Former members of Christian 'cult' that preys on military begged FBI to investigate for more than 2 years
Hands up in light (Shutterstock)

His persona could ricochet from sweetly paternal to icy menace whenever Rev. Rony Denis suspected disloyalty. Former followers said Denis reminded the disenchanted that his father was once a leader of Haiti’s vicious Tonton Macoutes — the legendary death squad named for a Haitian fairytale boogeyman who kidnaps and devours rebellious children. Denis warned malcontents that he learned from his dad how to destroy traitors, even those trained by the U.S. military.

Denis is the leader of the House of Prayer Christian Church, a nationwide network of 12 congregations, 11 of which are located near military bases where HOPCC recruited members. Founded in 2003, former members are now accusing HOPCC of being a cult. In June, the FBI raided at least four HOPCC churches in Texas, Georgia and Washington—all near military bases---seizing computers, files and records.

Although Denis forbade HOPCC members to use the Internet, former members now have a massive online site filled with complaints from former members. Some talked to Raw Story.

Former members accuse the church of targeting and defrauding soldiers out of their disability checks and housing allowances via rent-to-own scams with HOPCC-owned homes, pressuring vets to donate paychecks and deplete GI Bill funds by enrolling them in a bogus seminary.

They also claim the church used members’ social security numbers and birthdates to buy property that built itself a real estate empire while ruining their credit.

ALSO IN THE NEWS: Pence mocked for rushing to support Trump after FBI Mar-a-Lago raid

Several former members told Raw Story they had phoned the FBI and IRS years ago to offer evidence of wrongdoing.

The respected watchdog nonprofit, Veterans for Education Success, investigated HOPCC two years ago. VES estimates that HOPCC has gobbled up more than $7 million of taxpayers’ money. VES sent an 11-page report to the FBI and Veterans Administration documenting alleged illegal HOPCC activities in August 2020.

So, why did two years pass before the FBI acted?

“That’s a good question…I don’t know the answer,” VES vice president Will Hubbard replied.

The FBI did not respond to Raw Story interview requests. IRS spokesperson Anthony Burke sent Raw Story a link to IRS regs rather than grant an interview. Pastor Rony Denis and finance officer Anthony Oloans declined our requests for interviews.

But former HOPCC members shared their stories, despite what they describe as considerable risks.

“HOPCC men have run me off the roads near Hinesville, Ga. in their SUVs,” former member Gladys Jordan told Raw Story.

She says church members humiliate and defame rebels by plastering their neighborhoods with handmade posters featuring photos of former members captioned, “PEDOPHILE” and ”SEX OFFENDER.” Other former members said HOPCC had set up fake Facebook pages for former members then plastered them with porn.

All church exes interviewed by Raw Story said HOPCC forbids members to use the internet, watch TV, read newspapers, listen to radio or podcasts, read magazines or play video games. They were told not to socialize with non-HOPCC coworkers.

Outsiders may be baffled by why men and women brave and tough enough to survive Iraq and Afghanistan tolerated the restrictions.

The answer is, HOPCC chose targets carefully focusing on young men and women from low income, splintered, distant or dysfunctional families who never had college as an option. For them, the military was their sole path to the middle class and a chance to bond with a community.

Another common thread becomes clear during interviews: They were idealists, naïve romantics yearning to be part of a higher purpose.

“Right before I joined the military and met (HOPCC), my life was a mess—I was drinking too much, smoking too much and had way too many tattoos all over my arms,” Jesse Preston told Raw Story. “My marriage broke up. We married way too young and both of us came from crazy families. Neither of us had functional families for role models. I was barely able to graduate high school…I was ready to do anything to change my life.”

Preston joined the Army hoping to find a community of friends with sound moral compasses. When he arrived at Fort Stewart, Georgia, HOPCC recruiters were in the reception area greeting newly minted soldiers. They offered to drive soldiers to their Hinesville church eight miles away for home-cooked supper served by pretty girls.

TOUGH VETERANS AS CULT’S SOFT TARGETS

Preston said HOPCC recruiters roamed Fort Stewart’s PX (on base big box store) and barracks. A Fort Hood, Texas female soldier told Raw Story that Killeen, Texas HOPCC recruiters were keenly aware that sexual assault was a problem on the base before it hit national headlines. So, HOPCC urged female soldiers to rent a room in the church’s women-only housing where they’d be safer at night than they would be sleeping in the barracks.

Painfully shy, Preston was delighted by HOPCC’s diverse congregation where all races and ethnicities mingled as friends. He thought it was a bit odd that female HOPCC members all wore pastel ankle-length skirts and baggy blouses and their chats with men were monitored by elders. HOPCC insisted on handpicking wives and arranging marriages for young men seemed saner than trusting Tinder or Bumble to find his true love for strangers. Preston believed adhering to stringent rules helped him stop drinking and smoking and survive war zones.

Veteran Tomas Moreno joined HOPCC at age 15 when his sister, also an HOPCC member, brought him to the congregation near the Fayetteville, North Carolina military base in 2008. She and her husband took Moreno in after troubles with his parents and school. He saw Denis as the fatherly role model Moreno felt he desperately needed.

“Denis was a father figure for me; if your dad is loving but a little weird, you go along with him even if his ideas seem strange or old-fashioned,” Moreno told Raw Story. Moreno fondly remembers Denis giving him $10 occasionally for new shoes or clothes. He was glad Denis wanted him home schooled instead of attending public school. To avoid the internet, Moreno enrolled in distance learning so his textbooks and tests were shipped to him and he snail-mailed them back for grading.

Moreno donated a chunk of his paychecks to HOPCC. His marriage to an HOPCC-approved woman proved happy. When he took her on vacation to pretty Gatlinburg, the Tennessee Smoky Mountains resort town, HOPCC objected about them being far from the church’s eyesight. But Moreno swears the couple stayed true to HOPCC rules and never once turned on the hotel TV and never cruised the internet on the lobby computer.

Denis never Zoomed or used the internet for national meetings. Gladys Jordan remembers Denis bragging that his nationwide intercom system was like that of cult leader Jim Jones. She was alarmed, she claims, when Denis called Jones a “brilliant communicator.” (In 1978, more than 900 of Jones’ followers died when he ordered them to drink poisoned Kool-Aid after he had a U.S. Congressman murdered.)

From VES research, Hubbard concludes Denis was obsessed with money, not politics or launching Armageddon.

It may seem odd that veterans would turn to VES rather than the VA to complain about being defrauded of their GI Bill funds. But Hubbard thinks the way state departments of education and the VA monitor higher education may be confusing for a lot of Americans. And realistically, fighting a school for doing a lousy job can involve years of litigation and staggering legal fees.

For the state government and the VA, “it’s an unfair fight,” Hubbard said.

Initially, Moreno said his only problem with HOPCC was its demand that followers rent “raggedy, broken down apartments the church owned.”

HOPCC’s monthly rent was $800 and higher. Some apartments had broken plumbing, leaking roofs, holes in the floor and temperamental furnaces. When veterans complained, HOPCC told them to do repairs themselves. Moreno lost count of how many unpaid hours he spent fixing church apartments.

Moreno says he spent hundreds of dollars on the unaccredited HOPCC seminary. But he shrewdly earned a degree in a local college to be an electrician. With three kids to support, he wanted a skill set that would land him a job in the real world, not a gig as a minimally paid HOPCC pastor.

VES heard from veterans who spent years, up to a decade, in the HOPCC seminary. They said classes consisted of repairing and cleaning church properties and washing HOPCC leaders’ cars — with a bit of Bible study.

The veterans who contacted VES were usually the first in their working-class or working poor families to try and earn a college degree.

“They didn’t have the experience of visiting campuses with their parents to ask questions… they didn’t have guidance counselors explaining what the college classes were like,” VES vice president Will Hubbard said.

HOPCC kept members too busy to ponder over how it did business. “Soul winning” was the church’s term for walking streets, military bases or shopping malls to invite strangers to HOPCC suppers. And HOPCC required members to ‘soul win’ for several hours each day.

“We attended a mandatory 5:30 pm dinner at church, then some hours of soul winning, then back to the church for Bible study, then home,” said Moreno, whose wife is pregnant with their fourth child. “By that time, you’re really ready for bed and sleep.”

LOTS OF STICK, LITTLE CARROT

VES reports that Denis bought himself Florida mansions and luxury vacations. It doesn’t look as if he bribed ordinary members with sumptuous swag. His approach seemed “mostly stick, not much carrot,” Hubbard remarked. It’s difficult for an outsider to discern any rewards in HOPCC membership, since it sounds like zero fun.

But Denis, a U.S. military veteran, understood the battlefield camaraderie soldiers earn in war doesn’t evaporate when they leave the military. That intense sense of brotherhood is hard to duplicate in civilian life. When HOPCC’s demands and rules seemed dreary, a congregation composed of veterans boosted a soldier’s spirits.

“We’re brothers…guardians together of (our country) together…that bond doesn’t end when we leave a war’s frontlines,” said Darnell Emanuel.

Emanuel and his HOPCC-approved wife were a happy match. But they left the church last year after Emanuel became concerned about HOPCC business irregularities — and their daughter confided that she was beaten while attending an HOPCC day school.

Like Moreno, Emanuel studied to earn an electrician’s certificate. It got him a good job with Amazon. But he was wary of HOPCC retaliation. When he detailed how he planned his flight from HOPCC, it sounds like the way wives plan escapes from abusive husbands. He and his wife set up personal checking and savings accounts that HOPCC didn’t know about and chose a safe place to go to then fled by night.

Emanuel claims he recently caught an HOPCC member trying to break into his new home late one night.

Emanuel was luckier than Preston, who returned from Iraq with PTSD and a genuine desire to be a pastor. Preston loved listening to Denis discuss his dream of building “the greatest homeless housing ever with marble floors and counselors for everyone who was addicted.” So, Preston enrolled in the church’s seminary but worried about the lack of study. He also wondered why HOPCC’s only community service seemed to be biannual trips to bigger cities — usually Washington, D.C. or Chicago — to sing on sidewalks and give hotdogs to the homeless.

On the home front, HOPCC’s matchmaking was a disaster for Preston. His first arranged marriage was to a woman “who really didn’t like me. We had nothing in common except our daughter.”

Preston enjoyed being a father. But he says his ex took the girl with her when she left him. He got a pro bono lawyer to negotiate visitation but HOPCC leaders told him a custody battle might hurt the church. So, he gave up.

His second wife left him last month because Preston said she couldn’t accept his break with the church.

“It scares me. Denis always said divorce was a terrible sin, divorce would send you to eternal hell,” Preston said. “I can imagine hell real clearly…It’s real. I don’t want to go to hell!”

He still can’t afford a laptop or computer at home. But his awakening occurred when he bought an iPhone and finally visited the internet.

“I found out there’s such a thing as podcasts and I listened to one on religions and cults,” Preston mused. “When the podcast was over, I thought I was in a cult.”

He’s taking some big steps to rebuild his life. He went to the VA where a counselor made an appointment for him to get therapy for PTSD and help in building healthy relationships. He found a new, non-HOPCC church. And he’s trying to find a pro bono lawyer to help arrange visitation with his daughter.

Preston was smart enough to be promoted to staff sergeant in Iraq. But he says he spent 13 years and thousands of dollars on the HOPCC seminary and never got a degree. He now has a steady job as a Tacoma school bus driver.

CAN A CULT GET THE IRS TO DEEM IT A CHURCH? YES INDEED!

The After School Satan Club asked the IRS for tax-exempt church status in December 2016. The cult explained in its application that it wanted to teach children about critical thinking, logic and Lucifer. The IRS granted tax-exempt status ten days later. At that time, the right-wing Judicial Watch raged against the Obama Administration for encouraging leftist Satanism. But, the ease with which a “church” can win tax-exempt status should unite conservatives and liberals in outrage.

Last month, a new controversy erupted over the IRS granting tax-exempt status to the conservative Family Research Council — whose PrayVoteStand summit featured GOP presidential hopeful Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Congressman Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Josh Hawley.

ProPublica helpfully posted the Council’s application to show just how simple it was to fill out.

Bottom line: It’s relatively easy to get IRS tax-exempt status as a church and no agency in the federal government embraces the mission of busting bogus churches.

MinistryWatch president Warren Smith makes that clear. “We can’t rely on federal or state government for oversight; government has proven itself inadequate to police or investigate nonprofits,” Smith told Raw Story.

MinistryWatch is an investigative journalism organization and watchdog focused on churches and religious nonprofits. MinistryWatch’s work has prompted some Senators and Congressmen to launch investigations.

Smith estimates there are one million religious nonprofits in America and “less than half of one percent would ever get an IRS audit in any given year. And that would be a quick, cursory audit, not an investigation.”

In November 2007, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) announced a major investigation into the tax-exempt status of six televangelists — including Paula White. About a decade later, White would become chair of Trump’s evangelical advisory board.

MinistryWatch published a deep dive investigation of the six ministries. Smith says his staff worked closely with Grassley’s staff and the Senate Committee on Finance. Smith was hopeful that the investigation might prompt a move to create stricter oversight of corrupt charities and churches that abuse tax-exempt status.

But then the global economy collapsed in 2008.

“That pretty much sucked the oxygen out of the investigation; the Senate had bigger worries,” Smith said.

Some of the televangelists flatly refused to cooperate with the investigation, yet received no penalties. Grassley issued a final report in 2011 that questioned the televangelists’ personal use of church-owned airplanes, mansions and church credit cards and the hefty salaries pastors’ family members got for jobs with the media ministries. But as CBS reported, Grassley drew “no specific conclusions about whether the ministries violated IRS rules that bar excessive compensation for leaders of religious nonprofits.”

Democrats and Republicans should unite in exasperation over who gets tax-exempt status from the IRS. One big perk that comes with tax-exempt status is faith-based organizations aren’t required to file financial statements showing staff and leaders’ salaries and how donors’ money is spent. While some faith-based charities file statements with the IRS in an admirable effort at transparency, HOPCC does not. That perk comes at a hefty financial cost for taxpayers.

It may cost even more for Americans like Gladys Jordan, who worshiped at a church they assumed was legit.

She gets calls and texts from HOPCC members asking for her help in leaving the church. But she says her heart is broken over her son, who is still employed as an HOPCC pastor, the only job she says he’s ever had. He refuses to communicate with her in any way since she left HOPCC. She drives to the church almost every day hoping to glimpse him.

“When I see him, I call out, I love you. I will always love you,” her calm voice finally breaks into tears. “He never looks my way.”

ALSO IN THE NEWS: 'Culty as hell': Former Mormons unhappy with church's response to blockbuster child abuse investigation