A Church Beset by Rage, Strife

Wounded leader both loved, reviled

The San Francisco Chronicle/September 16, 1996
By Elaine Heracher

There are those who say the Rev. Lacey Hawkins made so many enemies it was no surprise when a former congregant approached him in a church parking lot last month and opened fire sending one bullet through his face and another into his neck.

A circle of people who have left his General Assembly Church say that Hawkins, who survived, has done such damage to members of his congregation that they are amazed he has stood as patriarch for 20 years without other violence against him.

"A lot of people (in the church) carried guns, and he p-a lot of people off," said one former member.

Although it has a substantial number of congregants - about 2,000 who attend services in Berkeley, Union City and Vallejo - the General Assembly Church is not well known. The Pentecostal church, which is largely but not exclusively African American, goes about its business in its own community with little interest or interference from the rest of the world. In fact, in church parlance, "going into the world" is the same as renouncing one's faith.

But even before the shooting, the insular church had its share of publicity.

In June, 24 congregants sued the city of Berkeley. The group - composed of current and former city employees - claim Berkeley systematically discriminated against them based on their religion. The lawsuit says bosses passed over several of them for promotions they deserved because the city feared they were extremists whose members were trying to infiltrate City Hall.

A month before that, Hawkins, his brother Clyde and the General Assembly were sued by a former elder who claimed he was drummed out of the church for speaking the truth after he purportedly photographed Clyde Hawkins naked in the bedroom of a congregant who was not his wife.

But loyal congregants, who place unswerving faith in Lacy Hawkins that many undergo sterilization at his urging, were bewildered that anyone would fire a gun at their beloved leader. To many members, the church has been a lifesaving shelter from chaos.

"He's the most wonderful man I've ever known, and I can't think of anything he's done wrong to anyone," church member Jacquelyne Odom said the day after the shooting.

But some of those who have left, the General Assembly and Hawkins as absolute ruler represent a force so destructive that their lives will never be the same.

Some are shunned by adult children who are told to cut off "nonbeliever" family members. Others have lost husbands or wives to the lure of the church. Still others poured thousands of dollars into the church coffers - only to find that as soon as they had an independent thought, they were booted from the congregation.

It wasn't until last month, though, that someone's rage boiled to a life-threatening extreme.

Police said former congregant Diallo Earl Uhuru shot the 60-year-old Hawkins on August 21 after services at the Union City church. Facing charges in connection with the slaying of his ex-girlfriend in San Diego that same morning. Ururu has pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and has been advised by attorneys not to speak to the press. A note in his car at the time of the shooting, which police would not fully divulge, said he had issues with Hawkins.

But former church members and an expert in cults say they think they know why someone would want to shoot Hawkins.

"Violence is just wrong. But I think what probably happened is the man who shot him was at the end of his rope," said Rick Ross, a nationally recognized expert in extremist groups, who spent four days in 1991 "deprogramming" a member of Hawkins flock. "This man has probably experienced a lot of suffering through General Assembly. (Hawkins) has caused a lot of people a great deal of grief."

The General Assembly Church of Alameda County has houses of prayer in three cities, where members spend at least three hours each Sunday in lively worship - singing, praying and testifying about receiving the Holy Spirit.

They are among a group of non-mainstream evangelicals who believe in a narrow interpretation of the King James Bible exclusively as the authenticated word of God. Laying on of the hands for healing and speaking in tongues are among the tenets of faith.

The church is part of the "Shepherding movement," which believes in a five-fold ministry composed of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers brought together to create "The Body of Christ," the only group that will achieve salvation. In sermons, Hawkins refers to the congregation as "The Body." Church members are "saints."

For the most part, they are working people with little extra cash, but ex-members say congregants are exhorted constantly for money. One former member said that over 15 years, she gave $30,000 to the General Assembly; another said she contributed $100,000 during her 15 years.

A 1988 church bulletin showed members how much they would spend of they all increased their contributions by 18 percent. An accompanying chart shows what the increase would amount to if members were already donating from $200 to $800 a month.

The Berkeley Church is a modest building used for services during the week. But the church property in Union City is assessed at $3.8 million, and the Vallejo site is worth $4.6 million.

Members frequently testify about their gratitude to the church for steering them away from violence and drugs. The congregation is well-dressed, friendly and obviously proud of its church.

Hawkins was recovering from his injuries and unavailable for comment on this report. Because of the pending litigation against the church, Clyde Hawkins, who has been second in command, was advised by his attorney not to comment or to authorize other church elders to comment.

"It is a legitimate religious organization, and they feel certain Christian restraints," said Bill Linehan, Clyde Hawkins' attorney. "They don't feel that people who are officers in the church ought to be engaged in mudslinging in the press."

Ex-members say they are speaking out because they want people to know that in late 20th century America, in an area of the country with some of the best minds, people are falling into extremist groups where they lose their selfhood.

"Lacy Hawkins' group is one of the worst groups I've dealt with and I've been around," said Ross, who has 15 years of experience, including deprogramming David Block, one of the key figures in the Branch Davidian group of Waco, Texas.

General Assembly keeps such a tight rein on members, ex-congregants say, that where they live, whom they marry, how they spend their money, and whether they have children is decided for them. And the person deciding is Lacy Hawkins.

People who have left General Assembly say Hawkins tells them to renounce family members who do not accept the church. He insists that new members live with established ones, who rarely leave the newcomers' sides. He has congregants scrubbing his home and his cars. He even tells members of his flock they would be better off being surgically sterilized and never having children.

"Most of the women of the church are sterile," said Gary Burns, an ordained minister who used to preach at General Assembly, but left after 14 years.

Carolyn Williams, a member from 1974 to 1989, said she believed Hawkins' teaching that having children was a curse and that offspring would distract members from reaching divine perfection.

"So, like most of the rest of the couples that married in the group, my husband and I opted for sterilization as a means of birth control. I underwent a tubal ligation at age 30 not ever having before been pregnant," Williams wrote in an essay for the Cult Awareness Network, describing her 15 years in the church.


[Note: WARNING! The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was recently bankrupted and bought up by Scientology. We strongly recommend you do not contact them for assistance.]

Another ex-member had reproductive system problems that did not require a hysterectomy. Her doctor tried to talk her out of such extensive surgery, but she was encouraged by church women to have it, and at age 24 she did, before having children. Like some others quoted in this report, she did not want her name used for fear of retribution.

"They really drill you, drill you, drill you, and finally you're drilled into submission," she said. When she joined the church at age 21, the woman had two jobs and was going to school.

"They talked me out of going to school," she said. "They said 'while you're taking up your time (with college), you could be reading the Bible or serving the saints or cleaning the kitchen."

Hawkins' flock operates in seclusion, defended against the outside world. In a sermon taped in June 1991, Hawkins advises his parish that they cannot expect salvation if they marry outside "The Body" meaning outside his congregation. If they leave Hawkins' church, no matter what other church they join, they become "unbelievers" ineligible for salvation when the world ends.

"Say, for instance, that you leave God and you backslide and you go out in the world…and you could say, 'I still believe in God.' Well, you might, but your classification has changed. You're now among the unbelievers," Hawkins told the congregation.

"You have to know these things. You have to know that there's a standard here. You just can't come, do anything you want to do, marry like you want to and so forth…God is working on us among ourselves as a body. He's preparing us to live and grow up with one another so that when we face the beast out here we're going to be together. IF we're still having problems among ourselves, how are we going to meet the beast?"

Earlier this year, a photograph made the rounds. It went to a network of ex-members, then began appearing in members' mailboxes. Former congregants said that Hawkins ordered his people not to open their mail or listen to stories of his brother's alleged adultery.

The photo shows a naked man with a startled look who is getting off a bed. The man has Clyde Hawkins' face, but Hawkins told police the photo was not of him and had been altered.

According to statements by a female church member in an Alameda County Sheriff's Department report, Clyde Hawkins had been making unwanted advances. She contacted church elder Johnel White, who had claimed within the church that Clyde Hawkins raped White's wife.

The police report says that under White's direction, she agreed to let Hawkins come to her Castro Valley home, where he proceeded to ask for a message and to touch her against her will. She asked him to wait in the bedroom and to call her when he was ready. When he called she entered the bedroom and found him naked, whereupon White jumped out of the closet and took the photo. Hawkins became enraged and threatened to kill White, who ran into the bathroom with the camera and locked the door. Hawkins got dressed and left, the report says.

"The photograph White had given me was definitely a photo of Clyde, and it did not appear to be altered," the officer wrote.

Hawkins was never charged with criminal misconduct, but White is now suing Lacy and Clyde Hawkins and the church. He claims he was defamed and banished from General Assembly in an attempt to protect Clyde Hawkins.

Lineban, Clyde Hawkins' lawyer, said White's accusations are "absolutely without any foundation whatsoever."

In the Berkeley lawsuit, the church members say they were regularly vilified on the job, and several say they lost promotions. Jacquelyne Odom, the lawsuit's lead plaintiff, said that from the first day of work as an associate management analyst in the Public Works department, she was grilled about her church affiliation, and she was denied a promotion that was tailor-made for her. The city denies it discriminated against the group.

Odom, who left the city for another city for another job when her contract ran out, said she doesn't know how Berkeley bureaucrats knew about the church.

"I don't discuss what church I go to or what religion I am," Odom said. "You probably wouldn't know by looking at me because I carry myself very professionally. I don't shave my head or pray in the middle of the floor."

But Berkeley city employees Oscar Santiago said he was approached by Antonio Mouton, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, who invited him to church. He said he went once, and that was the end of it.

"She brought it up here in the office. During our break, we were talking," said Santiago, a supervisor, but not Mouton's boss.

In the lawsuit, Mouton says Santiago once accused her of trying to recruit church members into city jobs. Santiago said he never made such an accusation. "I don't know where she got that idea," he said.

Like so many other churches, Catherine came to the church through her workplace. Less than a year later, she found herself kidnapped by her parents and locked in a house for four days with a cult deprogrammer, screaming, chanting and speaking in tongues before the church's hold was broken. She is now a doctoral candidate, lives in the Midwest, and says she is grateful to be out of the General Assembly church.

"If they has said to me, 'This is a gun, go out and kill the anti-Christ,' I would have had a hard time saying no," she said. "I really believe I was in a situation I couldn't get out of (on my own)."

Catherine, who did not want her real name used, was 26 when she joined. She had a degree in rhetoric from the University of California at Berkeley. She grew up in a close-knit Catholic family in a middle-class community in Contra Costa County.

Her boss at a well-known business in San Francisco had been very helpful to her, dropping by her desk every day to chat and to speak with Catherine about her religious beliefs. Finally, out of politeness, she agreed to go to the church.

"Different people come up to you and they're your best friend for life," she said. "I thought, 'what a nice group of people.' I was intrigued about the level of knowledge they had about the Bible." Entranced by the warmth of the group, she quickly moved in with a female congregant.

As time went on, she visited her family rarely, and never without bringing another church member. Her family started reading about cults and got scared. They concocted a story to get her to meet them alone, and when she arrived they took her prisoner.

They hired Ross, who argued theology with her for days while she "prayed in tonguesin a high-pitched scream."

On the third night, she cut her hand badly trying to escape out a window. After rebuffing any contact from her parents, she let her father wrap his handkerchief around her hand.

"I remember telling her that I loved her and this was a fight between Hawkins and me, and I wasn't going to let Hawkins take her away from me," her father said.

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