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In Alabama, we prey
An Ohio family answered the call of a self-proclaimed 'prophet.' They lost it all.
They thought Warrior would bring them closer to God.
So the family of four — mother, father, daughter and son — sold their house in Ohio and made the move to Alabama. It was a leap of faith.
“If God moves there, that’s where we go,” Jacob Partlow, 23, told Tread.
The Partlow family, like others before them, had answered the call of a self-proclaimed prophet, Robin D. Bullock, who with his wife Robin leads Church International in Warrior, Alabama.
But not long after their cross-country move, the Partlows said the church, particularly Robin D. Bullock, made it clear their family wasn’t welcome. The family of four felt rejected, Jacob and his mother Tammy said in an interview, as if their presence was an encroachment on Bullock’s control over the Warrior congregation.
Then came Ms. Janet Ndegwa, an 82-year-old who’d traveled more than 2,000 miles on a Greyhound bus from California to join Church International. She’d arrived as the sun set in the small town, met not by open arms, but by the concrete parking lot of the renovated Fred’s the church calls its home. The next day, Ndegwa told Tread at the time, the church had turned her away.
Jacob Partlow said he immediately knew in his heart Ndegwa’s story was true.
“Because it had happened to us,” he said.
Now, the Partlows have found themselves rising to challenges made all the more difficult by their experience with the Warrior church. The family, which had been able to make ends meet in Ohio, has found it hard to get by in Alabama, a state whose social safety net has holes so large it’s easy to fall through. Tammy, for example, found out she suffers from multiple sclerosis (MS), a degenerative disease that has already made it difficult for her to walk. And the diagnosis, she said, has become a financial albatross in a state that has refused to expand Medicaid for low-income Alabamians.
The Partlows had stepped out in faith, they told Tread. Now, they’re struggling for food.
The challenges, though, the Partlows are something they will get through. They’ve done it before. But it’s their concern that others like them — those simply looking for a movement of God — will fall prey to Church International that motivates them to speak.
“I don’t want it to ruin people’s lives,” Partlow said, her son sitting beside her. “I want it to stop.”
“He told us to do it”
Tammy and Jacob Partlow can’t remember who watched the church’s videos first.
“It might’ve been me,” Tammy said, unsure. She sat beside Jacob inside a McDonald’s where the two had agreed to meet and tell their story.
During the pandemic, as churches canceled in-person gatherings, the Partlows, like many Americans, had turned primarily to online services to fill in the gaps. At some point, they’d come across videos of Church International’s services on Youtube — the same place Janet Ndegwa had been exposed to the Bullocks.
In the beginning, they liked what they saw. The services were different, Jacob said, more modern in approach than those at other churches he’d attended.
“I’m a musician, so I liked the music,” he said. “They play like rock-and-roll type music. I’ve never heard nothing like that for church.”
The Partlows began watching services more often, they said, and before long, the family became financially invested, too.
“We gave hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars,” Tammy said.
Soon, the Partlows decided that on their way from Ohio to visit Florida, they’d visit the Warrior church.
They arrived that Sunday before anyone else, Jacob said, and they met briefly with Robin D. Bullock.
“He was saying that he felt like we were supposed to be there,” he said.
Tammy said Bullock told them that Sunday that God would make it possible for the family to move to Warrior.
“He told us to come,” Tammy said.
Ohio to Alabama
Tammy Partlow said her family would not have moved from their home in Ohio had it not been for Bullock’s invitation, but she felt that God was telling her to step out in faith. Her husband was originally from Alabama, anyway, she said, and he’d always thought about moving back South.
“So we sold our house in Ohio,” Tammy explained, regret in her voice. “And we moved.”
Once in the Heart of Dixie, the Partlows began attending Church International services regularly.
Most of what the family had seen online was certainly there. The electric guitars and keyboards. The crowd of devoted worshipers. Robin D. Bullock’s long leather jacket. But there was more, too.
Bullock would sometimes go on tangents the family felt didn’t have any Biblical basis, for one — “prophetic” visions, he would often explain.
And sometimes, the family said, Bullocks’ long-winded, winding sermons would devolve into diatribes of paranoia and hate.
That’s what happened during the Sunday service that would ultimately lead to the end of the family’s relationship with Church International.
Being in the room that day, Jacob said, it quickly became clear that Bullock has an obsession with power.
“He wants to be completely in control,” he said. “That’s obvious.”
During the service, Jacob explained, Bullock’s wife seemed prepared and ready to deliver the day’s message. She is, Jacob noted, supposed to be the head pastor. But her husband stepped in. His ego, Jacob could tell, wouldn’t let Bullock share the stage. It was a moment that left Jacob feeling uncomfortable.
“I felt in my heart that she was supposed to preach,” he said. “And he just took over.”
In the message that followed, Bullock became aggressive, accusing outsiders of trying to divide the church, according to the family.
“I got that sense that something is completely wrong with this guy,” Jacob said.
“That’s when he started attacking us,” Tammy said.
Both Tammy and Jacob said that they felt Bullock was directly targeting them in parts of the sermon.
The service was crowded, the air conditioner had been unable to keep up, and the sermon had already lasted hours. The Partlows felt hurt and isolated — attacked by a man who had led them to cross the country in search of a spiritual home.
“By the end, he was just berating,” Jacob said. “He was looking at us.”
“In the eyes,” his mother added.
“Nobody will come here and change what I’m doing,” Jacob recalled Bullock telling those gathered that day. “Don’t come back.”
The Partlows would take the advice.
Tammy said her daughter was devastated by what happened that day in Warrior.
“She’s really bad off about it,” Jacob said.
“And it hurts me because of her,” Tammy said. “She said she won’t never go to any church again.”
A few months after the service, the Partlows read Janet Ndegwa’s story, first reported in Tread.
“It broke the camel’s back,” Jacob said. “I was completely sick about that.”
“We lost everything”
Since they left the church, the Partlows said it’s been hard to get by day-to-day in Alabama, a state where they don’t have the same support they did in Ohio.
Health care, for example, has been a burden that’s become difficult for the Partlows to bear. Tammy was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis that’s left her almost entirely wheelchair-bound. Living with the disease, paired with Alabama’s refusal to expand Medicaid, a program that could provide free health care to people with low incomes like Tammy.
“Robin Bullock caused me to come here and lose everything,” Tammy Partlow told Tread. “I don’t even know if I have enough gas money to get home. I don’t even have money to buy food. And before I moved here, I was okay.”
On July 4th, the stage was set.
“We the people,” the familiar opening words of the U.S. Constitution, were emblazoned across a rippling Old Glory on the screens. The keyboard and electric guitar sat at attention on the stage in the front of the room as a group of worshippers gathered below.
Soon, Robin Bullock led the congregants in a three-and-a-half-hour service that highlighted the self-proclaimed prophet’s circuitous style and conspiratorial proclivity.
“They think they’re cats. They think they’re dogs.”
Bullock railed against the “Biden bunch,” LGBTQ "kits,” and the World Health Organization’s “global agenda.” He said that homosexuality is “a spirit” that steals identity.
“They think they’re cats,” he yelled at one point in the church service. “They think they’re dogs.”
Bullock’s voice intensified as he moved to what he called “the real enemy.”
“Those that are full of hate and those that post hate and those that criticize, I don’t care who they are — I don’t care if they’re the biggest, most famous person in the world or they’re the menial, lowest person you’ve never heard of,” Bullock said. “If they’re spewing hate back and forth against the people and against the body of Christ, you’re as guilty as them if you read it.”
Bullock yelled as he took the watch off his wrist and threw it to the ground.
“It is high time that it stops,” he said. “It is high time that it stop. It must stop.”
During the Independence Day service, Bullock also addressed the suggestion Church International is a cult.
“Look at all them exit signs.”
“I wish you’d tell me what a cult is, blessed God, before you open your mouth again,” Bullock said of critics.
Anyone in the church is free to leave, he argued.
“Look at all them exit signs,” the self-proclaimed Alabama prophet told those gathered in the renovated Fred’s.
“I listen to God”
Not long ago, Jacob Partlow said he had a dream about Robin D. Bullock.
In it, Bullock stood at the front of a crowd, floodlights illuminating his silhouette in the night as it rained. Partlow said he could tell that everyone in the audience was focused intensely on Bullock.
Then, suddenly, most of those gathered died by suicide, having poisoned themselves, Jacob dreamed.
“Some people didn’t do it, and the security guards shot them,” Jacob recalled dreaming.
The image still makes Jacob’s skin crawl, he told Tread.
“I’m not giving up. I’m not going to let one man do that.”
Jacob said he believes that Bullock understood that the Partlow family was interested in following God, not any one person. That’s why he believes the church leader pushed his family out.
“I listen to God,” Jacob said. “I truly do. And I can tell people’s characters. People are being manipulated and losing stuff, just like we did.”
Church International has not responded to requests for comment as of publication time.
The Partlows said they want the church to simply be more Christ-like.
“I don’t want them to hurt any lost people who need to find their way,” Tammy said. “And that’s happening. I’m not a follower of people. I was listening to God. But there could be another reason why He sent us here.”
“I’m not giving up,” Jacob added. “I’m not going to let one man do that.”
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