Photos by Conor Lamb
In case you missed it, neo-Nazis were supposed to take New York City, and much of America, by storm on the 15th of March. It was all part of a scheme hatched on the white-supremacist chat rooms of Stormfront. They called for a national “white man's March”. Unsurprisingly, the planned nationwide protest ended up being a complete dud. I know, because I spent the day scouring Manhattan looking for fascists.
They were no shows at Grand Army Plaza near Central Park, where they had planned to congregate. Nor were they on hand in Queens, where they had advertised a barbecue party that day in front of the outlet strip mall on Jamaica Avenue, which is heavily trafficked by African Americans and West Indians. The only other white person around on Jamaica Avenue that afternoon, besides myself, was a dude handing out yoga-studio flyers. Instead of hitting the streets, many of this country’s racist white folks rang in “white man's March” by lazily posting photos of themselves holding white-pride banners on the internet.
But that's not to say I didn’t find racists on the 15th of March; they just weren’t white. In Queens, I came upon a group of about a dozen individuals lined up in a row, wearing purple robes with faux-gold edging in front of the Jamaica Centre shopping complex.
If you live in a major American city, you may have encountered a variation of the scene I witnessed: men who look like they've wandered off the set of an all-African American production of Jesus Christ Superstar, soapboxing on the street corner to puzzled passersby. While the first rule of advertising is to keep it short, with these guys the message travels a long, windy route through the Book of Deuteronomy and other texts, before arriving at the takeaway: Black people are the real Jews, and white people are possessed by Satan.
When I asked the strange group of men who was in charge, I was directed toward a robed gentleman who said, “People call us the Black Israelites. But that's not right. We are the Israelites.”
Their garments read “Israelites United in Christ” in a font that looked as if it had been borrowed from a poster for Disney's Aladdin. There on the street, one fellow read from a Bible, overseen keenly by a preacher who would interrupt him periodically and interpret the text. The gist of the message from what I could gather was, "Down with the white man's science.”
The rest of the group stood behind the duo, hard and expressionless. Pedestrians passed by, clutching shopping bags, heading straight for the nearby subway entrance, sidestepping the strange scene as if avoiding someone with the flu. Others stood dumbfounded, trying to make head or tail of the rants. One bystander tried to argue with the flock and received a torrent of phlegmy scripture that left him cursing and walking off, shaking his head. There was no arguing with these men, who were incensed with the word of God.
The Israelites United in Christ are part of a religious movement that goes back to the post-Reconstruction days in the Southern United States. In 1895, William Saunders Crowdy, a former slave and a Civil War veteran, was chopping wood near Guthrie, Oklahoma, when, he claimed, God spoke to him in a voice that was like “the rushing of birds”.
God told Crowdy that he was a Hebrew and that it was his duty to restore the Kingdom of Israel. Crowdy, his hair turned white by God's whispers, set about spreading the Gospel. In 1896, he set up the Church of God and Saints in Christ in Lawrence, Kansas, along with various “tabernacles” that spread across the South, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. Crowdy's church still stands in Washington, DC, where he and his followers relocated.
Today, there are hundreds of “Israelite” congregations across the United States and the Caribbean, counting thousands of members. On its website, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks hate groups in the United States, notes that plenty of them, and this includes the Saints in Christ, “are neither explicitly racist nor anti-Semitic and do not advocate violence”.
Nonetheless, SPLC has expressed concern over the extremist wing of the religion that has grown up since Crowdy's days. Along with Nation of Islam, whose leader, Louis Farrakhan, has made disparaging remarks against Jews, the SPLC classifies this wing of the Black Israelite religion as a hate group.
“They say that God is coming back to enslave and murder all white people,” SPLC's Mark Potok told me, describing the faith as the “precise analogue” of Christian Identity, whose white adherents believe the Jews are descendants of Satan. Mark also points out that neo-Nazi leader Tom Metzger has labelled them the “black counterparts” to his white-supremacist movement. These days, the white-supremacist movement as a whole appears neutered and weak. However, lone wolves can still ignite acts of violence. We were reminded of this on the 14th of April, when former Klansman Frazier Glenn Cross went on a shooting spree outside a Jewish community centre in Kansas and killed three people. Members of the Israelites have their own share of blood on their hands. The late Miami-based Black Israelite leader Yahweh Ben Yahweh (or God, son of God) was convicted in 1990 on federal racketeering charges related to his ordering the murder of some 14 people.
“He was a truly bloody, frightening guy,” Potok remembered. “His thing was, 'Kill me white people and bring me back their ears.'”
With Yahweh's passing in 2007, Israelite extremists were left without a prominent prophet – but that doesn't mean they've vanished. As recently as 2009, a former follower of the Nation of Yahweh religion was tied to the slaying of hip-hop journalist Sam Ferguson.
Meanwhile, on street corners across America, there are still hundreds of small black-supremacist churches left around, each claiming to be the one true path to salvation, hoisting up their own mini-Yahwehs.
“They're into confronting people on the streets,” Potok said. “I'm not suggesting they're going to go out and blow up federal buildings and shoot cops… I mean, we'll see.”
The religion inhabits a kind of paradox. They are much maligned by the African American Christian establishment, though they take literally the symbolic identification of the traditional black church with the plight of the enslaved Israelites in the Bible. They have adopted traditional Jewish religious practices, yet resent people of Jewish heritage as pretenders. In their eyes, a secret masonic order is repressing them, distorting the true nature of reality. Hence, African Americans don't know they are the genuine Israelites, though all one has to do is read the Bible and look at the pyramid on the dollar bill to understand the truth.
On the sunny afternoon of the 18th of April, I paid a visit to the Israelites United in Christ in Allerton, a neighbourhood on Bronx's east side. Their neighbourhood was lined with cheap four-storey apartment complexes and the weather-bruised marquees of auto-body shops and corner stores that halfheartedly begged for attention. A sign at the entryway of their church warned that visitors would be frisked for weapons. However, my guide, who identified himself as Deacon Asaph, didn't bother to pat me down.
The Israelites had done their best to convert the subterranean room, with its exposed pipe and electrical wiring, into a place of worship. They had placed an elevated altar under the basement windows and hung a portrait of a pissed-off, red-eyed Jesus on the wall. He glowered at me as Asaph and I chatted.
“There was a lot of Israelite groups when I came into the understanding,” Asaph, donning a purple robe over his T-shirt and jeans, recounted.
Asaph discovered the Israelites in the 80s, while he was working at a shoe store near Times Square. On his lunch breaks, he would watch them preach. “I would see the men on the street just like you. I said, 'These guys are nuts. They're cursing people out. They're arguing with people.' I didn't understand it, so I ignored it for a while. But I realised these guys are saying things in the scriptures that most churches are not. When I started to speak to them and do research on my own, I said, 'These guys are telling the truth!'”
By “truth”, Asaph means that the Israelites have found a way to use the Bible to justify their beliefs. “Opinions are like assholes,” he explained. “Everybody has one, and shit comes out.” By contrast, the Bible is the word of the Lord. Why? Because it says so.
Asaph picked up a warn-out copy of the Good Book. “Here's why we don't deal with white man's science,” he said, flipping through its many highlighted passages until he found what he was looking for: Timothy 2:16. Asaph read aloud that God instructed Timothy to “'avoid profane and vain babblings and oppositions of science falsely so called”. With that, he shut the book, satisfied, adding, “We're talking about a group of people who make a pill and then tell you there's 15 other things that could come about from that pill that could kill you.”
This was a pattern that lasted the rest of the afternoon. I would ask a question and the Israelites would reach for their Bibles, read to me and offer their own extrapolations on the text.
As Asaph and I spoke, I noticed someone else looking on. His outfit was basically the same as Asaph's, only he wore medieval leather bands strapped to his wrists. I asked to be introduced. This was the leader and founder of Israelites United in Christ, Elder Nathaniel Judah Ben Israel. Slightly taller than Asaph and I, Nathaniel's towering presence was topped with the wry smile of a con man or one content in the sanctity of the Lord.
Twenty-eight years ago, a 20-year-old Nathaniel was standing on the street corner when a young man put a flyer in his hand. “It said, 'Jesus was black, and Christmas is not to be observed,” he recounted to me. “I said, 'Wait a minute, I was raised celebrating Christmas. I was raised thinking Jesus was white.'”
Nathaniel demanded proof of what the piece of paper said, and, conveniently, the young man had a Bible on hand, which he opened to Revelations 1:15: “And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.”
“It was like newfound life” said Nathaniel. “I'd been lied to all these years.”
This revelation, the elder said, led him to start his own church, which – unlike the other churches claiming to be Israelite – follows the “exact” word of God.
To support the church's activities, Nathaniel and most of his flock “work in either law enforcement or security”. I asked if he felt there was a contradiction in opposing a Satanic world order in one's free time and working for that order while on the clock.
“Not at all,” he insisted.
“Many of our forefathers in the Bible were in law enforcement,” chimed Asaph, who then read a bit about being “content with your wages” from Luke 3:14 at Nathaniel's direction.
We were all sitting in a circle at this point, and I suddenly realised I was getting my own personal Bible lesson from the founder of a black-supremacist church and his trusted assistant. This went on for over an hour, during which time I learned a lot.
For one thing, Beyoncé is a whore. Black women are taught to look up to her and other false female idols as part of a plot to destroy the true Israelite family. That's why Israelites United in Christ have a special ministry geared toward women that teaches them homemaking tips and provides cooking recipes. Men and women each have roles to play in life that are dictated by God. A woman's place is in the kitchen or in the bedroom, making babies.
This brand of sexism didn't strike me as all that special. Fucked-up, yes, and kind of silly, since it was directed at Beyoncé. Yet lots of faiths – Christian, Hindu, Islamic – have backwards beliefs. But then we began to venture into the nitty-gritty racist territory. Up until that point, I'd felt kind of sympathetic. I could get behind Nathaniel and Asaph's belief in a black Jesus, in inverting a book that had been used by whites to justify the barbarous enslavement of their ancestors through labelling them inferior heathens. Frankly, I couldn't give a shit if Jesus were green. Some scholars even doubt a historical Jesus existed, but if a black Jesus works for the Asaph, why should I knock it?
When it came to the matter of the masonic conspiracy against the church, their reasoning didn't make sense to me, but I heard them out. According to Nathaniel, through no fault of my own, mind you, I am possessed by Satan. Above me there is a group of secretive white people who are in touch with the Dark Lord and control the world economy.
As crazy as that sounds, a small group of people, most of whom are white, do own a tremendous portion of the world's wealth. On planet Earth today, just 85 people have more money than 3.5 billion of their poorer counterparts combined. The Israelites' reasons for why they are downtrodden may be nuts, but that doesn't mean they actually aren't downtrodden. According to census data, nearly 30 percent of the population in the Bronx lives below the poverty line. In Newburgh, New York, where Israelites United also have a strong presence, the poverty rate is nearly as high. Both regions are in a war for the dubious distinction of being the poorest in the country, and both are composed primarily of African Americans.
As SPLC's Mark Potok put it, "Black racism in America is largely, if not entirely, a response to white racism.”
“But at some point,” he added, “this chain of hate has got to stop.”
Some may look at the poverty that people experience in the Bronx and Newburgh and think it's time to break down racial barriers. Israelites United, however, want to keep de facto segregation in place. Only, they want black people on top.
As they closed the lesson, I was instructed that we are living in the last days. There will be peace on Earth when the black Jesus returns and the true Israelites take all the white people captive under Christ's command.
“Don't worry – we're not going to sodomise you,” Nathaniel assured me with that grin of his.
I wondered whether there is a way for a white person, such as myself, who might be under Satan's command but who wants to do right by God, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
“You should support this truth,” Nathaniel told me. “You should get us on as many venues as you can. You and your counterparts – find a way to get this truth out, [and] you are going to be in the Kingdom.”
There you have it, white people who read VICE, spread the word of the Israelites or a black Jesus might shank you where the sun don't shine.