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In A Jam For Jesus


Two Melbourne members of a tiny religious group face abduction charges in Kenya. Neil McMahon reports.

HE IS not your average preacher. David McKay is married to Cherry, his high school sweetheart, extols the virtues of regular masturbation, encourages people to give away their spare kidney and expects his followers to share or give away all their worldly goods.

The leader of the Sydney-based Jesus Christians wants to spread this gospel around the world, a mission that led Australian couple Roland and Susan Gianstefani and 10-year-old son Danny to Kenya. They are now trapped there, accused of kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy businessman and fearful they may face years in prison.

It is the latest twist in the tale of a religious group based on an unlikely central premise - "voluntary poverty" as practised by Jesus Christ - that manages to attract publicity and controversy in inverse proportion to its size.

The Jesus Christians, started by McKay in Victoria in the early 1980s, claim just 27 members across the globe, but have garnered significant attention from campaigners who consider them a dangerous cult. To Susan Gianstefani, that is "just a word to generate fear" - a lot of fear, if the Gianstefanis' experiences are any guide.

Originally from Melbourne, they were first hit by a media storm five years ago in Britain, where they were charged with contempt of court for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of a 16-year-old boy, Bobby Kelly. It is a public controversy with echoes in the drama now unfolding in Kenya, where they have been charged with abducting 27-year-old Betty Njoroge. The case presents problems for Kenyan authorities: as with Kelly in 2000, Njoroge says she was with the couple of her own free will.

And far from their being villains, Njoroge claims the Gianstefanis are victims of a plot by her wealthy father to stop her joining the Jesus Christians. Her father, Fred Njoroge, is extremely wealthy, particularly by Kenyan standards, she says. The Gianstefanis say he was unafraid to wield his considerable influence when his daughter, having met Susan on a Nairobi street handing out Jesus Christians literature, announced her plan to spend time with the group, along with her seven-year-old son, Joshua. It was early June, and she had taken the couple to meet her parents. "They were very hostile," Njoroge recalls, particularly over her intention to take her son. "But if I was going to do this, he was going to have to live with me and be a part of it, so I had to see if he could adjust to it."

Njoroge went ahead, joining the Jesus Christians for what she intended to be a week or two of learning about the group. But on June 17, her father took action. As Roland Gianstefani proselytised on the streets of the capital, four police officers pulled up in a black Mercedes and took him into custody.

He was held without charge, sometimes in what he calls "very poor" and unsanitary conditions, for 10 days, despite Njoroge calling police and her family to assure them she had not been kidnapped.

After inquiries by the Australian high commission, he was charged with abduction on June 27, but not granted bail. In the meantime, police had issued a warrant for his wife's arrest. Njoroge, fearful she too would be rounded up, went into hiding from her family.

"I refused to tell them where I was," she said this week. "They were very hostile and I felt very threatened by that. I thought they might get me thrown in jail and I also didn't want Roland and Susan harassed."

Roland Gianstefani was released on bail on July 11, after 25 days in custody; his wife has since been charged, and they will both appear in court on September 2. Despite Njoroge's denial that she is a kidnap victim, the Gianstefanis fear her father has the influence to render the paucity of evidence irrelevant.

"It's very scary that this guy has so much power," Susan Gianstefani says. The couple believe police have been bribed, and that judges may be, too. They are also critical of the high commission, which they say should investigate their corruption claims. The Department of Foreign Affairs says substantial assistance has been provided, and adds: "Consular support does not extend to investigating allegations of corruption."

The couple could be convicted and jailed. Or, they have been told, the trial could be repeatedly adjourned over several years, leaving them trapped in Kenya because their passports have been taken. "We are the property of the court," Susan Gianstefani says.

Just as the current drama resembles the problems with Bobby Kelly in Britain, Susan Gianstefani says Betty Njoroge's experience brings back memories of her own family's reaction when she joined the Jesus Christians after leaving school in Melbourne 18 years ago. She was raised in a Christian family in Clayton, and wanted to become a missionary. She learned of, and was persuaded by, the group's mission to live like Jesus Christ, surrendering material possessions and helping others. "My family didn't want me to do this, similar to Betty's family. They tried to stop me, they even went to the press."

It is a relationship that has not improved in the years since, buckling further three years ago when she followed the lead of David McKay and donated a kidney to an American man she did not know. Several members of the sect claim to have done it, prompting moves in Victoria to stop the practice amid claims McKay was urging members to make a "living sacrifice" to God.

But Susan Gianstefani, who has also donated 23 eggs to a childless couple, says her life is not about the Jesus Christians; it is about the principles it asks her to live by. "It's not like the Jesus Christians are the kingdom of Heaven. My commitment isn't to the group, my commitment is to the principles Jesus was teaching."

Betty Njoroge, still in hiding with Joshua, concurs. "I haven't had a chance to live with them, I am in hiding, but in my heart I am a member of the Jesus Christians. I hope it ends well and the charges are dropped and I can reconcile with my family."

In Sydney's Waterloo, David McKay contemplates all this with the equanimity of a man well used to controversy. A New Yorker, he came to Australia in 1968 and founded the group after a brief attachment to the Children of God, also known as The Family, in the 1970s. He abandoned that sect because of its philosophy of "free love" and treatment of children. McKay says he took the good and left the bad to start his own group, and still bridles when he hears the word cult.

"It's worse than axe murderer, worse than pedophile. You totally destroy a person's reputation," he says. And besides, he says with a wry chuckle, with just 27 members the Jesus Christians wouldn't have the wherewithal to abduct or brainwash anyone, even if they wanted to.

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