John C. McCollum had a tractor-trailer for hauling around his giant blue-and-white-striped tent and folding chairs. When he set up for a religious revival, he’d park the truck nearby like a billboard to draw people in.
On the side, it had a color portrait of him with a microphone in his right hand and flames at his feet. “Old Time Tent Revival,” it said. “Brother John C. McCollum. Bring the sick. Bring the poor. Bring those that are in need. And Jesus will set you free.”
The problem, Cumberland County sheriff’s investigators and some of McCollum’s former followers say, is that while Jesus may set people free, sometimes McCollum did not.
Over three decades, they say, he persuaded about 120 people, many of them children brought by their parents, to live with him on a compound in Godwin known as McCollum Ranch, a sandy 40-acre spread between U.S. 301 and Interstate 95 where he gradually took control of nearly every aspect of their lives.
McCollum provided members of his Holy Tabernacle Born Again Faith Inc. a place to live, with certain ones moving into the main house, a mobile home that was added on to until it had six bedrooms, five baths and nearly 8,000 square feet, according to tax records. Other church members had rooms or apartments in outbuildings scattered around the property. In exchange, former followers and police say, adherents worshipped as McCollum taught them, dressed as he told them, raised their children as he directed and worked as he needed them in a small empire of fish markets, food trucks and other businesses bearing his name.
According to county tax records, McCollum and two nonprofit corporations he operates accumulated real estate worth more than $437,000 – including a cell tower site on the property worth $100,000 – while members of his church lived communally, sharing what they had with him and one another.
Until he was arrested in December for allegedly using children as young as 9 years old to work more than 40 hours a week in the fish markets for little to no pay, there was nothing police could do about McCollum’s church.
“There is no such thing as an illegal religion,” said Glenn Jonas, a religion professor and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Campbell University in Buies Creek. “Throughout American history there have been these groups that pop up, and the reason is that American religion is completely free. There is no state religion and no state mandates regarding religion. Churches don’t have to be registered with the government.
“So someone gets disgruntled with their church, and they leave their church and think God gives them a vision that they are to go and start a new church,” Jonas said. “And the local furniture store has gone out of business downtown, and they go rent the building and two months later they’re calling themselves Bishop Fred and they have started the Holy Apostolic Dynamic Baptist Church of God.
“This is American religion at its finest, where you have this great marketplace of religious ideas. But it can also be its most destructive, because Bishop Fred doesn’t have anyone he’s accountable to. Bishop Fred will tell you he is only accountable to God.”
New religious movements
McCollum – known as “Prophet,” “Chief,” or “Dad,” to his followers – was the leader of what detectives describe in warrants as an “alternative religious group.” Scholars sometimes refer to such communities as “new religious movements.” Others call them cults, and say many of them share common traits, including an authoritative leader who makes decision for the group and individuals within it; an expectation that members will spend most of their time in activities with the group and will be largely isolated from friends and family outside it.
Some famous new religious movements include the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas; the Oneida Community of Oneida, N.Y.; and more recently, the Word of Faith Fellowship in the North Carolina town of Spindale. All these eventually became targets of criminal investigations.
There are no official numbers on how many of the groups exist, but those who try to track them say there likely are several thousand across the nation, often so small their neighbors never learn of them unless members begin to engage in criminal behavior.
Records in the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office show McCollum – spelled McCallum on the filing – incorporated his Holy Tabernacle Born Again Faith Inc. in 1981. Sheriff’s investigators say at the time, he was operating in Fayetteville. Former followers say that he had a restaurant then called John C’s Country Kitchen off Murchison Road, and he would close the kitchen, push the tables out of the way and hold church in the dining room.
“During the service, he would say, ‘If you give the church $20, God is going to fix your health problems and give you a new car,” said Tobias Gardner, who attended some of McCollum’s church services at the restaurant and eventually moved with his parents onto McCollum Ranch.
Later, McCollum bought the land on the outskirts of Godwin, a crossroads community of 139 people about 20 miles away, and moved there. Lt. Sean Swain, spokesman for the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, said some members of the church at the time went with McCollum, moving into the mobile home with him or into dormitory-style spaces built elsewhere on the land.
Godwin is one of many small towns along U.S. 301, a major north-south thoroughfare through North Carolina before Interstate 95 was laid parallel to it and made it possible to cut through the state without encountering a traffic signal. The land McCollum bought there, though visible from both U.S. 301 and I-95, is large enough and the buildings set far enough from the perimeter that life on the ranch could feel somewhat secluded.
Swain said officers went to McCollum Ranch three or four times starting in the late 1980s to investigate complaints from people who had left the church, but those who were still living with McCollum never cooperated. In 1990, officers charged McCollum with child abuse for beating children with an automotive fan belt so hard that it left scars. McCollum pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to probation, according to court officials.
Investigators say the group was supported financially by a variety of enterprises, some legal and some criminal.
Over the years, records show, McCollum has operated fish markets in Fayetteville, Lumberton, Rocky Mount and Hope Mills offering a vast array of “Quality Seafood at Affordable Prices.” He also ran a contract trucking company and had food trucks that traveled around Eastern North Carolina and into neighboring states, setting up in big-box store parking lots, serving cooked seafood, candied apples and boiled peanuts. Swain said the markets appeared to be relatively successful, though they tended to operate on a rotating basis, with one store being open for a while, then closing down while another opened.
Gardner, who worked in the enterprises, said children accompanying the food trucks would stand near the store entrances holding buckets to collect money for the Foundation for Feeding Hungry Children. The nonprofit was formed in 2003 and registered to McCollum and Beverly Briggs, one of McCollum’s followers, at the Godwin address. Incorporation papers say the nonprofit was set up to help alcoholics and addicts, and that if it is ever dissolved, its assets would transfer to Holy Tabernacle Born Again Faith Inc.
In January, police charged nine of McCollum’s church members, all women, with crimes related to the commune’s income. Some are accused of forcing at least six children – some of them their own progeny – to work in the seafood markets, where they did heavy lifting and dangerous cutting of fish for extensive hours each week. According to arrest warrants, the children said they were told that if they didn’t work, they wouldn’t be fed.
Several of the defendants are charged with running a sham homeschool, part of a scheme to defraud Wake Technical Community College and other institutions of a half-million dollars in financial aid paid to students who were never enrolled. In fact, police say, children at the ranch weren’t allowed to go to public schools and weren’t being educated at home.
When McCollum went on to the road to do a revival – he was billed to hold one last April at Union Star Freewill Baptist Church in Clinton – church members went with him. Officials at the Clinton church could not be reached to discuss their dealings with McCollum.
Gloria Smith of Rocky Mount walked into the big tent one night when McCollum came to her town a few years ago, she said, and was struck by the clothing worn by the women who followed McCollum around.
“All these long dresses, and it was hot weather,” Smith said. “And the children that were with them dressed the same way.”
‘Why aren’t you in school?
The next day, she said, she saw the children outside, again in long sleeves and pants. Thinking they had no lighter-weight clothes to wear, she went and gathered up shorts and tops and brought them to the kids.
“And I asked them, ‘Why aren’t you in school, when all the other children are in school?” Smith recalled. “And those women came over and fussed at me and said, ‘You don’t need to be asking these children questions. This is none of your business.’
“They wouldn’t take the clothes.”
Smith said she was shocked when a mother and daughter who lived in her neighborhood left home and went with McCollum when the revival left town.
Rosalyn Gooddine of Savannah, Ga., is still looking for her sister, Rose, who she said took up with McCollum in the mid-1990s. McCollum had brought his food truck to their town, and the next thing her family knew, Rose had quit a secretarial job working for the local parks department, emptied her bank account and gone.
Another sister later tracked down one of McCollum’s food trucks and demanded to talk to Rose, Gooddine said. She spoke with Rose on the phone briefly and never heard from her again. Gooddine believes Rose left McCollum Ranch with another one of McCollum’s followers, who went to Florida to start his own religious movement.
It still baffles Gooddine that her sister could have been attracted to McCollum or his teachings.
“They can’t believe that that is of God,” said Gooddine, a preacher herself. “For the life of me I cannot believe that. I don’t know how he gets these people’s minds so screwed up.”
While the fish markets have websites, Holy Tabernacle Born Again Faith Inc. does not appear to.
Videotape of support
McCollum, 67, was jailed under $1.1 million bond and is being held at Central Prison for medical reasons. Through prison officials, he declined to be interviewed, so it’s not clear what his doctrines are.
But in a video posted to YouTube shortly after McCollum was arrested, follower Beverly Briggs said McCollum had cured her of brain cancer in a faith healing at a revival where she met him in New York. She alluded to church teachings that African-Americans are God’s true chosen people, that the group put members’ money together so they could prosper, and that members believed strongly in the power of fasting and prayer.
Briggs said the charges against McCollum and the others were the result of a vendetta by local police and that the children who claimed to have been forced to work in the fish markets had lied. She said McCollum is a generous man who has done much good, giving homeless people a place to live and useful work to do.
Briggs has since taken down her video.
Preston Gustin doesn’t believe the charges against McCollum, either. Gustin was 18 years old in 1993 when, homeless and estranged from his family, he found an 800 number for a ministry that promised help. He called, and McCollum came to the phone. McCollum offered to pay for bus tickets for Gustin and his girlfriend to come to the ranch from Kansas. He said if they didn’t like it, he’d pay for them to travel back home.
Gustin stayed three years, he said, and during that time he worked hard, helping with construction projects at the ranch, taking care of farm animals and serving in the various church businesses.
“I worked because I wanted to, out of respect for the man,” said Gustin, who now lives in Missouri. “I probably wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for him.”
Jonas, the Campbell University religion professor, said people have different reasons for being drawn into new religious movements. Often, he said, leaders of such movements are very skilled at manipulating others, persuading them to do things they normally wouldn’t do.
“We all have insecurities,” he said. “Some of us are more guarded about those than others. So if somebody is able to find that weakness and exploit it, it’s like a computer hacker finding the back door into a code.”
Not all religious movements outside the mainstream are dangerous, Jonas said. At one time, most of what is now considered mainstream would have been looked at as a new movement.
There is one feature that can help people discern the spiritual from the spurious, he said.
“If you’re going to have complete religious freedom, you have to allow these groups to exist,” Jonas said. “Religions are free as long as they’re not hurting people. I would argue that if your religion is hurting people, it’s not a true religion.”
What makes a cult?
According to the Apologetics Index, a website that compiles research on cults, they share some common qualities that set them apart from most mainstream religions or denominations, such as:
▪ zealous, unquestioning commitment to a leader whose belief systems and practices are treated as law;
▪ suppression of doubt and dissent;
▪ mind-altering practices such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions or debilitating work routines;
▪ instructions from leadership about how members should think, act and feel, often including how they conduct relationships with one another. Members often must get permission to date or marry, to change jobs or to have children, and they must raise their children according to the leader’s instructions.
▪ exclusivity, with the group claiming its leader as a prophet or deliverer and attributing to members a special exalted status, which may be used to justify illegal or unethical behavior;
▪ a powerful us-versus-them mentality regarding society at large, and isolation from family and friends on the outside;
▪ a lack of accountability by the leader to any authority such as clergy in mainstream religious denominations have;
▪ an expectation that members devote an inordinate amount of time to the group and its activities, which often are centered around bringing in new members or making money;
▪ a fear of reprisal for leaving the group.