The Church at Sapa: Inside the walls of a long-forgotten Mississippi cult
SAPA, Miss. (WLBT) - Every now and then the gods see fit to bless someone with the power of charisma.
The Greek word kharisma, from which the English word charisma originates, can be translated to mean “favor” or “gift.”
What a man or woman chooses to do with this inborn kharisma is up to them.
Some use it for good, such as leading their country through a time of great turbulence, as Winston Churchill did throughout World War II.
But others endowed with this charm use it for glory - sometimes even hoping to become a god themselves.
A defining characteristic of most cult leaders is their charisma, for how else could you convince over 1,000 of your followers to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid or persuade your devotees to brutally murder a pregnant Hollywood starlet?
We know their names: Jim Jones and Charles Manson. But then there are the lesser known cult leaders who history has somehow forgotten.
One of those cult leaders is Sam Fife, whose tentacles stretched all the way to one small, Mississippi community.
Samuel Drew Fife Jr. was born in 1926 in Miami, Florida, to Samuel Drew Fife, Sr. and Maude Iva Cox.
After serving in the Navy, Fife would go on to attend and graduate from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
By then, Fife was in his thirties and in his second marriage. Once back in Miami he would found The Miami Revival Centre. It was around this time that he would receive a message from God.
This message would be the conception of The Move.
According to Fife, God was “bringing forth a divine order government to govern the world.”
“Therefore, we are in God’s school of divine government,” Fife told his disciples, “and God is training us [i.e. The Move] as one many-membered man, teaching us, training us, preparing us to be the government through whom the Spirit of Christ will govern the world.”
And in the year 1970, a prophecy: The world would be coming to an end in a matter of years.
Because of this coming apocalypse, Fife ordered his followers to construct communes around the world. That way, when the rest of civilization was destroyed in a fiery rage, Fife’s followers would be safe.
They would then take their rightful place as the new rulers of the world. A divine government, if you will.
Communes were erected across the United States, including in Massachusetts, Alaska and Texas. Others were built in Canada and South America.
And then there was the deliverance camp in Sapa, Mississippi.
Founded in the 1880s, Sapa is an unincorporated community mere miles from Eupora that was established when the Georgia Pacific railroad came through the state.
According to lore, Sapa [SAY-pa] got its name when a boy asked his father what they were going to name the new region: “Say papa, what are they going to name this?”
Although the land has that certain je ne sais quoi that lingers around most Mississippi soil, Sapa is not the first location the average person would think to plant a commune.
So, why Sapa?
Thankfully this question was answered in an interview conducted by The Clarion-Ledger with the leaders of the Sapa commune, John Henson and his wife, Bambi.
The article was entitled Church At Sapa: Haven For Those In Distress.
John Henson told the journalist that they were led to Sapa “by the Lord” and that “as soon as we walked on it, we felt that this is where we should be.”
Henson told the public that The Church at Sapa, which began in ‘71, was simply a safe haven for those suffering from a host of problems. From drug and alcohol addiction, to those dealing with mental illness, crime, “emotional hangups” and marital woes.
The “troubled souls,” as they were referred to in the piece, stayed a minimum of 45 days and as long as several years.
Before arriving in Sapa, Henson explained that he was a marketing consultant in Miami. He had also been a Baptist Sunday School teacher for decades.
According to the writer, Henson believed that “Christ is the answer to every problem.” Henson referred to the community as a “church family” and bristled at the term “commune,” stating that the purpose of the church was not to introduce any new ways of living.
As well as the hundreds of people who lived at the church, there were also 15 “elders,” basically glorified staff leaders, who oversaw the everyday runnings of the farm.
Toward the end of the piece, Henson was asked if he thought The Church at Sapa would be permanent. To this Henson answered, interestingly, “About as permanent as the world is.”
The last paragraph of the article reads: “[John and Bambi Henson] look upon their charges as children, and as all good parents, they want to see them attain emotional and spiritual maturity.”
There was no mention of Sam Fife.
Elly Salerno’s life at The Church at Sapa began in the middle of the night.
Salerno, then 12, was told by her mother one day that she was to be going on a trip. She remembered the end of the car ride as her mom “drove and drove and drove” down a dirt road.
When Salerno asked where they were, her mother remained silent. Unbeknownst to her, she was headed towards The Church at Sapa.
Once they arrived at the commune, they were met by three men who grabbed Salerno out of the car.
As she cried, she was made to immediately change clothes, for girls were not allowed to wear pants. Modesty was of high importance at the church, with girls made to wear skirts below their knees. The clothes she had arrived in were burned and her hair was cut.
Thus began her new life at The Church at Sapa, where she would spend the next four years.
Everyone living on the commune had a schedule. The day began at 6 a.m. with breakfast in what was known as The Golden Tabernacle. The breakfast usually consisted of wheat cereal, sometimes even biscuits. Maybe an egg once a month.
Then came the chores, whether that be working in the fields, or caring for the the animals or, as Salerno was made to do a number of times, behead and disembowel chickens with her bare hands - a memory that sticks with her to this day.
As night came, everyone would make their way back to The Golden Tabernacle where dinner was eaten and sermons were heard.
Salerno said they read from the Bible and regularly studied Sam Fife’s teachings.
“All the services were probably what you’ve seen down South,” she explained. “All this excitement. Yelling and screaming and getting attention. I can remember one of the elders, the veins in his neck when he preached.”
Salerno said that she was considered a “wayward child” though she rejects this, saying that she was as “innocent as the day is long, honestly.”
Her mother had attended a Move service in Florida and that is where Salerno suspects she heard of the Sapa commune.
But Salerno believes that she was ultimately banished to Mississippi because of her stepfather, who she said did not care for her. To him, sending her to Sapa was merely a “means to just be done with me and not have to take care of me.”
While at Sapa, Salerno lived in a trailer with five bunkbeds on each side. One of her roommates, she recalled, ”had holes in her arms, face and neck.” This roommate was also prone to vomiting. Salerno believes she was a heroin addict.
Many people on the commune were troubled, some even genuinely mentally unwell. To the Hensons, though, the mentally ill were simply possessed by demons.
Which leads us to the exorcisms.
According to multiple people who lived at The Church at Sapa, exorcisms were a regular occurrence. They even had a designated building where they were conducted: The Gatehouse.
Those who were undergoing an exorcism, or what was known on the commune as “being delivered,” were kept at The Gatehouse and were supervised at all times.
The person being delivered was usually tied down to their bed so that they were restrained. Then the exorcism would proceed.
This included elders praying over those being delivered and putting their hands on the deliveree’s head in order to cast the demon(s) out. Songs were sung, and the Bible was read.
When I asked Salerno if she had ever witnessed an exorcism while at Sapa, she responded by saying, “I was afraid you were going to ask me that.”
Salerno would go on to say that yes, she witnessed two exorcisms while on the farm. Both were conducted on girls whom Salerno thought were mentally handicapped. One, she said, definitely came from a mental institution.
This is how she described what she witnessed:
“I’ll be honest with you, voices came out of one of [those being delivered]. She scared the hell out of me because she looked at me and she said things that, like, she shouldn’t have known. It was very scary. And she did have changing voices and it’s like you’re waiting for the head to spin around... it was pretty freaky.”
Another cornerstone of Sam Fife’s teachings was the regular beating of children. As it was explained, Fife believed children were born with what was called a “beast nature.”
In order to fix this, parents were ordered to beat this beast nature out of their children, preferably before the age of three.
In one sermon, Fife went into detail about “lay[ing] on” his belt on one of his daughters.
“And I didn’t get upset, it didn’t shake me a bit like all the foolish parents today that there were red welts on her little back end when I got through.... ” he said. “They always go away. Better to have red welts on her back end than to have scars on her soul throughout eternity.”
Babies were also not spared from this.
One former member told me, “If a baby had been fed and changed and it cried, some of them believed that the baby should be beaten for crying. If it didn’t have a need, you should spank it. Not everybody did that, but there’s plenty that did.”
Sandra Valentine was born into The Move. Her grandparents had a traveling ministry in the organization. Her parents were even elders at Sapa.
During her life in The Move, Valentine spent time at communes in Minnesota, Texas and Michigan.
Valentine, who is no longer involved in The Move but who does consider herself “an absolute, God-loving Christian,” thinks that, in the beginning, Fife had good intentions. But unfortunately, power corrupts and when men and women get a taste of said power “bad things happen.”
“Do I think that The Move was way off base? Yes I do,” she said. “Do I think it got weirder as time went on, and certain farms were extremely weird? Absolutely.”
“Would you classify The Church at Sapa as extremely weird?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” she said.
Valentine would explain that because The Church at Sapa was specifically a deliverance farm, “and that was literally what they called themselves,” their main goal was to deliver people from demons.
It is important to note that not everyone who lived on the commune was “troubled,” but disturbed individuals were usually brought to Sapa by a family member attempting to get them cured.
And if something bad was occurring inside someone or to someone, in their minds it was probably a demon.
“Instead of believing someone just has a fever and the flu, it’s the devil making you sick,” Valentine said. “Also any type of mental illness, let’s pick bi-polar, that’s demons that have control over you.”
This obviously made medical intervention irrelevant, so, instead, the people of the commune would just pray for healing.
As Valentine explained it, “You were gonna deal with that broken bone and God was gonna heal you.”
When I asked Suzanne McConnell, who also spent time at Sapa as a child, what she thought was so alluring about Sam Fife’s teachings, she explained that for many it was the promise of a wholesome life - the idea of living on a wilderness farm and off of the land.
McConnell, whose parents were young, thus being “vulnerable and gullible and stupid,” got sucked into The Move while living in Southern California in the 70s, in the aftermath of the Watts riots and in the backdrop of murders performed by the Manson Family.
“My parents were teenagers going ‘Oh my God, we’re raising our kids in this,’” McConnell said. “And so they fell into this cult...”
They attended their first Move convention in Texas when McConnell was around 8 years old. After the convention, they were soon approved to go to the Mississippi farm.
Although Salerno described the Hensons as fairly quiet unless you did something wrong, McConnell had stronger words, calling them “power-hungry control freaks,” “pathological,” and “evil.”
“You will hear from a lot of people in Sapa, ‘Oh, [the Hensons] were lovely! Oh, they were wonderful!’ No, they were not wonderful people,” she continued.
But when asked if she thought that John and Bambi genuinely believed they were helping those at The Church at Sapa, McConnell became softer.
Of course, she said. They thought they were doing something for God. Their intentions were good.
“I think everybody who gets involved in a cult, and I think Jim Jones and the people who killed themselves thought they were doing something good, but that doesn’t mean it was good,” she said.
The most harrowing tale of life at The Church at Sapa came from Priscilla Rice, who was first introduced to The Move by her mother. Rice, who described her mother as always being very religious, said she started attending Move meetings when Rice was around 12.
When Move members got kicked out of their meeting spot, a storefront in Canton, Ohio, Rice’s mother invited them to begin having the meetings in her basement.
Rice said this was upsetting to her for a multitude of reasons.
One being that they lived in a middle-class neighborhood and the noise from these Move meetings, which sometimes involved singing, speaking in tongues and the occasional playing of tambourines, carried far beyond the four walls of their home.
Then, after their services, they would begin performing exorcisms that a young Rice could hear from her room.
When Rice, who as a teen was mischievous and outspoken, stopped applying herself in school, the elders took notice and accused her of having “demons of rebellion.”
This led to her being the target of an exorcism herself and when the demons wouldn’t leave the girl, elders resorted to beating them out with a paddle. Rice was left with blood blisters on her thighs.
These beating and exorcisms only continued, so finally Rice hatched a plan to run away from home. Her mother, however, found out about this scheme and soon after Rice escaped out a window, she was captured, taken by car to a nearby airport and flown to Mississippi.
And as many would come to find out, once there, one did not simply leave The Church at Sapa.
Sure you could try, but you would first have to get past the night watchmen who patrolled the farm and the guards who stood outside certain trailers.
And for those who did manage to flee, they were always returned via police.
There was no television or radio on the premises of The Church at Sapa, and only one telephone which was in the office trailer. This phone had a lock on it and needed a special key to access.
“There was no escape,” Rice explained.
In protest, Rice said she didn’t speak for a number of months once she arrived on the commune. But once threatened with paddling by John and Bambi, she, as she said, began to go along with the program.
After some time on the farm, John and Bambi took a liking to Rice and made her into one of their “pets.” This allowed her to have special privileges that others did not. One of those privileges was riding with them to the Mississippi State Hospital where they would dispose of those on the commune who were “out of control.”
“I remember going there and wanting to get out of the van and asking people to keep me there because I thought it would be better than the farm,” Rice said.
Once there she thought she could somehow convince the workers at the psychiatric facility that she was, in fact, not insane or simple escape out a window.
As Rice approached 18, John and Bambi came to her saying that a man on the farm had received a message from God that he was to marry her. That man was Pat Rice, who was a few years older.
Although apprehensive, Priscilla married Pat on Christmas Day of 1975 on a commune in Canada where her parents were living at the time.
She would cry for the next three days.
At the apex of his influence, Sam Fife believed he would never die. Like many blessed with kharisma before him, he no longer thought he was mortal.
But Fife would come to discover that what the gods give, the gods can take away. On a foggy April day in 1979, Fife and three of his followers were killed when the plane he was flying crashed into a Guatemala mountain.
While some followers of The Move were rattled by this development, others, as Richard Kiers explained in his book Swindled by Faith, believed that Fife had obtained a level of perfection so great that God had to call him home.
A few years before this, back at The Church at Sapa, John Henson was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being found guilty of kidnapping a woman by the name of Charlene Hill and holding her captive on the commune.
At the trial, Henson, who at this point was referred to as a “cult leader” himself, stated that Hill came to the commune willingly and that the woman “asked me to cast demons out of her.”
The Mississippi Supreme Court overturned his conviction a year later on the grounds of lack of evidence.
Those living at The Church at Sapa eventually packed up and moved to a commune in Georgia or headed to the wilderness of Alaska where they established a new camp: Sapa North.
None of the women spoken to for this article are still followers of The Move.
Priscilla Rice would leave The Church at Sapa, along with her husband, months after having a baby. Rice said that after having her child, she was no longer a “pet” and no longer a priority to the Hensons.
Elly Salerno would leave the commune after calling her mom and telling her “bring me home in a box or on a plane because I can’t do this anymore.”
After moving to a commune in Texas, Sandra Valentine escaped out a window and Suzanne McConnell, who lived at Sapa North for some time, moved to Georgia at 19 and attended nursing school. After graduating, she got in a car and never looked back.
But once you find freedom, what do you do with it?
Salerno told me that life after The Move was a disaster, that she didn’t know anything else but existing at The Church at Sapa.
“Because, in a good way, the farm was, like, you didn’t have a lot of worries. You know what I mean?” she asked.
Those living on the commune did not worry about food or bills. They did not worry about what they would do in the coming days. They knew exactly what they would do. They would do what they always did.
Such is the comfort of living in a cult.
McConnell would describe a similar phenomenon of receiving sudden independence, saying that when you leave a cult, a community, that has enveloped your entire being, you are suddenly cast into a world where you are alone.
“Everybody else, you get out of high school and college, you got friends, you got family, you got holidays,” she said. “When you leave a cult like that, you have nothing. And nobody.”
In July of this year, I visited the grounds of where The Church at Sapa was located only to discover that nothing much is left.
The trailers and people are gone and the Earth, as it does, has retaken what was hers, with vines now creeping between the decaying wood of neglected barns and stables.
At its zenith, The Church at Sapa boasted over 300 members and sat on nearly 90 acres of land.
That empire overseen by the Hensons years ago is now primarily pasture. The acres of land that housed farms and The Golden Tabernacle have been divided up by current residents of Sapa. The Gatehouse where many exorcisms were performed is now merely a slab of concrete.
Most have seemingly forgotten what was once the commune in Sapa, Mississippi, with only a few locales even knowing it existed at all. Yet those who endured time there can’t forget.
The Church at Sapa, which was intended to be a haven for those in distress, only became a prison whose escape was a dream of its captives.
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