active, and the website links to a brochure that explains the Acts-style life on the farm. It clearly spells out that anyone who wants to live among the group of 70-something “Saints” on the farm must give all their worldly goods and money to the Lord. “We have all come together in preparing for the soon coming of Jesus,” the brochure reads. “We do not go anywhere as we need not do so.”
Dowell was preaching from his dad’s living room when he connected with Stair after listening to his shortwave radio broadcasts. He became a pastor in the Overcomer Ministry, and Stair placed him at the head of a new community in Tennessee—Dowell’s Patreon has shared photos of the land’s first structures being built in 1998. Dowell reported to Stair and, according to Dowell’s deposition from a lawsuit against Stair, sent donations from his Straitway congregation to the Overcomer Ministry. Macon County property records of Straitway’s compound still include a note, “affiliated with Faith Cathedral Fellowship of Waterboro, SC,” the incorporated name of Stair’s ministry.
Burkhow likens Straitway to “a franchise” of Overcomer. The radio broadcasts are how his family got hooked on Stair’s bold prophecies in 1996, all the way from Minneapolis. In 1999, when Michael was 10, his mom took him and his two older brothers to start fellowshipping at Straitway. His father stayed behind in Minnesota, and about six weeks later Stair forced them to move back when he found out—a woman must stay with her husband. Their absence was brief, as Burkhow’s mother persuaded her husband to move to Tennessee with them, even if he wasn’t joining the ministry. Michael’s oldest brother was allowed to live on the land because he was an adult, but the rest of the Burkhows stayed in a trailer just outside the community, sleeping there but spending all day at Straitway.
Burkhow remembers Stair coming to visit Lafayette two or three times, and it was a big deal. He says the Straitway community also made a few trips down to the Overcomer farm in South Carolina. He remembers that when Stair wasn’t there physically, his high-pitched screech blasted from the speakers on the Straitway property.
“[Dowell and Stair] were connected at the hip,” Burkhow says. “They played the Overcomer radio broadcast on a live speaker outside at Straitway all day long. All day long.”
KGB says that Dowell was forthcoming about his relationship to Stair, and says that one reason Dowell is so often linked to the disgraced evangelist is because he was most vocal about severing ties with Overcomer. A 2006 article on Straitway’s website reads that Stair is a “false prophet” and a “liar and deceiver.” Both Gbaja-Biamila and another ex-NFL player in Straitway interviewed by Sports Illustrated say they are comfortable with Dowell’s history.
Burkhow, Howard and Phoebe, however, say that Dowell often downplayed his connection to Stair. This is why: In 2002, Stair was arrested on two criminal counts for sexual misconduct. The original warrants alleged that he coerced two women, ages 18 and 20, by “enforcing his religious/personal beliefs” on them. Stair served 77 days in jail, and the charges, originally Class C felonies for second-degree criminal sexual conduct, were eventually reduced to two misdemeanor counts of assault and battery. He pleaded guilty to fondling the two women. In December 2017, Stair was arrested on charges of criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping, burglary and assault, including one count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor.
“Stair hates women,” Burkhow says. “He thinks women are subhuman, basically.” Ruth, who also wound up at Straitway after getting hooked on Stair’s broadcasts, says Stair taught that women were inferior—it was always a big part of the ministry’s beliefs.
According to the Post and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), affidavits detailed allegations of sexual assault against Stair dating back to 1992, and incident reports listed 13 individuals who have spoken to authorities in the sheriff’s office investigation. The newspaper also reported that the self-proclaimed “Last Day Prophet of God” told several of the women the alleged assault was “God’s will.” Stair was released on bail and is currently under house arrest while awaiting trial. He is still broadcasting his sermons from his studio on the farm 24 hours a day.
In the early 2000s, Stair called a meeting with the congregation where he confessed to the sin of adultery, saying the sexual conduct with the women had been consensual. He then called a meeting with all the leaders of the communities, including Dowell, where he confessed to adultery again. After that meeting, Dowell decided to break ties with him, Stair said in a deposition for a civil lawsuit filed by former Overcomers claiming their donations to the ministry were used to pay for Stair’s legal defense (the jury ruled for the plaintiffs but it was overturned on appeal).
Howard and Phoebe both say Dowell avoided the topic of Stair when asked directly. Phoebe says when her husband asked Dowell about his relationship with Stair, Dowell said it was none of his business, that he left that ministry and he wasn’t involved with Stair. (Through Phoebe, her husband declined an interview request.)
Phoebe is one of those who stopped attending Straitway’s services once she read more about Dowell’s connection to Stair.
“Dowell always says, Search me out, you won’t find nothing but a speeding ticket.” says Phoebe. “He tells you to go check him out. But then if you find the wrong thing, you are no longer part of it.”
* * *
On Christmas Day, Lindsay Rainey, her aunt, her youngest daughter and her son pulled up to a rural residence in northern Georgia. Lindsay was looking for her 19-year-old daughter, Tamara, who she hadn’t been able to reach since she left home six months earlier. She thought her daughter came here, to this isolated religious community.
When Tamara Rainey left her grandmother’s house in Locust Grove, Ga., on Sept. 7, she cut off all contact with her family. She left behind her car and her cellphone—in an act of finality, she erased every text, call and photo on it.
There were nine cars in the driveway of that house in Georgia, but no one answered when the family knocked on the door. They walked around to the back and knocked again. Not a peep. All the windows were covered, every curtain drawn. Lindsay left a note on the front door.
Hey Tammy, I love you. Call me when you get this message.
While Straitway might prefer to be cordoned off from larger society, they must add new members to maintain their existence. Howard says the group has a massive amount of turnover. “They churn and burn through people like you would not believe.” Doug Becker, a Straitway member known as Elder Becker, said in a 2017 YouTube video that of the 74 people who were part of Straitway when he joined in 2000, only two remain.
KGB says he realizes that Straitway is not for everyone. “We don’t go around sharing this with people; it’s too deep, too heavy,” he says, noting that it often results—as it did in his case—in a breakup with natural family. But when there is an opportunity to add a new member, Straitway leaders can be aggressive. On at least two occasions, that meant recruiting girls from the time they were in their early teens, over the objection of the girls’ families.
Straitway is aware of its reach through YouTube. The site’s algorithm often pushes users toward more extreme videos (as has been reported, it is to improve YouTube’s engagement metrics and make them more appealing to advertisers). As a group with extremist beliefs, that plays into Straitway’s hands. The PastorDowell YouTube account has 147,000 subscribers and more than 5,000 videos.
But Straitway also knows how to actively manipulate the system. Its tech team posted a video titled, “Raise the TRUTH... Push Down the LIES” that instructs followers on how to inundate the platform with positive reviews disguised as attacks on Dowell. Video titles like “Exposing pastor Dowell and the straitway cult” and “Pastor Dowell Straitway Cult Leader” are actually testimonials in praise of Dowell. Along with getting their message in front of those who might be skeptical, this strategy also makes videos that are critical harder to find.
That is how Straitway recruited Tammy Rainey (no relation to Bri Rainey, the woman Gbaja-Biamila is now married to). When Tammy was 14, her family moved into a new house in a new school district. Rather than switch into the new district, she decided to try online high school. Tammy is smart. She was a good student and had been involved in school activities like cheerleading and DECA. But she struggled with the online curriculum and started to spend more and more time in her room with her iPad, to the point that her mom, Lindsay, had to tell her to come out. Lindsay thought it was probably just a teenage phase, until her daughter started wearing long skirts and covering her head in wraps and scarves.
Tammy showed Lindsay a video of Pastor Dowell, one in which he cursed in the pulpit. Lindsay was disgusted by the way Dowell talked, and she knew she didn’t want her daughter mixing with this group. Lindsay was raised a Seventh-day Adventist, and she had just been getting back into regularly attending services again with her four kids. Of the four, Tammy was the most passionate about her faith, always wanting to dig deeper. “There has to be more,” she’d say. She found Straitway, stopped identifying herself as a Christian and started to run out of church when communion was served.
Her younger sister remembers Tammy was constantly on the phone with women at Straitway’s Georgia chapter. Sometimes it was a woman she called Mother Jennifer or an older woman, Sister Maureen, who sent her hundreds of videos on Marco Polo, a social messaging app. Soon, talking to members at the Georgia location and keeping up with their videos took up the majority of Tammy’s day. She began pulling away from her family and friends and rarely leaving her room. Tammy told her family she wanted to go to “the land” but the group had been careful to tell her she had to wait until she was 18 years old. (A woman who answered a phone number listed under the name of Rufus Carswell, also known as Straitway Georgia’s leader and Mother Jennifer’s husband, Elder Rufus, declined to identify herself. When told Sports Illustrated was seeking comment on the ministry’s recruitment of Tammy and one other woman who was underage when first contacting Straitway, she declined to comment and hung up.)
Lindsay sought help from family and church members, but no one knew what to suggest. She tried being supportive, hoping she could draw her daughter closer back to her while praying it would blow over soon. But Tammy started acting out at home, so much that Lindsay thought it would be better for her to live with her grandmother.
In September, Lindsay reported her daughter as a missing person to the Henry County Police Department. Even though Tammy left without providing an address or a phone number, she was 18 years old at that point, and her grandmother told Henry County police that Tammy told her before she left that she was joining a religious group. She got into a car with a person the grandmother didn’t know, and with that she was gone. The Henry County Police Department passed the information along to the Atlanta branch of the FBI. (The Atlanta FBI declined to comment.)
“There was a grown white woman who was missing in Alabama, and I saw the headline in Georgia,” says Lindsay. (The Raineys are Black.) “That’s how serious I wanted them to take Tammy.”
Lindsay had the phone number for Mother Jennifer and Elder Rufus. She’d had to call her once before, to ask Jennifer to tell Tammy to eat when she’d been fasting for 30 days, eating only once a week. Now, Lindsay was calling Jennifer and Rufus’s number, over and over. No one answered. She sent the phone number to her extended family in Florida and in Washington, asking them to call to see if they could find out whether Tammy was there. Finally Rufus answered, and Lindsay says he immediately turned it on her, Oh you put your child out, and now you are worried about her? She says he never disclosed whether Tammy was there.
Lindsay called the Chattooga County sheriff to request a wellness check on her daughter. Straitway does not publicize the address of its chapters, but Lindsay knew the location because Jennifer sent the address to Tammy so that she could attend a service there. On Sept. 11, the 9-1-1 center dispatched a sheriff to the rural address in Lyerly, Ga. According to the incident report, the residents wouldn’t let the officer on the property without a warrant.
The next day, Lindsay missed a call from a private number. It was Tammy. She left a voicemail saying that she was a grown woman and didn’t need to tell her mother where she was. “It’s almost as if someone was telling her what to say, as if she was reading something off of a piece of paper,” Lindsay says. “Her voice was very shaky. She sounded scared.”
After she listened to the voicemail, Lindsay cried hard. She called some friends and could barely speak through her full-body sobs. “My sister had just lost her daughter in a car accident in February of last year, and I felt like I had just lost mine,” she says. “I just went into grief mode.”
* * *
The day after her unsuccessful Christmas visit, Lindsay called to request another welfare check. According to that incident report, the subjects at the residence told the sheriff that Tammy had been there at one point, but had left with friends two weeks earlier. Before leaving, the sheriff told the residents to have Tammy call the Henry County Sheriff’s office, if they could make contact with her.
Frustrated by the lack of information, Lindsay asked the sheriff’s office: Had there been any other parents calling about this same group? The sheriff gave her a phone number for a white couple from upstate New York, Kim and Dale West.
Lindsay says the Wests described a nearly identical situation they had gone through with their daughter, Jordan, in 2016. The Wests declined to comment for this story; the following details were gathered from social media posts and YouTube videos, interviews with Jordan West’s high school friends and a family friend, or relayed by Lindsay Rainey from her conversations with the Wests.
Jordan first encountered Straitway’s videos as a 13-year-old when a friend’s grandmother showed her a video of Dowell. At the time the family was living in Germany, where Dale was stationed in the Air Force. When they moved back to the States shortly after, Jordan started wearing head coverings and she refused to go to church with her family. Then her parents found her mailing silver coins from her collection to Dowell. The Wests looked into Dowell’s teachings and were concerned by the theology and the number of guns that appear in Dowell’s videos.
When Jordan was around age 15 or 16 and the family was living in Prattville, Alabama, her parents took away her computer and phone, blocked Straitway’s website and even asked her school to restrict her internet access. They called Straitway Tennessee’s main number and left a message for Dowell (though he is never the one answering the phone): Stop all contact with our daughter. Instead, according to a high school friend of Jordan’s, a member of Straitway set up a secret meeting with Jordan. They met at a local bowling alley; at the time Jordan was a high school sophomore and the man meeting with her, Victor Rice II, was, according to a public records search, in his late 20s. The friend also remembers being at Jordan’s house when Jordan’s parents weren’t home. Jordan would use her family’s home phone to call Straitway and then erase the number after she was done.
Another high school friend says Jordan told her how she had to sneak to watch Dowell’s videos. “She definitely worshipped this guy,” the friend says. “The way she spoke of him was very odd. It was almost like it was a secret that I wasn’t fully worthy to obtain but if I truly wanted to ‘be religious’ I could work my way into the graces of this guy.”
Jordan’s parents didn’t find out she was still connected to Straitway until they moved to upstate New York as a family, after she and her twin brother had graduated high school. The family friend says that before Jordan left, the West parents found a phone and a tablet that they didn’t recognize, which Jordan had been using to continue following Straitway. When Jordan left their home on Feb. 3, 2016, six months after she turned 18, she told her parents she was going to Straitway, but they didn’t know exactly where. They tried everything they could to stop Jordan from going. In a YouTube video, Jordan said that they even had an FBI agent speak with her to try to convince her not to leave. Jordan told them she’d call them when she landed in Atlanta. She never called. She sent one text saying she had arrived and then never responded again.
One week after Jordan left home, the Wests reported Jordan as a missing person to the Monroe County Sheriff. According to the incident report, Deputy Brendan Hurley informed the Wests their daughter was not a missing person because she left of her own volition, but he did call the Southwest Airlines counter at the Greater Rochester Airport to help the family figure out that Jordan flew to Birmingham, not Atlanta. That flight change turned out to be a misdirection. The Wests eventually found out she was at Straitway Georgia’s location. They called the Chattooga County sheriff’s office in March 2016 for a welfare check on their daughter. It was a Saturday, the sabbath day, and no one at the residence responded to the sheriff’s call.
According to the incident report, 10 days later, the Wests got a letter in the mail from Jordan, a cease and desist to stop contacting her and pursuing her location.
The Wests requested another welfare check, this time with the Macon County, Tennessee sheriff’s office in June after they saw on YouTube that Jordan had been baptized at Straitway’s main compound. This time, the sheriff did make contact with Jordan. She walked down to the front gate of the property and spoke to the officer, with Dowell standing nearby and asking questions like, “Jordan, are you under duress?”
The West and Rainey families are caught in the same territory—their daughters were clearly solicited and groomed as minors, but because they didn’t leave until they were adults, there’s nothing more that law enforcement can do.
“It is one thing if you are in your 30s and you said, you know what I am going to go over here,” Lindsay says. “But it is another thing if you were brainwashed from 16 years old.”
Dowell has posted multiple videos about his interactions with Jordan’s “evil” parents. Shortly after she left for Straitway Georgia, Jordan even made her own video titled, “Jordan West is NOT missing.” Her parents use the comment section to leave notes for their daughter even though the video was posted four years ago. Last year, Dale commented to wish Jordan a happy 21st birthday. Trolling comments from the PastorDowell account are common on Straitway videos. He replied to a comment on Jordan’s video from a West family friend that defended Kim West as a good mother. “She is so amazing that her daughter made a video telling all of the hell she has been through just because she wanted to live for the Real YHWH of Israel! You are nothing more than a deceived collaborator and pacifier! Jezebels folks together! ” Further down in the comments, PastorDowell replied to another YouTube user who writes that he is a false prophet. “So is your pagan momma and your sorry ass so-call dad! I bet both are homosexuals! They have to be to raise someone like you!”
Dowell and the Wests met face to face once, in September 2017, when Jordan arranged a meetup in the parking lot of the Lafayette Wal-Mart so she could retrieve her birth certificate and social security card. Lafayette police were tipped off that the interaction could become violent, so several cars drove by to check on the scene. It’s the last time the Wests have seen their daughter, and they’ve never met the grandchild she had in November. A Straitway News video announced the birth. Jordan is married to Victor Rice, the man who met her at the bowling alley when she was a high school sophomore and he was approximately twice her age.
* * *
In a video titled, “Natural Family I am completely DONE!” Dowell calls out the Wests, the Raineys and the family of a third woman and threatens physical violence. “Don’t have them come up here and trespass on this land,” he says. “Because I promise you I will hurt them and I will hurt them bad. I already don’t give a damn about them with the way that they are. It’s up to you sisters, it’s mostly women, you need to talk to your family members and let them know their limitations.”
In early May, Tammy called her older sister to ask for her mom’s new address. She still didn’t say where she was, but this time she called from a Tennessee number. Lindsay says knowing that Tammy called was her happiest moment since the days her kids were born, until she learned the reason behind it.
When SI called on a Tuesday night in late May, it was the first time Lindsay had spoken to a reporter—she’d called the local television news stations in Atlanta to try to get Tammy in the headlines but was told they don’t report on a missing person unless the police department sends a press release. During the conversation with SI, around 10 p.m., two Gwinnett County sheriffs knocked on the door. Lindsay at first thought the worst, but it turns out they were there to serve her with civil papers, a stalking temporary protective order from Jennifer Shareese Phillips, “Mother Jennifer.”
Lindsay told them the whole story, about Pastor Dowell and Tammy’s leaving. “He lures young girls to his cult,” she said. “He tells them to wait until they are 18 before they can come but he solicits them while they are underage.” She tells them she hasn’t been able to talk to her daughter since she left in September; Tammy’s name is never mentioned in the protective order.
“So they can file this, but they can’t tell me where my daughter is,” she says.
“We don't know anything about this case because it’s in Chattooga county,” says one sheriff. “But from what you are telling me, stay on the phone with the reporter. This is weird to us.”
In a letter filed later by Lindsay Rainey in that case (the TPO petition was dismissed on July 6), she wrote that Elder Donny, another man in the Georgia community, “has excitedly mentioned on various occasions, about [Tammy] being a virgin.” Lindsay infers that’s because being a virgin means Tammy is worth more money when married off.
In that same letter, Rainey addresses the judge directly. “This isn’t a defense for the TPO,” she wrote, “this is a CRY FOR HELP!! PLEASE!!”
* * *
In April 2018, Dowell posted a Youtube video titled, “NFL Brothers Are Waking Up!”
KGB says, as a former football player, the structure and order of Straitway is one thing that drew him in. And when he joined, Dowell saw a new avenue for recruitment opening up. He says he prayed for NFL players to find their way to Straitway. “These people are lost, and they need help.”
In the YouTube video, Dowell name-dropped his now several ex-NFL supporters, and he admitted their value to him. “They will be good national spokespeople,” he says, “to get people to the truth.”
Chapter III, “The Followers, the Courtroom Drama and the Next Chapter”: a look at the other former NFL players who have joined Straitway, as well as KGB’s bizarre interactions with the court system, his new marriage and what’s next.
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