A COLLECTION of weapons lay scattered across a table manned by burly security guards – and a fleet of flashy cars including a black Rolls Royce and a white Mercedes are parked up outside.
But this isn’t the set of a gangster film – these are the scenes outside London church SPAC Nation – the controversial Christian church which is being investigated by police following a Panorama expose last night, Conned By My Church.
I visited the church last summer after a BBC3 documentary aired claiming the church was helping kids escape gangs by encouraging them into business.
The piece never ran – mainly because we caught wind of the Panorama investigation and something didn’t sit right. And watching the reports last night, I’m very glad it didn’t.
Because while the pastors there depict themselves as selfless Christians working to better the lives of their congregation, behind closed doors, the church is accused of financially exploiting teens and young people.
Dozens of impressionable and innocent youths are now claiming preachers have taken out loans, claimed Universal Credit, and set up businesses in their followers’ names – leaving them thousands of pounds in debt.
No one knows where the money goes
In last night’s documentary, former members admitted they felt under intense pressure to hand over money to the church – some taking out bank accounts and withdrawing funds from overdrafts to please their leaders.
Videos circulating on Snapchat showed leaders asking members for donations of £1,000 a week – and one member claims he was asked for £20,000 to launch a housing business.
“When I said no, the pastor got angry and asked why I didn’t trust a man of God,” he says.
“I said I didn’t have it, and they asked me to take out a loan.”
Another member, Lovis, was taken into a SPAC trap house when she was recovering from kidney cancer last year.
In March, she found out the church had taken out a four-year loan in her name. When she confronted them, they told her it was simply the work of God.
Panorama chased the money, and saw that it was transferred to another pastor in the church – they then found out the church had opened a business in her name, and taken out another loan from there. This was again transferred to another pastor, and never seen again.
Curtis, another former member, said the pastors would ridicule anyone who offered the church less than £3,000 – a sum they saw as minimal.
“At meetings, the passed rounds bags and bags of money,” he says. “From there, I don’t know where it goes. But it goes. Quickly.”
Another young member, Gracy, reveals that the church committed benefit fraud, using her name to claim Universal Credit and making up that she was a mum-of-two – therefore entitling her to a lump payment of £1,200.
The church took £900 of it – and then the authorities fined her for committing benefit fraud.
“You just don”t expect it from a father figure, from the church,” she says.
Shockingly, a Huffington Post investigation claims young members are even taken to donate blood for medical trials, the fee then given straight to the church, which was set up five years ago and has thousands of members.
While the church denies all allegations, the vulnerable teens speaking on last night’s show paint a very different picture of SPAC – which stands for Salvation Proclaimers Anointed Church – to the one I saw when I spent a Sunday there.
‘Without us many would be in prison or dead’
When I first arrived at the swanky venue just off Brick Lane in East London, the atmosphere was one of celebration, and it was evident from the outset Pastor Tobi, known to most as ‘PT,’ was the star of the show.
He headed up the church along with five senior pastors, known as ‘the generals’, who preach ‘prosperity gospel’ – a belief that god rewards his followers with material wealth – and the more they donate, the more they will be rewarded.
Each pastor runs one of five churches across the capital.
PT’s Rolls Royce was parked up outside the entrance on double yellow lines, the windscreen slapped with a parking ticket, and he was dressed in matching designer Fendi Polo shirt and trainers, sporting a £15,000 watch.
It’s not clear how he affords any of it – but he claims he takes no money from the church.
Granted precious time to chat to Tobi before he took to the stage, he looks pleased when I notice, and comment on, his designer clobber.
The wealth on display, while impressive, could also be cause for concern, given the vulnerability of many youngsters looking for a better way of life.
Considering young followers have since claimed to have been left in thousands of pounds of debt, the sheer flashiness of the ministers and pastors could raise unanswered questions about the church’s inner workings.
Panorama also revealed a video of Tobi, claiming he believed it was “no big deal” for members to give at least £1,000 a month to the church – and that he needed to make £1million monthly.
‘We had to attract them’
Talking about the need to wear designer gear, Tobi explained at the time: “We realised young people need help. That help may be getting into college, or getting out of a gang.
“I realised that to connect with the generation you have to look like them.
“What are they looking for? Why are they attracted to drill rap? They want the shoes, and the clothes.
“We thought we’re going to do the same thing, and wear what they wear, then we’ll pass on the right message.
“I can easily pull up in a nice car among secondary school kids who may be about to start selling drugs. They ask what I do and I get them engaged.
“Once I get their attention I can pass on the right message, and tell them they’ll make money by changing their lives. We had to attract them.”
One thing’s clear from the outset: charismatic millionaire Tobi – who is a pastor’s son and trained lawyer – isn’t your typical minister.
Explaining their ethos, and the reason behind his ‘bling’ appearance, Tobi explains: “SPAC is a very different kind of church. It’s not your typical church.
“We tell them there’s something better, whether that’s a start-up business, or education – if they weren’t part of our church many would be in prison, or dead.”
When the service starts I take a seat near the front, and it’s clear how passionate the church’s followers are – women are quite literally falling to the floor during the service.
And I have to admit, despite wanting to believe the church is doing good, it’s starting to feel a little cult-like.
Because of the likelihood of weapons being brought into the church, the 32-strong security team – who are also dressed smartly in designer clothing – are always on high alert, and at least one bouncer is surveying the crowds and in my eye line for most of the service.
Tobi explains: “We have very strong security measures in place. My first duty is to make everyone feel safe. The security we have, they are also from that background, so they know to sit certain people in separate areas.
“We’ve had arguments and near clashes but no one’s been beaten up because of our security.
“We have briefings every week. The head of our security has served in the military and one is an ex-policeman. We don’t do searches but we’re always keeping an eye out.
“People do bring weapons, but most do it to submit it to the church.”
Guns, samurai swords and blades
As they do every week, at this particular service Pastor Tobi asks anyone up to the front who’d like to hand in a weapon, and I’m amazed to see over 60 young people, many visibly emotional or crying, make their way to the front, where they are given the opportunity to speak to a minister.
On this occasion Pastor Tobi is handed a six inch knife by a boy aged approximately 16, which he brandishes at the front, showing the congregation.
It’s a common occurrence. After the sermon as everyone piles out the hall, I’m told Pastor Tobi would like to see me, and am ushered into a side room where he sits with a table full of weapons and drugs.
Proudly showing the camera this week’s haul after the service, Tobi gestures to the knife handed in and explains: “He was probably dealing drugs and needed to protect himself. We can get two or three handed in on a normal Sunday.
“We’ve had guns once in a while. We’ve had a guy hand in four guns. He is still one of the leaders in church now. He said he wouldn’t go to the corner shop without a gun because he was so afraid people wanted to get him.”
Pointing to what looks like a packet of children’s sweets with SpongeBob Squarepants on the front, Tobi says: “This is one of the most dangerous drugs right now – spice, and has probably been handed in by someone who deals it, rather than takes it.
“This is the collection handed in this week. Most of these look like they’ve been taken from the kitchen, taken by young people who want to be able to protect themselves. Sometimes we’ve had rambos and samurai swords – professional knives, bought on the internet.”
‘At 15 I’d buried my friend because of knife crime’
Fellow pastor Nathan, 28, who joined SPAC in 2015 – knows firsthand what it’s like to grow up in poverty and influenced by gang culture.
As I chat to him in an interview set up by one of the church members, it’s easy to see why young people wanting to escape a life of crime can be attracted to the church – Nathan is a classic example of one of their ‘success stories’, as he says with their help he’s now a finance broker, with a five-bed house, an Audi sports car and a £40,000 watch.
He says: “I grew up in South East London and by the age of 15 I’d already buried one of my friends because of knife crime.
“I’d got involved in that life aged 13 in secondary school. It wasn’t hard. I grew up in abject poverty, my dad wasn’t around and I was with my mum. Seeing the bailiff come into the house was just the norm. We moved seven different places in four years. I felt a responsibility to do something about it and I looked at the options.
“I needed to make money to supply simple things like getting to school and my bus pass, or food.”
Seeing gang members and their flash lifestyle, Nathan felt his only option was to join them.
He says: “I was approached by one of them and I took whatever they offered because I knew that life was better than the one I had now. They were the ones that were going to teach me how to make money. I went along with it and started selling drugs aged 13.”
‘I couldn’t go anywhere without a knife’
Soon, he needed protection. Nathan says: ‘I carried a weapon all the time. I couldn’t go anywhere without a knife. It felt like I wasn’t wearing clothes without it – I couldn’t go to the corner shop four doors down from my house without a knife. I carried one for five or six years.”
Nathan is also part of the church rap group, The Hope Dealers, who perform on stage during services, with some members concealing their identity by wearing balaclavas and Gucci sunglasses.
The music they perform, drill rap, is usually known for its violence inciting lyrics- however this group focuses on spreading non-violent messages, and when they perform the crowd go wild.
As the day wraps up, it’s not hard to see why young people are attracted to the church – on the surface it offers a way out of a life of crime and violence, but whether the church is aware or not, given their vulnerability, it seems members are also easy prey for anyone out to exploit them.
And if the allegations are true, it’s incredibly sad that in a cruel twist, young, impressionable teens looking for a way to do the right thing and avoid getting into trouble have instead just become victims of crime themselves.
When approached by Panorama, SPAC Nation denied that the church’s lead pastor Tobi Adegboyega was financially exploiting young people.
It said the church had a “robust complaints procedure” and “a well run disciplinary system”.
SPAC Nation told the BBC that the church “is not responsible what goes on inside individual leaders’ or members’ houses”.