Yahweh ben Yahweh: Miami cult leader or caught up in a conspiracy?
Man of many names came to Miami in 1979 to become founder of Nation of Yahweh
As they say, there are two sides to every story. But, after two months going back into Local 10 archives and doing countless interviews, I realize that the story of the founder of Miami's most notorious religious movement, the Nation of Yahweh, Yahweh ben Yahweh and his Miami "Temple of Love," has way more than two sides. Right now, I can lay out three, along with countless unanswered questions that will forever remain into eternity. - Michelle Solomon, Local 10 podcast reporter
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In his book "You Are Not a Nigger," Yahweh writes that he came to Miami alone in 1979 to become the spiritual leader and founder of the Nation of Yahweh. He didn't really come to the city alone. Linda Merthie Gaines, whom he had met in Orlando, and who would later take the name Judith Israel, accompanied him. She would also become Ock Moshe's second in command when he founds the "Temple of Love."Yahweh ben Yahweh, the former Hulon Mitchell Jr., arrived in Miami from Orlando. It is the late 1970s and the predominantly black neighborhood of Liberty City is in one of its most vulnerable times, just before the racially charged McDuffie riots.
His ideology derived from the Hebrew Israelite belief system, which has existed in America since the 1800s. Hebrew Israelites believe that God is black and that they are the authentic Old Testament Hebrews, the "true Jews."
Ock Moshe says that the message of that the truth is buried in the Bible and was erased over years of revisionist text.
Cult or conspiracy?
Mitchell didn't come to Miami as Yahweh ben Yahweh. In 1978, he was calling himself Ock Moshe, Hebrew for Brother Moses. In Orlando, he was known as Brother Love and Father Michel. Before that he was X and Shah.
Detractors of the "Temple Of Love" tell me that they left a cult led by a dictatorial megalomaniac. They say they still aren't completely healed from what they witnessed inside the temple under Mitchell's command.
I wasn't able to locate some former members. They are allegedly in the U.S. Witness Protection Program. Others didn't want to talk. They say that was another time in their life and that they'd rather forget about it.
There are the supporters, attorneys who represented Yahweh ben Yahweh in court, and those who still follow his teachings, who praise the preacher as a devout man who was dedicated to his mission.
There's his biological daughter who says Yahweh became the target of a government conspiracy to lock him away.
Here are the three sides to the story of Yahweh ben Yahweh and his "Temple of Love."
Was Yahweh ben Yahweh, the charismatic leader of his creation, the Nation of Yahweh, earnestly empowering his flock by leading them in what he believed was the truth? Maybe he had been chosen from on high as a messiah to reveal the true heritage of black Americans.
Or was Hulon Mitchell Jr. a cult leader who gave orders to his followers to kill anyone who was against him? Who implored so-called "death angels" to bring back proof that his subjects had killed white devils by cutting off their ears and returning them to their leader? Who insisted his male followers be circumcised and performed the procedures himself?
Or was it his destiny? A pre-ordained Biblical prophecy that the government would condemn him? That the star witness was a lying Judas who would testify against Yahweh: A former professional football player turned Yahweh member, who pleaded guilty and admitted multiple killings he said were directed by Yahweh ben Yahweh?
The man who says he escaped
Khalil Amani tells me he is living in the Midwest now, but he is originally from Miami. He graduated from Miami's Carol City High School. He was born Lloyd Clark. He changed his name while in the witness protection program after testifying about what he saw inside the "Temple of Love."
"I was one of the first 40 or 50 people to join the Nation of Yahweh," Amani says. "Yahweh was leading teachings at the time, but he hadn't yet taken that name. He was going by Brother Moses, a.k.a. Ock Moshe, at that time."
Amani was attending classes at Miami Dade College when he discovered Mitchell's literature on the table at a fraternity brother's apartment.
"I found it quite fascinating; telling black people that they were the original Jews of the Bible, and it went on to give examples of scriptures to show that black people were indeed part of the Bible, that God and Jesus and all the prophets were black people, " Amani says. "So for me, a man of color, that was super fascinating and I wanted to know more about it. I was blown away. By the time my fraternity brother had gotten out of the shower, I was a Yahweh follower, even though I hadn't even gone to a class."
Amani wanted to find out more.
"He was nonchalant and said it's just a little history class where we look at the Bible," Amani says. "Sure enough, that next Wednesday I was right smack dab in the front row of the class."
Amani remembers the first time he saw Ock Moshe.
"He was a mild-mannered, leisure suit-wearing gentleman," Amani says. "It was right out of the disco era, circa 1976. Short afro, light-skin fellow."
He says he sat there in sheer amazement as Ock Moshe deconstructed the Bible.
"Looking at him, he had these piercing eyes," Amani says. "I thought that the strangest thing was his eyes. As a black man, his eyes weren't black-folk eyes, which were either dark brown or black. His eyes were hazel, blue or gray, very light-colored, and would vacillate between those colors. He would say in class that Jesus had eyes that were like a flame of fire, which further added to my resolve that I am in the presence of Jesus."
In the beginnings
Mitchell, born Oct 27, 1935, in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, then raised 39 miles north in segregated Enid, to the son of a Pentecostal minister and the oldest in a family of 15, hasn't yet adopted the name Yahweh ben Yahweh.
In Miami, he's still holding small gatherings and anywhere groups can meet. Things are unsettled in Liberty City and all hell is about to break loose. There are three police brutality and abuse cases in 1979 leading up to what would become known as the McDuffie riots the following year.
The first in January 1979 included a white state trooper sexually molesting an 11-year-old-black girl and only getting three years of probation. Another incident in February took place when detectives mistakenly entered the home of a black school teacher with a search warrant. The teacher was seriously injured in the struggle, but a grand jury said there was no criminal wrongdoing on their part. In September 1979, an off-duty Hialeah police officer shot and killed a 22-year-old black man, but his actions were only negligent, not criminal, a grand jury said.
But, in 1979, when a black insurance agent named Arthur McDuffie is chased by police while riding his motorcycle after running a red light and dies from the Miami-Dade police officers allegedly beating him, it's the last straw.
When the four white Miami-Dade police officers are acquitted after a trial in Tampa on May 18, 1980, Liberty City erupts in flames. It becomes Miami's first major race riot since the 1960s.
"I had joined the Yahweh group about two months before the riots," Amani recalls. "I remember Ock Moshe telling us that these white men were going to go free, and he quoted a scripture. And he said the town would go up in flames. He did not want us, as Hebrew Israelites, to take part in any riots."
By this time, Ock Moshe has quite a following. He is gathering his flock at the Joseph Caleb Center in Liberty City. And his teachings and his popularity is growing. So is his cash flow.
The 'Temple of Love'
Amani says by this time he is firmly entrenched in Ock Moshe and his teachings.
"By about November of 1981, we had gotten enough money to buy a building," Amani says. "It became the 'Temple of Love.'"
The place that the Yahwehs would live with their spiritual leader is a 15,000-square-foot warehouse, a former food stamp redemption center and shopping market that would become the group's headquarters at 2766 NW 62nd St. Sydney P. Freedberg, the former Miami Herald reporter who won a Pulitzer prize for her coverage of Yahweh ben Yahweh and went on to write a book called "Brother Love: Murder, Money and a Messiah," says the group's headquarters was "in the heart of the riot zone."
By 1982, Ock Moshe would begin his metamorphosis.
Amani recalls: "He was calling himself Yashua, the Messiah, Yashua is a Hebrew rendering of the word Jesus. Then one day, only a few months after announcing himself as Yashua, in front of 200 or 300 of us in the temple, and he came out into the middle and he said, 'How many of you know who I am?' One brother screams out, 'That's Yahweh right there.' And there was screaming and shouting and crying. It was a scene out of a holiness church."
This would also be the beginning of Yahweh ben Yahweh's ascension into the mainstream of Miami, as a redeveloper, a member of the chamber of commerce, an honoree and a hero to many in the community.
Local 10 News (then-Eyewitness News) reporter Mel Taylor reports: "Yahweh opened the doors to his 'Temple of Love' and he showed reporters inside. He bought up numerous hotels and opened restaurants and stores even rubbing shoulders with local politicians.
There was even a Yahweh ben Yahweh day proclaimed and a large gathering at the Miami Arena.
T. Willard Fair, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Greater Miami, introduces Yahweh to a crowd that filled the arena to hear Yahweh’s speech, entitled "From Poverty to Riches," also the name of a hardcover book Yahweh's Temple of Love publishing company released.
Fair's introduction goes like this: "Who is this man Yahweh ben Yahweh? We who are black people in this county seek salvation every day. We are the descendants of those who have suffered years upon years and if you know anything about our history, you know that each time we feel that the world is coming to an end, someone comes our way."
When I speak with Fair, who is still president and chief executive officer of the Greater Miami Urban League, I ask him his perception of Yahweh ben Yahweh.
"When Yahweh ben Yahweh came on the scene, he had the ability to move and change what could be done in my community," Fair says. "We were just coming out of the segregated past and he was the first real ray of hope and was saying to folks that it was up to us to control our destiny. I never reacted to his religious philosophy, in fact, I don't know what that is today. But I did react to him trying to mobilize and galvanize the black community to begin to become economically sufficient, and his ability to purchase and operate commercial property, as well as rental property. I did react to his ability to mobilize and galvanize the black community that joined him to begin to become economically sufficient on their own right. We shared the same kind of economic empowerment about black Dade County, and therefore I was intrigued about his idea about transferring his philosophy into reality and not being dependent on the system."
An excerpt from one of Yahweh ben Yahweh's preaching's goes like this: "I came to Miami to be poor like you, to show you that, through my poverty, you can be rich. When I became poor like you, I had nothing. I have raised myself up to be super rich for your sake. If I can do it, you can do it."
While his presence is building in Miami and his followers are growing, not only in Miami but in other U.S. cities (he's sent members out across the U.S. to encourage others to join), so is his extensive real-estate portfolio. It's worth an estimated $9 million from businesses, including hotels, bakeries, restaurants, apartment buildings and shopping centers. By 1986, authorities estimate that there are 300 active Yahweh follower in Miami and Dade County, with other groups sprouting up nationwide.
The man who said he rose from the dead to be messiah to American members of the black tribe of Israel and who would lead his followers out of the white domination might be becoming obsessed with power. Some of his followers are getting disillusioned. And what is going on inside his "Temple of Love" is being scrutinized.
Taylor reports: "For years, the self-proclaimed messiah has thrown down the gauntlet for officials to come forth with an indictment."
Yahweh has lashed out, taunting them "to find something" and come and get him or "stop their fishing expedition."
What leads back to the 'Temple of Love'
But police are putting together puzzle pieces, murders and other violence that begins around the time the Nation of Yahweh comes into prominence in Miami. In 1981, a Yahweh member named Aston Green is found beheaded in the Everglades, his head propped next to his body. Then his roommates are attacked. One is shot and killed. The other's throat is slit and she is shot. There's a firebombing in Delray Beach and shootings at an Opa-locka apartment building -- one that Yahweh Ben Yahweh has purchased.
Local police and the FBI are investigating the same thread to the crimes. They all have a connection to the Nation of Yahweh and they want to get to the bottom of it.
Next on The Florida Files: Cult or Conspiracy. Did Yahweh ben Yahweh instruct his "death angels" to kill so-called white devils and bring him back proof of their kill? And what Khalil Amani says he heard before a body with its head detached turns up in the Everglades.
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