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I Wasn't Brainwashed, But Enlightened

Fifteen hundred religious cults are currently operating in Britain, according to Catalyst, the anti-cult charity, and the majority of them are gravitating towards London, stalking our streets for the young and vulnerable.

I decide to infiltrate the capital's cult netherworld in an attempt to discover just how rife and sinister they are. My first port of call is Graham Baldwin, Catalyst's founder, whom I visit at his office in New Malden, near Wimbledon. We sit in his conference room and he tells me horrific things. He tells me of a cult leader who 'frequently dipped his hand in Dubonnet and stuck it inside women to drag out the evil spirit'. He says that one religious cult has 'completely taken over a local Tory party' and is 'taking people's money and raising false hopes with healings'. Just then Graham is called away for a telephone call. After a moment he pops his head around the door. 'There's someone on the phone who says her business partner is acting very strangely and might have joined a cult,' he says. 'You see? It never stops. You'll have to excuse me.'

Twenty minutes later Graham returns to tell me more horrific things. He tells me of a cult into which a baby was born and 'they kept the placenta and ate it'. 'That doesn't sound so bad,' I say. 'Yes,' says Graham, 'but six months later a female cult member was murdered and now the cult leader is in jail for her murder.' 'That is bad,' I say.

He tells me of the Jesus Christians, 'a very evil group that has done a lot of harm to a lot of people. You only have to look at the rantings on their website. They are arrogant and malicious. You wonder where their paranoia will lead them.' 'Mass suicide?' I offer. 'Who knows?' says Graham. 'Remember Jim Jones. He was arrogant and paranoid.' I tell Graham I'm thinking of joining the Jesus Christians for a while. He tells me to be very careful.

The Jesus Christians hit the headlines in July when they 'kidnapped' 16-year-old Bobby Kelly from a shopping precinct in Romford, Essex. There was no force involved. Two members, Roland and Susan Gianstefani, simply handed Bobby their religious cartoon book, The Liberator, outside Marks & Spencer. He read it and decided he wanted to join. The Jesus Christians live in vans and take nightly showers at Heston Services, citing Luke 14:33 when criticised for their lifestyle: 'Whoever does not give up everything that they own cannot be a Christian.'

'Cult kidnap boy aged 16' screamed the headline of the Daily Express. Luke 14:33 did not wash with them. Instead they quoted Graham Baldwin: 'Bobby was under their spell within a few hours. It will take time to sort him out.' In the aftermath of the Express article, the Jesus Christians became fugitives. They went on the run, albeit an undramatic run. They went to Hounslow because of its free parking and proximity to Heston. 'It was,' concedes Susan Gianstefani when I telephone her, 'a low-key run.' Bobby's membership of the Jesus Christians swelled their ranks noticeably.

Before Bobby joined, there was a total of 17 Jesus Christians around the world, with four in Britain. Now there were five. But the pressure got too much. Every newspaper in the country was reporting the story as variations on the theme of a 'kidnap' by an 'evil cult'. Roland and Susan handed themselves in, while two other Jesus Christians took Bobby to a campsite on the Surrey-Hampshire border where the police eventually arrested them. 'They'd been having the time of their lives,' Susan tells me, although the person in the next tent has said: 'They weren't like normal lads, they weren't drinking or having a laugh. They'd just sit hunched over their Primus stove, being quiet and serious.' Since then, Bobby has vanished into the world of social workers and court-appointed psychiatrists. An injunction has been issued and the Jesus Christians are not allowed to contact him. He has given no interviews. 'I miss him so terribly,' says Susan. 'Oh, I so wish that I could see him again.'

I hook up with Roland and Susan outside McDonald's on Hammersmith Broadway. They don't look like they sleep in a van. Roland wears a T-shirt, Susan wears a white shirt and jeans. They hand out Liberator cartoon books to passers-by. They seem innocuous enough. I turn at random to page 84, in which the group suggests that AIDS, UFO sightings, earthquakes and the persecution of the Jesus Christians by the government and the media are all signs of the impending Apocalypse. But today's proselytising is not going well. In fact, not a single person stops to take a comic. Susan says that ever since she read in the Express that she is an evil cult member who targets vulnerable young people, her distributing skills have suffered. 'You lose your confidence,' she says.

The Jesus Christians do not have a regimented lifestyle. There are no rituals, no ceremonies. They do not attend church. There is simply their van-living, nomadic, communal, poverty-based lifestyle. They keep themselves fit. They have late-night debates about theological issues. They just want Bobby back.

As my days with the group pass, there are moments of hope. A call from the courts: yes, they can meet Bobby and his social worker in a McDonald's in Enfield. Another call: no, they can't. On the Monday, the Jesus Christians purchase Clairol bleach for the purpose of disguise ('turn your brown hair into a gorgeous blond') and wallpaper glue from Homebase in Romford. Their plan is to plaster 1,000 posters all over Romford that read 'Pray for Bobby Kelly'. They were up late last night debating the small print. The van has a TV, a computer, an elaborate graph charting their chess scores, and lots of Marvel comics for Danny, their little boy.

The small print they finally settle on reads: 'Bobby Kelly is being held in the custody of the courts because of his religious beliefs...Details concerning efforts to turn him away from his beliefs have been suppressed by the courts, but we can tell you his situation is serious.'

This last line refers to their greatest fear of all: deprogramming by Graham Baldwin. 'Deprogrammers,' says Susan, 'kidnap people from so-called cults. They lock them up in rooms with a bare light bulb. They subject them to physical and psychological abuse for days and days on end. They yell and scream at them. Everything they've accused us of they've been guilty of ten times over. They're the cults.'

In the Homebase car park, Susan applies the bleach to Roland's hair. Forty-five minutes later, his hair has turned from black to slightly-less-black, with a hint of bizarre red. It is not a great success. 'I feel like I've been napalmed,' he says, the bleach dripping into his eyes and all over his clothes. Then he sighs, 'I'll probably be arrested.' They elect to concentrate their flyposting efforts on the suburbs where Bobby is known to hang out. 'Why are you doing this?' I ask. 'We just want Bobby to know we're thinking of him,' says Roland. 'Maybe he'll see the posters. Maybe some of his friends will. He's probably feeling pretty down. They send all these other religious people to talk to him but he can't talk to us. One of the court psychiatrists told us he's torn between our lifestyle and the Richard Branson vision.' 'The Richard Branson vision?' I ask. 'You know,' says Roland. 'Make as much money as you can and give it to worthy causes. But in order to make that money you have to take it from somebody else. It's like a cop beating you up and then giving you a glass of water.' We drive to the target flyposting area. Roland and I are to undertake the operation alone. 'You can be Roland's look-out,' says Susan to me. 'I'm nervous,' volunteers Roland.

We jump out of the van and begin to flypost. Immediately, passers-by scrutinise the posters and, with either inquisitiveness or anger, glance over. Roland's initial fear, that we may be arrested, has been supplanted by a greater unease. Might we be beaten up? There have already been death threats. The group recently received an anonymous letter sentencing them to 'total disablement for life'. The letter claims to have 200 representatives around the world prepared to carry out the execution. We flypost for an hour and then cut our losses.

Then we head back to the van for spaghetti.

I find myself enjoying the company of the Jesus Christians. I decide to telephone Graham Baldwin to make sure I'm not being brainwashed. 'First off,' he says with some vehemence, 'I do not deprogramme people. I just chat to them. And only when I've had their permission. Deprogramming,' he reminds me, 'is illegal.' Graham then offers a startling claim - that certain other cult-awareness charities are secretly in league with the Jesus Christians to spread malicious lies about him regarding kidnapping and deprogramming. 'And you can quote me on that,' he says. 'I like the Jesus Christians very much,' I say, 'and I don't necessarily think they're evil.' 'Hmm,' says Graham. 'Let me tell you something about your friends. Last year they recruited this young boy called Kiri, and when Kiri wanted to see his mother, they said to him, "What do you want see that bitch for? We know where we're going to be at the resurrection. Where are you going to be?" '

On the Thursday my telephone rings. It is a young, friendly voice. It is Bobby Kelly. 'Can I meet you?' he asks. Bobby tells me he's heard I've been looking into the Jesus Christians. He wants to tell me his side of the story. We meet two hours later at the McDonald's on Romford High Street. We sit outside.

Surreally, there are 'Pray for Bobby Kelly' posters plastered all around us, huge photos of a smiling Bobby. Bobby pulls his baseball cap down to hide his face. 'Roland is pretty manipulative.' He pauses and quickly adds, 'Not that he manipulated me, because he didn't.' At this moment, startlingly, Roland himself wanders past us, a sheath of 'Pray for Bobby Kelly' posters in his hand. He glues one to a lamppost no more than 50 yards from where we are sitting. He doesn't notice Bobby or me. Bobby doesn't notice him either. I pray for the moment to pass. It does. Once Roland is safely away, I point out the poster to Bobby. We wander over. 'I think they're very brave doing this,' he says. We read the small print. It is a new poster. It goes further than the last one. It reads: 'The official solicitor says that Bobby is still "confused" because he has not turned against the Jesus Christians. He is seeking leave to bring in a "non-denominational religious councillor" (read "exit councillor" or "deprogrammer") to complete his goal of turning Bobby against the Jesus Christians.'

'Whoa,' says Bobby. 'That's pretty harsh on my official solicitor.' 'But is it true?' I ask. 'I don't think so,' he says. We sit down again. 'What first attracted you to the Jesus Christians?' I ask. 'The sincerity of their faith in Jesus,' he says. 'Also their lifestyle. They're very faithful to God and you don't get a lot of that in the church.' He reminisces about the first time he met them, outside Marks & Spencer. 'It just cropped up in the conversation,' he says. 'They said, "Would you consider doing it full-time?" And I said yeah. They said, "But you don't have to if you don't want to."

'I thought I'd check it out and live with them for a week or so and then make a decision.' He pauses. 'I was a bit stupid 'cos for all I knew they could have been a bunch of paedophiles who wanted to do funny things to me, but they weren't.' 'The newspapers said they kidnapped you,' I say. 'Yeah, Roland stuck a newspaper in front of me, and I was completely amazed. Mouth open. It frightened me. I didn't want to be in hiding for the rest of my childhood. My family suddenly went against them. My nan didn't tell me she wanted me back until it was in all the newspapers.' 'Do you think they brainwashed you?' I ask. 'No,' he says. 'They didn't give me ideas. I already had ideas. I wasn't brainwashed. I was? ' Bobby pauses. 'What?' I say. 'Oh nothing,' he says. 'What were you going to say?' I ask. Bobby laughs. 'This is like a game of chess.' 'Like I'm making a move?' I ask. Bobby changes the subject. He says he spent much of his time with the Jesus Christians playing chess. He says Roland was a great chess player and Bobby only beat him once. I steer the conversation back. 'What word were you going to use?' I ask. 'Enlightened,' says Bobby.

'I've got no regrets. None at all. It changed me. Not in a brainwashing way. It made me more thoughtful.' 'The reports said that you were accompanied by one of them at all times,' I say. 'Is that true?' 'Nah,' he says. 'There were plenty of times when I was on my own. I wasn't under lock and key. They said to me three or four times, "Do you want to go? Do you want to go?" It got quite irritating.' 'What was the worst thing about the newspaper reports?' I ask. 'The thing that really annoyed me,' he says, 'was that this camper apparently said she saw us sitting around the campfire and we weren't even talking. We were just being quiet and mystical. Well, we never had a fire and we didn't just stare at each other. We did actually talk. We're not zombies.' 'What did you miss most about your normal life?' I ask. 'My comfy bed. I was sleeping in a tent. And my nan. I missed my nan. She hates them. She calls them weirdos.

'Some people think I went to this so-called cult to try and get back at my family, but that's a fib.' 'Would you go back to the Jesus Christians?' I ask. 'Or have you decided to go down the Richard Branson route?' 'Go back?' he says. 'You mean live with them?' 'Yes,' I say. 'Probably not,' he says. 'I think my talent is in business. If I didn't have that talent then nine times out of ten I'd go with them. But I still want to visit them, so I can get encouraged by the right people.' 'What if the courts don't let you visit them?' I ask. 'If the worst comes to the worst,' he says, 'if the injunction isn't lifted after an appeal, then I'd ran away. I don't know if they'd take me if I run away. I've never asked them. It's God's will really. I'd pray to God and ask Him.' I call Roland and Susan to tell them that I have spoken to Bobby, and that he has decided to go down the Richard Branson route. There is a short, sad silence. 'Well,' says Susan. 'What can you do? He's made his choice. We're hardly going to kidnap him.'

'But he also says that if the courts don't lift the injunction he'll run away, if you'll have him,' I say. 'Really?' Susan almost shrieks with joy. 'Oh, we'll have him. Oh yes. We'll certainly have him.'

Jon Ronson's book, Them: Adventures With Extremists, will be published by Picador, Spring 2001

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