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(Original link: huffingtonpost.co.uk)
A pioneering church that has been hailed by politicians as a beacon of hope for ex-gang members has created the conditions for fraudsters to flourish within its ranks and is failing to act on pastors financially exploiting the young people it claims to help, we can reveal.
Ex-congregation members have spoken out to reveal shocking cases at the pentacostal church, SPAC Nation, of pastors targeting young black people from impoverished areas and “broken homes” and isolating them from their families – before exploiting them for money.
A HuffPost UK investigation has found evidence that some pastors at the church - whose leader was pictured in the second row for Boris Johnson’s speech at this year’s Conservative Party conference - have pressured the young people they supposedly help into taking out substantial loans of up to £5,000.
Once these loans arrive in their bank accounts, the congregation member is asked to transfer the money to the SPAC Nation pastor, sometimes on the basis that the clergymen will set them up as “crypto-traders”.
While young people are left in debt, SPAC Nation’s pastors put on an extravagant show of wealth – flashing rolls of £50 notes, buying Rolex watches, driving Lambourghinis and other sports cars, buying Louboutins shoes and hosting cash giveaways to tempt more youngsters in.
The church claims this display of opulence is necessary to connect with the ex-gang members at risk of knife crime it is trying to reach.
In one case, we found a pastor had taken out an online loan in a congregation member’s name without her consent or knowledge, prompting a fraud complaint to the loan company.
The culture of “seed” giving, whereby money is donated to the church, has also come under heavy criticism. HuffPost UK has been told that those attending SPAC Nation are welcomed into a church that in the words of its lead pastor “will lift them out of poverty”.
But in fact HuffPost UK found the church is leaving some of its members with substantial debts and damaged credit ratings as a result of donating thousands of pounds they cannot afford to SPAC Nation pastors, with a culture of impunity and little recourse from church leaders.
“I thought that SPAC Nation could be the place where I start to heal. When HuffPost UK put the accusations of financial impropriety to SPAC Nation, the church distanced itself from the actions of its pastors, saying “a community with hundreds of pastors cannot monitor what each pastor or leaders does”.
Daniel Ogoloma, a spokesman for SPAC Nation, said: “When anything is reported, we have taken it up to find out the truth behind it and I can authoritatively say there has not been a single report about the things that you have listed.”
The individual pastors denied the allegations against them.
But professionals who work with young people have told HuffPost UK that the church was apparently failing in its safeguarding duties to its young congregation, which has surged in numbers in the last two years and is made up of 55% ex-gang members, according to its own publicity.
HuffPost UK has also found safeguarding leads from London councils and police held a meeting about safeguarding concerns at the church earlier this year and the Charity Commission has an ongoing regulatory compliance case about governance issues at the church.
At the same time as SPAC Nation has apparently failed to act on the conditions that have allowed pastors to carry out alleged fraud within its ranks, the church has won praise from government, the Mayor of London’s office, and featured in a major BBC documentary for its self-proclaimed work to tackle gang and knife crime.
Yesterday Pastor Tobi Adegboyega was invited to No 10 Downing Street for a meeting with Special Advisers and Cabinet Ministers.
We are pleased to see the voice of our young people being heard! #SPACNation #MAJOR pic.twitter.com/xH8W0xs0fd
— SPAC Nation (@SPACnation) May 10, 2018 HuffPost UK found SPAC Nation’s leader was at the Conservative Party Conference this year seated behind cabinet ministers, such as Home Secretary Priti Patel and Chancellor Sajid Javid, for the prime minister’s speech.
Tobi Adegboyega said on social media he was at the conference on the invitation of Number 10, and he has also met with cabinet ministers at Downing Street.
These meetings with politicians right at the top of government have prompted questions about why more scrutiny has not been placed on the operations of the church, when allegations about its pastors’ alleged financial improprieties are easily found on social media.
SPAC Nation has also had extensive media coverage and uses this to publicise its work. Adegboyega says on the church’s website, referring to a three-part BBC documentary about SPAC Nation’s work: “ According to the BBC nothing like this has ever been seen before.”
The evidence from congregation members that they are pressurised into taking out loans and making “seed donations” has created reasonable grounds for authorities to invest...