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An 82-year-old rode a bus 2,000 miles to answer the call of an Alabama 'prophet.' Then she found herself sleeping in a parking lot.
Janet Ndegwa said the Holy Spirit led her to Church International in Warrior.
She said she’d felt the Spirit move her. The Alabama “prophet” had been clear, she said, and she knew the Lord was calling.
So earlier this week, Janet Ndegwa heeded that call. The 82-year-old boarded a Greyhound bus near her home in Pomona, California, and headed east. Two days and 2,000 miles later, just before dark, Ndegwa arrived in Warrior, Alabama, in the parking lot of Church International.
The church, led by Robin R. and Robin D. Bullock, has garnered intense scrutiny from some local residents who say they’re concerned not simply about the couple’s often radical teachings — but about what they see as the church’s rapid expansion and lack of transparency.
But Janet Ndegwa didn’t know about those concerns. At least not yet. It was a Youtube video of Robin D. Bullock that had moved Ndegwa deeply enough to board that Greyhound in California — a video where the self-proclaimed prophet had asked anyone listening to his voice to make their way to the small Alabama town.
And Ndegwa had done just that. But when she arrived at Church International earlier this week, Ndegwa did not find the open arms she’d expected. Instead, as the sun set over Warrior, the 82-year-old curled up under a street lamp in front of the church with only the concrete to comfort her. The church’s façade, that of a renovated Fred’s, towered over her: “God is Absolutely Good.” Despite the challenge, Ndegwa wasn’t bothered, she said. The Lord was her shepherd.
Warrior, not Waco
It hasn’t always been like this.
It’s a phrase repeated so often of late in Warrior you can almost hear it in the breeze. The anxiety in the town of just over 3,000 is almost tangible. Church International is on everyone’s mind. Small talk has become more serious. It seeps into even friendly conversations at the Dollar General and the Jack’s, residents said. The town’s police chief said residents ask officers about it when they’re out on calls. It’s even splintered the community Facebook group, with members of the new page selling shirts proclaiming “#WarriornotWaco.”
But, residents emphasized to Tread on Wednesday, it hasn’t always been like this. It was only in the last year or so — since the Bullocks began buying properties left and right, expanding the footprint of their real estate portfolio with no public explanation — that the obsession really began.
Before, criticisms of the Bullocks and their “prophetic” teachings were common, certainly, but most of the attention wasn’t coming from Warrior residents. Instead, the Bullocks and Church International drew the attention of national media outlets like Newsweek, which often highlighted some of the ministry’s more brow-raising views.
Robin D. Bullock, who claims to have been to heaven more than half a dozen times, has said, for example, that Donald Trump is still president. To acknowledge Biden’s administration, he’s declared, is to join in the Democrat’s sin.
“And when they raided Mar-a-Lago. God didn’t like that,” Bullock said in an interview. “That didn’t sit well in heaven.”
So there’d been some attention. But there’d been nothing like this.
Now, the critiques are unavoidable.
“Judgment is coming,” Stan Cooke posted in a Facebook group largely focused on Church International.
“They are taking advantage of the poor and the weak.” -Stan Cooke
Cooke, the pastor of nearby Kimberly Church of God, was a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2014 when his church was torn apart by a tornado. Years later, it’s Church International and its teaching that Cooke considers a critical threat.
“That which is taking place with Church International is biblically wrong. The word of faith movement is false doctrine,” Cooke wrote. “Their gospel is wrong. Their teachings are not scriptural. They are taking advantage of the poor and the weak. Innocent people are being turned into victims. And those people without a stable, biblical knowledge, are being preyed upon.”
Cooke’s isn’t a rare opinion in Warrior. A search of any social media site reveals dozens of posts by those wary of the Bullocks’ beliefs and teaching. And recent property transactions, too — for example, the purchase of 204, 206, 208, 210, 214, and 126 Louisa Streets in downtown Warrior for $4 million — have caused more concern and consternation.
None of this, though, concerned Janet Ndegwa. She simply knew nothing about it. It was only Robin Bullock’s message — and Ndegwa’s own sense that she was led to Warrior — that motivated her 2,000-mile journey.
“I felt the Holy Spirit was asking me to come here,” Ndegwa told Tread on Wednesday. “And I have trusted that voice all my life. It has never failed me.”
A woman of faith
Ndegwa was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in Parole, a suburb of Annapolis, Maryland, with her seven siblings. There, she attended school until eighth grade, when her family decided to make the move west. Soon, Ndegwa found herself in California, where she’d finish high school, attend college, and graduate with a degree in sociology.
After graduating, she would work as a juvenile probation officer and, later, for child protective services.
But through everything in her life, Ndegwa said her focus was on Christ.
“He was my everything,” Ndegwa said. “There wasn’t much love and affection [in the home] because everyone was so busy. But when I heard about Jesus, I fell in love with him.”
She said that as a child, she’d feel the Holy Spirit call her to walk in the forest. When she’d return home, she’d often find that she’d missed one “terrible happening” or another during her trip. God, she explained, had delivered her.
“So I learned to listen and obey,” she said.
And that’s what Ndegwa felt she was doing when she boarded the Greyhound in Pomona — following God’s lead.
But a few days later, Ndegwa said she was beginning to wonder why exactly she’d been led to come. After sleeping in the parking lot overnight, she began to speak with some of the locals. It didn’t take long for her to begin to feel differently about Church International. She began to hear about the “shady” church, she said, and about how one of its leaders was buying up properties in the town.
Still, Ndegwa felt she needed to see for herself. The 82-year-old approached the church and told the woman who came to the door why she’d come. The woman looked concerned, Ndegwa said, not about the elderly woman in front of her, but about herself.
“You might’ve thought they’d felt sorry for me, but honestly, I felt compassion for her,” Ndegwa explained. The woman turned her away. “It was a strange thing. I felt she may know something I didn’t know. I felt she was trying to protect me.”
“We can’t let you freeze to death”
Soon, word of Ndegwa’s presence had spread through town. The town’s police chief, Scott Prayter, headed out to speak with the woman.
Prayter said he soon learned of Ndegwa’s 2,000-mile trek and began trying to find her a place to stay.
And it’s not the first time someone’s shown up at Church International without a place to stay, Prayter told Tread.
“There was a lady who stayed right there for a month in a car,” the chief said, pointing at a parking spot just across from Church International. The woman had also come from a western state to attend the church but insisted on staying inside her vehicle.
Soon, though, the situation became strained when the temperature began to drop below freezing. Prayter said he had to threaten to tow the car and place the woman in jail to get her to acquiesce to receive help.
“I told her ‘We can’t let you freeze to death,’” Prayter said.
The chief, a former Birmingham police officer, called Don Lupo, the Magic City’s point person for homelessness, and arranged for the woman to stay in a homeless shelter until the cold subsided. The arrangement worked out, and not long afterward, the woman decided to leave Warrior.
Prayter said he’s intimately familiar with the community’s concerns about the church. Because of the uproar online, he said he’s even asked the FBI to monitor the situation.
Still, Prayter said that in his experience, the Bullocks have been relatively straightforward — sometimes even helpful. They’d offered to put the woman in the car in a hotel, for example, the chief claimed, but she’d refused.
“…The city council can’t stop the church from buying property.” -Scott Prayter
Prayter seemed hesitant to express concern over the Bullocks’ call for folks to travel to Warrior. A Baptist himself, the chief said the church’s style is “not my cup of tea” but that he’s not in the business of policing religion. And some of the concerns he’s heard about the church are based on misinformation, he said.
“They say the city council is in cahoots with him,” Prayter said. “But the city council can’t stop the church from buying property. They have no say.”
Prayter acknowledged that more transparency may go a long way to assuaging some of the community’s concerns, though. Bullock hasn’t been to a city council meeting to discuss his plans in the city, Prayter said, something that may help answer residents’ questions.
While Prayter said he could only recall the two cases of individuals sleeping at or near the church after travelling to Warrior, a 911 dispatcher who spoke to Tread on condition of anonymity said the number was more like six or seven. And the church, the dispatcher said, is often who calls the police to address the situation.
“The thing that shocks me about this church,” the dispatcher said, “is how they call all these people out here and then leave them high and dry.”
The Bullocks and Church International did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story by publication time.
The Father, The Son, and the sushi
Like Prayter, Mika Marcum, the pastor of Westside Community Church in Warrior, said the Bullocks’ style of preaching and worship is not his preference but that he isn’t concerned about the church’s growth in the community.
“They don’t do church the way I do church,” Marcum explained. “But I don’t think he’s a cult leader given what I know about cults, but I could be wrong.”
The sheer amount of money involved with the ministry may make people wary of Church International, Marcum said, but it’s hard to fault the Bullocks for trying to grow their ministry.
“If our church had millions of dollars, we’d probably buy some property, too,” he said.
Marcum concluded his thoughts on Bullock, who he said he’s met, with a question.
“Do you eat sushi?” Marcum asked. “It’s a rare thing here, you know? There’s not several sushi bars in Warrior. There’s several hamburger joints around here… Robin’s place is the sushi bar. It’s not real common, but some people really love it.”
For her part, Janet Ndegwa said she harbors no grudge against the Bullocks or Church International, but that the more she hears about the ministry, the deeper her worries grow.
“I may have to pray these people out of here.” -Janet Ndegwa
“I got a little concerned because I thought about the Jim Joneses of the world — people that get into these little communities,” Ndegwa said, her brow furrowed. “Oftentimes, if they’re not really of the Lord, if they don’t have a heart and a love for people, they just come in and begin to buy up properties. People may feel intimidated and even if they don’t want to sell, they may feel uncomfortable saying no.”
Ndegwa, who’s found temporary refuge staying with a couple who live near the church, said she doesn’t plan to leave Warrior soon. She has a steady income, she explained, and has found a place nearby that will be ready in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, she said she feels she’s beginning to realize that the Holy Spirit may have called her to Warrior for a reason that wasn’t initially clear.
“I may have to pray these people out of here,” Ndegwa said of the Bullocks. “And I’m a prayer warrior.”
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