Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Yaweh ben Yahweh Cult

Brother Love

He resurrected in Orlando, Florida, as a street preacher named "Brother Love."

Strolling down the city's sidewalks offering hope to the downtrodden, he soon gathered a small coterie of followers. One of them was Linda, a 29-year-old single mother of three children. Linda found Mitchell's straight-laced lifestyle — no alcohol or drugs — appealing, and she thought he'd be a good influence on her family. Little did she know the horrors that awaited her and her children over the next decade as she stuck doggedly by Mitchell's side.

With his followers paying the bills, Mitchell again resumed his religious studies. He read up on Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism and just about every other 'ism he could find, Freedberg writes. He grew to believe the Bible contained secret messages that would reveal themselves with enough studious attention. He plucked beliefs from the different 'isms to cook up a new religion based on the Black Hebrew movement, which taught that Africans were the "true Jews" who'd descended from the lost tribes of Israel.

Like the Black Muslims, the Black Hebrews rejected Christianity as a religion forced on African Americans by their slave ancestors' owners. Both movements created black-centric religions to replace what they viewed as white-centric Christianity. Judaism, with its strong emphasis on freedom and the Exodus tale — a story of a persecuted people escaping from slavery and founding their own nation — seemed like a natural fit for oppressed blacks. Mitchell changed his name to Och Mosche Israel, Hebrew for Brother Moses Israel, because like Moses, he believed he was ordained to lead his people to freedom.

Map: Florida with Miami locator
Map: Florida with Miami locator

In 1978, Mitchell and Linda moved to Miami, after he'd had a "revelation" directing him there. Blacks in Miami were a forgotten minority as Cubans fleeing their communist island rose to power alongside the old-money whites. Black neighborhoods festered with cocaine-fueled crime and poverty, and Och Mosche was going to save them.

It was in Miami that Mitchell laid the foundations for his last and most successful transformation, that of the leader of the "Black Hebrew Israelites" or "Yahwehs," the cult that would make international headlines for violence and terror.

As soon as the couple arrived in the sweltering seaside city, Mitchell used his street preacher tactics to win adherents. He claimed disciples one by one, sidling up to people in diners, in bookstores and in parks, introducing himself as a "Bible teacher," dressed in a sharp suit and talking to them in a soft, earnest voice.

"Did you know that God is black?" he'd ask them. "Yes, it's true! It's the world's best kept secret!"

Some of the strangers were intrigued and asked questions, which he happily answered. He told them that blacks were the true Jews, God's chosen people. He cracked open his dog-eared King James Bible to offer them proof, tapping the Scriptures with his finger.

"In Daniel 7:9, God is described as having hair like pure wool," he'd say. "Look at black folks' hair... it also looks like wool! And in Psalm 119:83, God says 'For I am become like a bottle in the smoke... A bottle of smoke is black!"

He'd lean in close and tell his audience why this wasn't popular knowledge: whites had lied about their elevated status for centuries, so they could dominate and brutalize black folks.

Mitchell printed fliers and peppered black neighborhoods with them, inviting people to learn about his new religion. The curious began to gather at his doorstep. They sat on the floor of his living room, listening to Och Mosche Israel proclaim their superior status, and felt uplifted.

He read Genesis 15:13 to them — "And he said unto Abram, know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years" — and interpreted the passage for them. It's whites enslaving blacks for 400 years, he said. He had been chosen, he said, by the "Terrible Black God, Yahweh" to lead oppressed African Americans back to their promised land of Israel, where they would establish a kingdom and live in equality and prosperity.

These early disciples recruited more disciples, who recruited family and friends and co-workers. They went door-to-door in the black communities of Overtown, Liberty City and Little Haiti, knocking on doors, smartly dressed, polite.

"Shalom," they said to residents, greeting them with the Hebrew word for peace.

They ventured into Miami's steamy, drug-infested ghettos, visiting people who were broke and broken and desperate for hope. Mitchell gave it to them. As his congregation grew, his belief system kept evolving. He told his followers that white Jews were Satan's spawn, based on Revelation 3:9 — "I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars — I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you." The passage was yet another indication that blacks were God's chosen people, he said.

Yahweh ben Yahweh
Yahweh ben Yahweh

He told his growing flock that blacks should separate themselves as much as possible from white mainstream culture and to that end he started a private school in a congregant's home. Two dozen kids of all ages crammed into a single room. The school wasn't licensed by the state — it wasn't required to be — so Mitchell had free reign to design his own curriculum. He fanned the flames of black rage in his young scholars by ad-libbing his way through Social Studies class, bringing in news articles about police abuse that "proved" there was a conspiracy against African Americans. When the kids started walking around yelling "I hate whitey!" a couple of concerned parents pulled their children from the school.

Then came the Arthur McDuffie beating, in December 1979. Five Miami cops beat a black insurance salesman to death with their heavy flashlights after he led them on a high-speed chase. When an all-white jury returned a "not guilty" verdict, it seemed to confirm Mitchell's racialized teachings: whites got away with murdering a black man!

Riots broke out, and the city burst into flames. Three days later, 18 were dead, and 417 injured.

Immediately afterward, Mitchell's followers visited black communities to pass out tracts with titles such as "Can I Protect My Child from Whitey's Evil Influence?" and "White Americans are Kidnappers and Terrorists," and they came in droves to hear his message. They were afraid, angry, and didn't trust the people in charge of protecting them.

Mitchell told them he'd care for them, feed, clothe, and protect them. And someday he'd lead them out of racist America to the new Jerusalem. He started to call himself Yahweh ben Yahweh, Hebrew for God, son of God, and told them he was the messiah that God had promised them in the Bible.

"Who has the power to deliver us from the brutality of the white man?" he'd ask his congregation during his sermons, which were meticulously tape-recorded.

"Yahweh ben Yahweh!" they'd answer. "One God! One mind! One love! Praise Yahweh!"

In a typical cult move, Freedberg says Mitchell urged members to cut off family and friends who weren't part of the congregation. There was life before Yahweh, and life after Yahweh. They pooled their money, rented houses together, and home-schooled their children. They rejected white standards of beauty, and the men stopped shaving, and the women stopped using chemical straighteners on their hair. They donned loose white robes that skimmed the floor, just like Mitchell's. They ate a kosher-based diet and didn't drink, smoke or do drugs. They gave up their "slave names" in favor of the common last name "Israel" and chose Biblical first names like Solomon or Gideon or Esther.

Mitchell told them that as long as they were of one mind, no one could harm them. Dissent would tear them apart, he warned prophetically, quoting Leviticus:

"If you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life."

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