14/11/2019 20:51 GMT | Updated 15/11/2019 10:36 GMT

The SPAC Nation Story Tells Us What Black People Already Knew About How The Media And Politicians Value Them

Vulnerable black people were allegedly exploited while the London church was lavished with praise for its efforts to tackle knife crime, writes HuffPost UK reporter Nadine White.

A week ago, HuffPost UK published a two-part expose on SPAC Nation, a church that has been widely lauded for its positive outreach work with gang members and efforts to tackle knife crime. 

We investigated how this pioneering church, hailed by politicians as a beacon of hope for ex-gang members, creates the conditions for fraudsters to flourish within its ranks and is failing to act on accusations of some of its pastors financially exploiting the young people it claims to help. 

The next day, we revealed allegations of serious safeguarding abuses taking place within the organisation’s safehouses, known as “trap houses”.

On Wednesday, we published an account from a 17-year-old girl who has spent time in some of the trap houses. She told us under-18s are regularly seen there, and talked of how some pastors at the church encouraged her to isolate herself from her family. The church has distanced itself from the trap houses, and says the houses are rented “at the will of the individual”.

Since its rise to prominence in 2016, SPAC Nation has not hidden the fact it is different from most churches – its pastors drive Lambourghinis, wear Louboutin shoes, and broadcast live Periscopes of themselves pretending to cook money in frying pans. Yet it appears that at no point during the church’s apparent winning streak were the suspicions of politicians or mainstream media sufficiently aroused for anyone to properly investigate.

HuffPost UK
SPAC Nation.

Online, however, it was a different story. For the past three years, people have been voicing concerns about SPAC Nation, alleging financial abuse and serious safeguarding concerns. Just by typing ‘SPAC Nation’ into Twitter you could scroll through a multitude of posts giving a clear sense of the gravity of people’s concerns.

But these are not just any people; we’re talking about black people. Black people whose views, perspectives and stories are so often overlooked by the mass of the UK’s media. Black people who face institutional racism in every area of life in the UK. 

As the controversy around SPAC Nation came to a head, I noticed one question repeatedly being asked: “Did the police, government and media, seemingly lulled into believing the hype around SPAC Nation, not see what was happening – or did they decide to turn a blind eye?”

SPAC Nation’s pastors courted ties with police and government. This created a respectability that helped legitimise the organisation. 

The church’s leader, Pastor Tobi Adegboyega, was at the Conservative party Conference this year – seated next to Tory London mayoral hopeful Shaun Bailey and behind cabinet ministers such as home secretary Priti Patel and chancellor Sajid Javid for the prime minister’s speech. 

He said on social media he was at the conference on the invitation of Number 10, and he has also met cabinet ministers at Downing Street.

In December, Adegboyega won a Peace Alliance Award sponsored by the mayor of London. Three months earlier, Kevin Yfeko, a former gang member and pastor of the church, gave evidence on how communities could help tackle violence at the London Assembly.

In 2017, while he was housing minister, Theresa May’s Downing Street chief of staff Lord Gavin Barwell attended a SPAC Nation event and met Tobi Adegboyega. Barwell posted on Facebook the following day: “It’s amazing to see how they’ve changed the lives of so many young people in #Croydon. I look forward to working with them in future.”

Victoria Atkins, the minister for safeguarding and vulnerability, said of the church: “I think it’s great that a charity is doing this.” She later added: “I think it’s a really interesting initiative.”

A SPAC Nation pastor, 20-year-old Jayde Edwards, ran to become a Croydon councillor in the Fairfield ward. Tory parliamentary candidate for Croydon Central Mario Creatura publicly backed her. So did Conservative party chairman James Cleverly.

Labour politicians have also publicly lauded SPAC Nation. 

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott endorsed the church’s safe house concept during a Sky News interview in September. 

And Sarah Jones, then MP for Croydon Central, called SPAC Nation “amazing” during an appearance in 2018 on The Victoria Derbyshire Show on BBC2.

“I think it’s amazing,” she said. “I think what these men are doing is they’re stepping up and they’re saying: ‘We know what happened to us.’ You’ve got that lived experience, which means you can relate to other people in the same position, and they’re stepping up and saying: ’We care. We want everyone else to have the same opportunities we’ve now got.’”

The day we published our first article, Jones tweeted: “Over recent months I have been passed increasingly concerning reports about the SPAC Nation church, regarding safeguarding of Croydon young people and allegations of financial fraud. I can now confirm I have passed these reports to the Charity Commission and will be meeting local police to discuss the evidence given to me next week.”

It wasn’t only politicians. Perhaps eager to tell a positive story in the face of London’s horrific knife crime problem, media outlets were keen to hear from SPAC Nation – and either not interested in challenging them or unwilling to do so.

There is no avoiding the fact that, over the past three years, the positive news reports about SPAC Nation drowned out the voices of Black people crying out for journalists to investigate properly. We know of a few other media outlets that were beginning to look into the church properly when we published our investigation, but up until that point none of the coverage out there had asked tough questions of them.

These stories are hard to tell. One journalist in particular, at one of Britain’s biggest broadcasters, said he had tried to get an investigation off the ground some time ago but found a shortage of people willing to share their experiences. 

We at HuffPost UK can attest to this. But we believe this speaks to the historic lack of belief from people in marginalised communities that they can trust the media to act in their best interests.

At the beginning of this year, the BBC broadcast a three-part documentary ‘Escaping Gangs: Death, Jail or Redemption’, which followed SPAC Nation as it “tried to save the lives of young Londoners by helping them escape gangs”. The production featured Tkay Madmax – the rapper who, having once been a part of the church, left a few weeks ago and became a whistleblower who spoke to us for our investigation. 

The broadcaster interviewed key members of the church including pastor Tobi Odegboyega, and followed three reformed gang members as they sought to embark on a new, spiritual journey with SPAC Nation.

Platforms such as The Sun and ITV have also given the church favourable coverage – with headlines such as “How a London church with a criminal pastor is bringing peace to Bloodshed Britain”. The Evening Standard named Pastor Enrique Uwadiae, who has been accused of abusing a vulnerable young man in one of SPAC Nation’s safe houses, as one of London’s most influential people. 

In September, the television presenter Reggie Yates presented an MTV documentary about SPAC Nation for the first episode of his ‘Reggie Yates Meets World’ series. The aim was to “find out what they’re about, talking to pastors, members and critics of the church to get the full story”. Online, on Black Twitter, people expressed the hope that he would hold them to account, or at least ask some difficult questions.

The episode ended with an interview between the presenter and Pastor Tobi Adegboyega, the church’s charismatic leader, where Yates asked him a number of important questions about his apparent wealth and the financial activities taking place within SPAC Nation.

After a series of evasive responses from Tobi, over a steaming pot of tea, the presenter concluded: “It’s difficult to know who to believe – him or his detractors.” Watching the show, in the midst of our investigation into SPAC, I listened to his words in shock.

This feeling was echoed by many other people who had long held concerns about the church. Many people responded to the documentary with dismay – it was not the exposéthey had hoped it would be. 

We have approached Reggie Yates for comment since publishing our investigation, but he has declined to talk to us.

From the relative lack of coverage around 20-year-old black student Joy Morgan’s murder, compared with similar cases of missing white women, to racist coverage around Meghan Markle – mainstream media stand accused of failing black people, and people of colour, time and time again. 

A few months ago Raheem Sterling criticised parts of the media for fuelling racism in sport with biased coverage of young black footballers, a day after he was verbally abused during a Premier League match.

And as critics argued that sexual abuse allegations against R&B singer R Kelly would sooner have been taken more seriously if the victims were white, the same has been said of the people affected by SPAC Nation – that the police and government would’ve been quicker to investigate the church if it weren’t a predominantly black organisation.

“These black girls and women were not ‘ideal victims’,” Treva Lindsey, a professor at Ohio State University, remarked about R Kelly’s victims.

R&B singer R Kelly.

SPAC Nation is mainly comprised of young, vulnerable black people from impoverished backgrounds and broken homes. Far from being media-friendly victims, people like this are characterised as criminal and villainous by parts of the mainstream media.

As one source told HuffPost UK during its investigation: “I think, to an extent, this would be more investigated if this were a church full of white people.”

Rod Liddle, who by some miracle is still one of the UK’s leading columnists, once wrote in a Spectator article: “The overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community.”

He continued: “Of course, in return, we have rap music, goat curry and a far more vibrant and diverse understanding of cultures which were once alien to us. For which, many thanks.”

When Stormzy criticised the government for its response to the Grenfell fire tragedy during that iconic BRIT awards performance in 2018, a Daily Mail columnist Amanda Platell – referring to the rapper’s mother migrating from Ghana and his rocky road to stardom – wrote: “Is it asking too much that he show a scintilla of gratitude to the country that offered his mother and him so much? Instead of trashing it.”

The sense that Black British people should just be grateful to be in this country, with all its perks and benefits, and not rock the boat too much with too many demands, is everywhere.

The issues around SPAC Nation run far deeper than just being a case of “white people don’t care about black people”. The knife crime epidemic plays a huge part in the issue at hand.  

We have been witnessing a surge in serious youth violence with knife crime recently hitting a record high in London. The government, police and well-meaning campaigners were scrabbling around for solutions when SPAC Nation rose to prominence in 2016 with an apparent answer. The famous church “where drugs and knives are left at the altar” claimed to have what was needed to help solve this problem. 

Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP
British grime artist Stormzy performs at the Brit Awards 2018 in London. 

Describing the sheer panic that he believes the police and government feel, I vividly remember Christian vlogger Kojo Ampadu telling me: “You have a six o’clock news and you’ll hear a fresh bulletin they’re doing about somebody who’s been stabbed hours ago. It’s like you’re fighting fires. You’re just looking for someone to have water to put it out. I think that’s what SPAC offered – but with their own intention and gain behind it.

“Therefore I think they’ve been overlooked up until now as to what they’re actually doing here and how they’re doing it.”

Pastor Tobi said something similar during an interview with the BBC in 2018: “The police and authorities don’t really know what to do right now. They look to me like they are confused. So call it a church, call it whatever we wanna call it; it has to be the role of somebody.”

We at HuffPost UK might well have been in danger of drinking the Koolaid too. We are well-intended journalists like our peers who want to believe that there’s an organisation out there genuinely advocating for young people and providing a fresh solution to a crime epidemic. 

I went along to a SPAC Nation service at the beginning of this summer, after pitching to my editor a piece about a church with an eye-catching solution to the huge problem of knife crime. I wanted to believe the positive narrative around the church was a force for good and to see it for myself – but even more, I was keen to know what was really going on.

Mindful of the concerns expressed through Black Twitter about SPAC Nation, it took me 10 minutes to clock that something was amiss. Congregation members seemed too fixated on Pastor Tobi Adegboyega, and after the service pastors struggled to answer my questions about how the church is funded. One pastor became exceptionally cagey when asked. 

During a recent interview with HuffPost UK, shadow minister Steve Reed drew a comparison between the Rotherham sex abuse scandal and the SPAC Nation situation, and accused people in authority of not seeing things that “weren’t convenient”. (SPAC Nation responded to the latest allegations by welcoming police involvement and said its was “the best way all concerned can establish the truth”.)

In the Rotherham case, vulnerable children were exploited and sexually abused from the late 1980s until the 2010s, as authorities failed to tackle a group of Asian men perpetrating the crimes for fear of being labelled as racist. 

There’s an irony that so-called “Black on Black crime” is so often swiftly picked up by the press and politicians. When it comes to a chorus of allegations of financial and safeguarding abuses it appears to be an entirely different story. 

A mother of a young person involved in SPAC Nation told The Guardian: “Our belief is because 98% of the congregation are black children, that is why the police have done nothing. If it was white children in this group they would shut it down right now.”

It is difficult to say that there’s not at least an ounce of truth in that.

Nadine White is a reporter at HuffPost UK