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Race, memes, marijuana: The controversial shutdown of Lion of Judah, House of Rastafari church

Police shut down the Lion of Judah, House of Rastafari church, which has caused controversy over problematic Facebook posts, accusations of cultural appropriation, and distribution of marijuana to its members.

Image By: Dana Brandt

A police raid shut down a church distributing sacraments of marijuana Wednesday — but illegal distribution of the drug was only part of the controversy. 

The backlash escalated when Madison residents discovered the two founders of the Rastafari church — an Africa-centered religion originating in Jamaica — are white men who post offensive content on the church’s Facebook page. 

The church, called Lion of Judah, House of Rastafari, was located on Mifflin Street and run by Jesse Schworck and Dylan Bangert. They offered marijuana to members of the church in exchange for monetary donations — and becoming a member only took signing a membership card. 

Schworck and Bangert faced their first public challenges when Madison police confiscated “several jars of marijuana and drug paraphernalia” on March 26. Two weeks later, the city attorney’s office sent them a “cease and desist drug nuisance” letter stating the Lion of Judah church was violating the law. 

The Dane County Narcotics Task Force and Madison police raided and shut down the church shortly before 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, where both Schworck and Bangert were arrested. 

From the Lion of Judah’s March opening to Wednesday’s shutdown, the church had enough time to cause controversy in the Madison community about more than just marijuana. 

An offensive online presence

Lion of Judah often posted on Facebook to encourage more people to come to their church, attracting nearly 2,200 online followers.

However, some posts displayed views that are harmful to the LGBTQ+ community, women and black individuals.  

The church shared a since-deleted post — an edited picture in the style of a meme — depicting wildlife enthusiast Steve Irwin holding up a black woman with the text, “Here we have a wild hoodrat … Once a hoodrat reaches sexual maturity, she will begin a mating dance known as ‘twerking’ to find a mate to supply her with food and shelter.”

Madison resident Nicole Banks said discovering this post was “quite shocking.” 

She reacted by messaging Lion of Judah’s Facebook page, asking about the religious significance of the meme. 

“I dont know wat response u wish for about meme..we not apologizing..it is our culture to not be whorish..weather man or woman..black or white..” the church responded over Facebook messenger, typing in what Banks referred to as a fake Jamaican accent. “So. We burn black whores and white whores with no apology.”

Facebook was the one to take down the post, not the church, Schworck told The Daily Cardinal. Furthermore, Schworck stood by the meme. 

“We don't support twerking and sexual promiscuousness and hyper-sexualization, whether it's a black or white or anybody doing it. Because of my appearance, I'm not going to hold my tongue for anybody,” he said. “If black people don't like that, that's something from their culture that has been a negative impact, then they need to clean up their house.”

Demetrius Walker, a Madisonian and member of the Rastafari religion for a year and a half, was initially excited by the presence of a Rastafari church in Madison, but after seeing its social media, he grew apprehensive. 

He had a different opinion about what Rastafaris should say about the post depicting black women. 

“That's not anything that Rastafaris are supposed to be posting or even discussing like that, and it's hard for me — you never disrespect black women like that,” Walker said. “We're not going to say peace and love and then treat our women badly. That's not peace and love at all.”

Other posts that have stirred up controversy include a picture illustrating a woman in an apron taking a pan out of the oven with the text, “Feminism is the idea that women are free when they serve their employers but slaves when they serve their husband and children.” 

Another post depicted an outline of a man and woman holding hands, reading “straight pride.” 

Schworck defended this post, too, citing examples of how straight couples “keep the earth populated” and “make opposites attract.” He said he’s proud of his heterosexuality, and the post served to fight against “heterophobia.”

“It's real for us people that are heterosexual people that are fine with our lifestyle, but we feel constant harassment from certain elements in [the LGBTQ+] community that are trying to force their ideology for us to accept,” Schworck said. “We can live and let live, we can agree to disagree, we don't beat people up and call them names and stuff. We just promote our lifestyle, and they want to promote theirs.”

Schworck’s claims of “heterophobia” have inflamed commenters on the original post because it minimizes the harassment members of the LGBTQ+ community have to face on a daily basis. 

Fifty-seven percent of LGBTQ+ people say that they or an LGBTQ+ friend or family member have been threatened or non-sexually harassed, 51 percent have been sexually harassed and 51 percent have experienced violence because of their sexuality or gender identity, according to a 2017 Harvard study

After her conversation with Lion of Judah over Facebook, Banks felt she had to get the word out about the church’s conduct. 

“I really felt like as a citizen, people should be aware of who they're supporting,” she said. “I think that most in the community are in support of legalization of marijuana, and that's why they back these people.”

Community backlash against Lion of Judah took the form of a protest May 22. Around 20 people participated, rallying against the social media posts expressing racist, homophobic and sexist views, according to Fox 47

Schworck didn’t seem bothered by protest, according to the church’s Facebook page. He shared the Fox 47 story, writing “More news coverage!!!” while also calling the protesters a “band of baboons … bless their hearts.”

Accusations of cultural appropriation

Dana Pellebon, a Madison resident and one of the protesters, has her own history with Lion of Judah. 

After seeing the church “spewing bullshit” on a friend’s social media page, she reached out to Lion of Judah to express her concerns. According to Pellebon, she didn’t receive answers, so she decided to go down to the church, in person. 

“As far as I was concerned, I was going down there to have a conversation because they are online, saying very clearly what it is that they're doing and why it is that they're doing it,” Pellebon said. “So to me, they should be able to answer very simple questions about what it is that they're doing and why.”

Pellebon, recording the encounter and later posting a video to Facebook, was forced out of the store after telling Schworck and Bangert she wanted to talk to them about cultural appropriation. Schworck called Pellebon a “neanderthal,” and she said another man put his hands on her while escorting her from the building. 

Schworck said people are shown respect at his church if they show the people of the church respect when they arrive. He accused Pellebon of “race-baiting” and said that’s not what Rastafari is about. 

Banks agreed with Pellebon’s assessment of cultural appropriation in Lion of Judah’s adaptation of the Rastafari religion. She also suggested Schworck and Bangert have an ulterior motive for opening the church. 

“I know that [Schworck] has a video saying something about the freedom to practice your religion. Most of the people who are going there are not practicing that religion,” Banks said. “They're just there to buy weed, and these guys are there. They're using this church as a front to sell weed, to set themselves up as a dispensary. Once it does become legal in Wisconsin, they'd already be set up.”

However, Schworck considers himself to be very dedicated to Rastafari. 

He’s traveled to Jamaica and Kenya a dozen times each to gain firsthand knowledge and make connections, he said. 

“Rastafari is for all people ... It's not about excluding certain groups of people or trying to marginalize them,” Schworck said. “This thing is not just some black supremacy thing. This isn't for all black people, it's for everybody. The people that are upset about it are black people with white hearts.”

Cultural appropriation wasn’t one of Walker’s main concerns with Lion of Judah. He brought up his own background to say that anyone can discover the Rastafari religion, regardless of where they’re from.

“Rastafari is any color,” Walker said. “As far as two white guys being Rastafaris, I mean, you can be from anywhere because I'm from Illinois, and I'm just getting into it later in life because I found Rastafari.” 

Schworck said it comes down to the fact that “certain cultures have better things than other cultures.” 

“What's wrong with other people trying to assimilate themselves onto something good? It's not about ‘That's a black thing,' or anything,” he said. “This is something that God gave earth.”

However, Banks still thinks Lion of Judah goes too far with their adaptation of Rastafarian culture.

“It is possible to adopt another culture's practices and beliefs without going all the way with the dreadlocks, wearing the Rasta colors, speaking and typing in a Jamaican accent,” she said. “It always strikes a nerve when you see people who are white taking over another culture without a lot of thought to it.”

No arrests made for months

After receiving the cease and desist letter from the city, not much appeared to change for Lion of Judah until the morning of the raid. Marijuana was still given to church members and some smoked on site. 

For Pellebon, the lack of immediate action against Schworck and Bangert was all about race. If they weren’t white, there wouldn’t have been a “strongly worded letter,” she said.  

“There are racial discrepancies that are happening. And this is a huge example of it,” Pellebon said. “The kids who are supporting this and the people that are supporting this are supporting mass incarceration of black men. Because when you support a white man getting away with something, that just means that another black man's going down.”

Banks expressed similar sentiments prior to Wednesday’s raid, saying that “no one can deny” that “if they were men of color, they would be in jail by now.”

African Americans are disproportionately arrested for drug offenses in the United States — as The Sentencing Project reported more than one in four individuals arrested for drug law violations in 2015 was black, despite drug use rates being similar across different racial groups. 

Pellebon wanted to see the city do more to stop Lion of Judah. 

“This is ridiculous, and the Madison police know it's ridiculous, and the city attorney knows it's ridiculous,” she said. 

City Attorney Michael May said in a voicemail he couldn’t comment on the Lion of Judah case because it is an ongoing investigation. 

The future of Rastafari in Madison

Walker was torn between wanting a Rastafari church in the community and not wanting to support Lion of Judah’s values, so he chose the third option — start his own church. 

“It's a going to be a learning and cultural center where people can come in and learn about Rastafari [and] learn about other African spirituality, where you can learn about some of our black heroes,” Walker said.

Walker’s church, Lost Tribe of Judah, has a Facebook page and a GoFundMe to raise money and find the church a permanent location. 

Walker said he’s still discussing if his church will use marijuana as a sacrament. However, he was very clear that the Lost Tribe of Judah will not distribute the substance like the Lion of Judah did. 

“When we sit down and use it as a sacrament, it's part of Rastafari, part of our religion,” Walker said. “As far as just you can come in and get the membership card ... we won't do that. We won't operate that way.”

Walker also wants his Rastafari church to “build the community up,” a piece he said was missing from Schworck and Bangert’s location. Families will be welcome, and Walker plans to use his church to help people going through hard times find jobs, saying that’s what true Rastafaris do.

However, Walker does credit Lion of Judah with laying the groundwork for creating a Rastafari church in Madison. Ultimately, he said he wants Lion of Judah to use the public scrutiny as a learning experience. 

“I hope they learn from this,” Walker said. “They might go back and try to correct their mistakes.”

Banks and Pellebon were less optimistic, both expressing their desire for the city to shut down Lion of Judah, which has since become a reality.

Still, Walker hopes the controversy surrounding the church doesn’t cloud the community’s judgement of the Rastafari religion as a whole. 

“It's not just about taking a donation and getting weed out. Rastafari is a spirituality, it's a lifestyle,” he said. “It is about peace, love and togetherness.”

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