Ex-followers of Universal Church of the Kingdom of God say they felt pressure to give money and were told demons caused mental health issues
Rachael Reign, 29, remembers feeling nervous the first time she hit record on Instagram Live. She was about to start speaking publicly about a group that she says had consumed virtually her entire life: the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG).
Walking down the street in south London when she was 13 years old, Reign had been approached by a church member who told her about the Victory youth group (VYG), part of the church that offered activities for young people.
At first she enjoyed the group, but after a few weeks started to feel pressure to attend more often, she said. “It didn’t take me long to be completely submerged in UCKG life.” When, at 15, she was made an assistant – an unpaid, official position within the church hierarchy – she said she was at the church almost daily. In this position she said she was responsible for helping with constant fundraising drives and for performing strong prayers, calling out demons in congregants.
Reign spent seven years as an active member and left aged 20. She said it was only after leaving that she started to reassess what she had felt: “I was exposed to some horrendous things that I just should not have been exposed to.”
It took several years for Reign to process what she had experienced, she said. In that time she met others who had left the church and Reign decided to start speaking out.
She started Surviving Universal UK and said she had been inundated by other young people who have left the church.
The Guardian has interviewed more than 30 former members of the VYG. The majority had made contact with Reign. Some had independently posted online about their experiences. They all attended the church and youth group at some point between 2003 and 2022, many in the last four years.
Some said they had made friends at the church and enjoyed the activities put on by VYG, but nearly all those interviewed complained of feeling pressured to donate large amounts of money. Others talked about feeling encouraged to cut ties with friends and family or being told demon possession was the cause of mental health issues or their sexuality. Several were shown graphic images of dead bodies, they said, as a warning of what happens to those who leave the church.
UCKG is an evangelical, Pentecostal church, first started in Brazil. It now has a presence across the globe, including more than 50 full- and part-time branches in the UK, the most recent of which opened in Nottingham this month. Many are located in some of the most economically deprived parts of the country.
The church’s Brazilian founder, Edir Macedo, has been included on Forbes’ billionaires list. Twice this year he has flown into the UK, and around Europe, on private jets owned by the church. In Brazil, congregants’ donations were used to build a temple in São Paulo as tall as an 18-storey building.
The VYG is highly active in the UK. It holds meetings twice a week and puts on regular events where hundreds of teenagers gather. Its 1,330 regular members are predominantly black teenagers and young people.
The UCKG responded to the Guardian’s questions, saying it took allegations and complaints “very seriously” but that the complaints had not been raised directly with it.
“We are aware that regrettably some former members promote hatred against the church on social media and vilify its beliefs and practices. Our many current members appreciate the church and the good work it does, and would tell a different story,” a spokesperson said.
Feeling pressure to donate money
Mariah* was one of the first people to join Reign in her Instagram videos. She was 15 and in foster care when she first entered the church, about 10 years ago. Like Reign, she remembers finding it welcoming but said she was soon getting repeated phone calls from officials encouraging her to attend multiple times a week. She remembers almost immediately feeling pressure to donate money.
Like many churches, UCKG asks congregants for tithe, or 10% of any income. For some young people, this involved giving part of their pocket money or lunch funds. In recent years, card-reader machines have been brought out in some youth group sessions.
Then, there is a worldwide, twice-yearly Campaign of Israel, where the church encourages congregants to give large, personal sacrifices in return for blessings from God. During the summer campaign, former members said videos were played in VYG sessions of people speaking about selling their possessions, giving all their savings, or even money meant for visa renewals to the church.
“They would bombard us with these testimonies in every single service, and the pastors would preach that if you’ve got savings in your account, it is time for you to put it on the altar,” Mariah said. She remembers selling her local authority-issued laptop to donate the money to the church when she was about 15, and described “one of the lowest points of my life” as later going to sixth-form college in the snow wearing only light summer shoes because she did not have money left over from all her donations.
The young people the Guardian spoke to described how, as teenagers, they sold clothes, phones or jewellery for donation money. One person said their church donations left them relying on credit cards, another that they were left with only their student loan, and one said she had to ask for donations from the church’s own food bank.
UCKG told the Guardian no one was obliged or pressured to give, and that it does not keep a record of tithers or in any way control who gives and who does not.
Last year, the church recorded income of £14m in the UK, mostly from donations and gift aid. Almost all was spent on charitable activities, according to its accounts, including the church’s telephone helpline and community outreach programmes.
Analysis of five years of the church’s accounts show it has maintained cash in hand of about £11m-14m each year, much more than other churches of a comparable size.
The Guardian has found that complaints about the church have been raised with the Charity Commission. According to a freedom of information request, eight complaints were logged during 2020 and 2021. Three of those focused on “serious harm to beneficiaries and, in particular, vulnerable beneficiaries”. The commission said the complaints had not prompted any statutory inquiries but that it had provided the church’s trustees with advice. The church confirmed it had received this guidance, and said it had not been required to make changes.
‘They said I was demon possessed’
Mariah left the church after seven years and said she would have left sooner but was afraid of what would happen. She said that as a teenager “we were shown videos of corpses, people that left the church, look what happened to them, they died, they hung themselves. And so that thought constantly haunted me.”
The Guardian has seen videos of supposedly possessed people describing the fate of those who had left. Several people we spoke to described being shown these videos when they were as young as 14. This includes four people who independently described a graphic video of an ex-official immediately after a fatal motorbike accident, with his heart outside his body.
“I was 14 when I saw this video,” said Anne, who was in an east London VYG group for eight years. “I was constantly seeing pictures of people who had hung themselves and these are really graphic images. So if you’re constantly saying to someone: ‘This person left and now they’re dead,’ you’re feeling … if I leave this is going to happen to me!”
Julie* was 19 and struggling with her mental health when she confided in a church assistant that she was having vivid suicidal thoughts. “They said I was demon possessed … they didn’t say, go talk to a doctor or other services,” she said. Instead she was encouraged to attend Friday services where officials perform “strong prayers” to “manifest” demons.
During strong prayers a church official may place their hands on people in the congregation and call out the “demons” that are causing bad things to happen in their lives. On some occasions a person being prayed for might manifest a demon and the official will then talk directly to them, interviewing the demon in public.
Julie said the official who performed the strong prayer on her was someone other than the person she had confided in about her suicidal thoughts.
The church said: “No prayer, strong or otherwise, is ever promoted as a replacement for medical or any other professional help,” and added it had a safeguarding team to help with referrals.
The church’s Beat Depression service recommends “spiritual cleansing sessions” to address mental health issues. Former VYG members said they had heard self-harm, depression and suicidal ideation being linked to demons. The UCKG said its promotional materials contained disclaimers that prayer was not a replacement for medical or professional help. There is no such obvious warning on the Beat Depression web page.
Former members said the church had a rule that strong prayers should not take place on those aged under 16, though the church did not respond to the Guardian’s question on this. Four former members said they experienced the prayers when they were 14. In other instances, those under 16 were made to stay in VYG meetings while they were performed on older members.
Joshua* said that a few years ago, when he was 13, he confided in a church assistant that he was gay. He said he was told: “You’ve been hit by a demon inside of you.” The official performed a strong prayer, calling out the demon making him gay. “She was just saying stuff like, ‘Why are you in his life? What are you trying to do in his life?’ She was basically speaking to the demons. I felt very, very scared and I just wanted it to stop.” He said the experience left him confused and humiliated.
The Guardian has seen several official UCKG videos, published in Portuguese and Spanish, in whjich people talk about being LGBTQ+ before coming to the church and changing their sexuality.
Two people described their experiences as akin to conversion practices, with one saying the long-term effects were “like post-traumatic stress disorder”.
UCKG UK told the Guardian it “does not perform or believe in the efficacy of conversion therapy” and that “if gender issues are brought to our attention, we advise people to pray and seek guidance from the word of God”.
The church also said: “We take allegations and complaints very seriously,” but that without specific details it could only respond to the Guardian’s questions “in general terms”.
Reign said she had been struck by the number of people who had been in touch describing their experiences in the church. “If people feel like they have to be there every day, they have to give a financial offering, they can’t express their true sexuality … It’s just not a healthy environment, it’s toxic,” she said.
And she noted that the vast majority of those attending VYG sessions were black teenagers from relatively economically deprived neighbourhoods. She said she thinks that has been part of the reason the actions of the church have not had much attention until now. “I do feel that if it was a group of white people … the attention would be there. But because it’s not, it’s as though no one cares.”
* Some names have been changed