Pray for Kabeer, Chapter II: The Pastor, the ‘Cult’ and Its Troubled Past
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila is one of the great success stories in Green Bay Packers history. A fifth-round pick in 2000, he became one of the top pass rushers in the NFL. The man who became known as “KGB” had four consecutive seasons of 10-plus sacks, including a breakout 13.5 sacks in 2001. He set the franchise career record for sacks and was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame.
Off the field, however, the story takes a sharp turn. In a three-part series, Sports Illustrated’s Kalyn Kahler delves into the former Packers star’s theological evolution, his discovery of a new religious movement, his transformation from revered to feared and why he feels he – and his ministry – are misunderstood.
Chapter 2, “The Pastor, the ‘Cult’ and Its Troubled Past,” takes an unprecedented look at the Straitway Truth Ministry, a Hebrew Israelite group and an offshoot of controversial radio evangelist R.G. Stair’s Overcomer Ministry, through the eyes of those who lived it. Under the leadership of Pastor Charles Dowell, Straitway has adopted a hyper-masculine culture, marked by a strict adherence to the Old Testament that results in an emphasis on masculinity, misogyny and homophobia.
Gbaja-Biamila joined Straitway 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.
Those stories stand in stark contrast to the stories told to Kahler by a pair of sisters.
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. 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.
“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.”