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The Demonic Leadership of a Self-Proclaimed Preacher : BROTHER LOVE Murder, Money and a Messiah by Sydney P. Freedberg . Pantheon: $24, 335 pages

December 21, 1994|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Every so often, the melting pot of American culture spews out a strange and terrifying lump like Jim Jones, a demonic figure for whom race and religion are instruments of violence. And we come face to face with yet another self-made practitioner of the politics of apocalypse in Sydney P. Freedberg's "Brother Love."

The man who called himself Brother Love was known by other names, too: Hulon Mitchell Jr., Hulon X, Father Michel, Yahweh Ben Yahweh.

Born to an Oklahoma preacher, Mitchell reinvented himself as a disciple of Elijah Muhammad in the Nation of Islam, a Christian radio evangelist in Atlanta and, finally, as the charismatic leader of a Miami-based church of "Black Israelites" that he called the Temple of Love.

"I am here to save you," Mitchell told the converts who fell under his spell. "I am here to take you out of hell."

From his stronghold in Liberty City, a riot-torn ghetto in Miami, Mitchell cobbled together a religious movement based on militant black nationalism and a profoundly revisionist reading of the Old Testament, which he regarded as a cryptogram that revealed Jesus--as well as Job, Jeremiah, Solomon and David--to have been black.

"All white people who say they are Jews," declared Mitchell, "are liars and impostors."

Mitchell called himself Yahweh Ben Yahweh--a Hebrew name that means "God, the Son of God"--and initiated his followers into a cracked variant of Judaism. They studied Hebrew, wore skullcaps, shunned pork and shellfish; Mitchell personally circumcised his male followers and tutored his female followers in midwifery; the Temple of Love began to bottle and sell its own line of "Yahweh" beer and wine.

Mitchell, not unlike Jim Jones, courted and won over not a few credulous civil leaders who were convinced that Yahweh Ben Yahweh was capable of casting out the demons of drug-dealing and racial violence from the streets of Miami. Behind the doors of the Temple of Love, however, something very odd and ominous was going on.

According to Freedberg, Mitchell collected greenbacks from his followers on the strength of a promise to pay them back in silver bullion--but only after Judgment Day.

The midwifery classes began to sound a lot like orgies, and Yahweh himself demanded sexual favors from his adoring female disciples while preaching abstinence to their husbands. "Husbands, irritated by the celibacy rules, begged women to get biblical in the shadows," writes Freedberg.

Even more ominously, Freedberg suggests, members of the Temple of Love began to die under Mitchell's "rod of correction," and even the youngest children among them were apparently starved and sexually abused.

Before long, Yahweh Ben Yahweh called on the menfolk to wear swords at their sides and to carry "staffs of life" that were especially useful in beating someone to death.

"How many would die for Yahweh?" Mitchell asked his disciples. "How many would kill for Yahweh?"

In fact, Yahweh Ben Yahweh was a jealous god, and when some of his disciples began to doubt his divinity, retribution was swift and deadly. Freedberg describes an execution in which a member of the Temple of Love was singled out and clubbed to death by the gathered congregation, including children and young women with babes in arms. Dismembered bodies began to appear on the streets of Miami as Yahweh's "death angels" sought strangers for blood sacrifices and wreaked the cruelest imaginable vengeance against imagined enemies.

Freedberg, a reporter for the Miami Herald and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, has adopted what is now the formulaic approach to true crime--an underpinning of investigative journalism and a draping of novelistic detail and dialogue. Still, as shopworn as the genre has become, Freedberg is undeniably good at it. For example, Freedberg evokes the steamy and sinister streets of Miami--from Liberty City to Little Havana--in grim and sometimes gruesome close-up.

But "Brother Love" does not pander to our taste for the exotic and the outrageous. With all of its weird and whacked-out trappings, "Brother Love" is essentially a distinctly American morality play, a cautionary tale of what can happen when a gifted mountebank feeds our appetites for money, sex, violence and true belief.

Indeed, as Freedberg follows Hulon Mitchell Jr. out of the Temple of Love and into the courtroom where he was sentenced to 18 years in prison, we come to realize that the story of Yahweh Ben Yahweh and the Temple of Love is so thoroughly and uniquely American that it could not have happened anywhere else.

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