News Tribune coverage from 2007: Student says he was treated as a slave

In the summer of 2005 Joseph Kimotho traveled from his homeland of Kenya to attend what he thought would be a seminary in West Duluth. He expected to find a school with classrooms, students and teachers. Instead, he said, he found only a dark and...

In the summer of 2005 Joseph Kimotho traveled from his homeland of Kenya to attend what he thought would be a seminary in West Duluth.

He expected to find a school with classrooms, students and teachers. Instead, he said, he found only a dark and often unheated basement of a church in which to sleep. What he expected to be classes consisted of being ordered to work without pay. His passports and travel documents were confiscated. He said he was verbally abused and was told he could not leave the church without permission.

For almost four months, Kimotho said, he was a slave.

"I felt like a caged animal," Kimotho said. "I'm very tortured. Ever since then, my mind has not been the same."

Kimotho is one of many to claim he was defrauded by the leader of the church, Stephen Thomas, a defrocked pastor who has left two states over the past 20 years after he allegedly ran diploma mills -- unaccredited institutions that promise academic credentials with little or no education in exchange for money.


Since the late 1990s, Thomas has led St. Mary's the Theotokos Orthodox Catholic Church at 5907 Grand Ave., which runs the Romano Byzantine College, a seminary not recognized by any major educational accrediting institution in the country. Five people brought into the country as part of the seminary program later said they were treated as indentured servants, according to interviews with one of the students, a lengthy statement from another and interviews with several people in the community who worked to help other students after they left the church.

Thomas strongly denied the allegations and insists his seminary is legitimate. He said he believes the students deceived the church to try to become permanent residents in the United States.

"Nobody deceived them," he said.

Timothy Kjera, the church bishop who oversees the seminary program, said the students were brought from parishes affiliated with the church in other countries. Although the church offers online courses through Romano Byzantine College, Kjera said the school has brought in students from other countries who couldn't afford that program.

The students were supposed to spend nearly two years in Duluth training to be priests while living a simple lifestyle resembling that of a monk, Kjera said. After they were ordained, Kjera said, the students were supposed to return to their homelands to run their own parishes. Instead, the students fled to illegally enter the country, he said.

He said he was "shocked" to hear the allegations and believes that no one was ever mistreated while at the church.

"If they were slaves, then I'm a slave," he said. "I lived the exact same life they did."

And while Duluth police say they have an open investigation into the students' allegations, they also say the investigation isn't active.



Thomas' relationship with the Greek Orthodox Church has changed dramatically since he was ordained as one of the church's ministers in the 1970s.

The Greek Orthodox Church is one of the largest recognized bodies of Orthodox churches in the country, composed of eight metropolises that govern 540 parishes, 800 priests and 1.5 million members in the United States. Worldwide, the church has 250 million members.

Bishop Demetrios (Kantzevalos), chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, said Thomas somehow slipped through the cracks and become ordained without a formal education. When he was asked to rectify that and go to seminary, Demetrios said, Thomas refused and left the church in the 1980s.

Bishop Demetrios said the Chicago Metropolis discovered Thomas, along with another man, had started their own church, a violation of church law. On Jan. 20, 1996, they were "returned to the rank of laity [non-clergy]," the most severe punishment the church could bestow on a priest.

Four years later, Thomas bought a church in West Duluth and renamed it St. Mary the Theotokos Orthodox Catholic Church.

The church's Web site, , says it is affiliated with the Syro-Russian Orthodox Catholic Church, "an Orthodox jurisdiction in America began on May 29, 1892."

However, the Rev. Thaddeus Wojcik, a dean of the Orthodox Church in America, said Thomas' church is not recognized by any established Orthodox body in the United States.


"It would be like a bunch of people who get together and call themselves Roman Catholics, but have no connection with the Catholic Church or pope in Rome," he said.

The church says on its Web site that the Syro-Russian Orthodox Catholic Church has dozens of affiliated churches across the country and around the world, and has more than 25,000 members. But a search of phone books and the Internet turned up address and phone listings for only one U.S. church on that list -- St. Luke the Physician Mission in Paris, Texas.

Kjera said his church and synod are legitimate, and most of the parishes in the country either are sharing space with other churches or are home chapels.

He said the established Orthodox churches have a "political difference" with his church.

"The political difference has to do with power," he said. "A lot of that power they use to malign a church they feel are competition or a threat."

On a recent Sunday, five people were in the small building attending a service.

'So humiliating, so disgusting'

The story Kimotho tells is similar to the one that many in the community have been told by other former students of the school.


In the spring of 2002, for example, Sharon Osborn, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in West Duluth, was invited to lunch by a parishioner. That's when she met Joseph Jafar, a Pakistani immigrant, who described what had happened to him since he came to America.

Osborn said Jafar told her he paid thousands of dollars to come to St. Mary's the Theotokos Church hoping to finish his religious education and become an ordained minister. But he told Osborn that there was no seminary, only several hours of work each day without pay. He had nowhere to shower, his travel documents were taken and he was told he couldn't leave, Osborn said.

"He had no idea what to do," Osborn said. "He had no way to measure his treatment against other things in the culture."

Jafar could not be reached for this story.

Jafar eventually left the church, Osborn said. After that, Osborn said, she and others worked for months to try to keep Jafar in the country by getting him into another seminary, but eventually Jafar voluntarily went back to Pakistan, feeling his chances of returning to this country would be better if he wasn't deported.

"His dream was gone," Osborn said.

Kimotho said his dream was to study at the school and return to Kenya as a priest. His family sold about $5,000 in land in Kenya so he could travel to the United States and attend the Romano Byzantine College."That's a lot of money in Kenya," he said. "That's a huge sacrifice."

About $3,000 went toward travel costs, and the rest was to go toward what he said was $10,000 in tuition, Kimotho said.


But after he arrived in Duluth, Kimotho said, Thomas and Kjera confiscated his passport and travel documents and allowed him to leave only to run errands. He said he was told to clean the church every day, even if it was already clean, and work on filing and office work for the church and the seminary.

"They wanted me to help recruit more people to the school," Kimotho said.

He said he was never paid, was allowed to shower only once or twice a month at Thomas' home at 1308 Baxter Ave. in Superior -- after being taken there to mow the lawn and clean the house -- and was fed a diet of mostly rice and beans.

When he asked Thomas and Kjera why he was being treated so poorly, he said he was told that was part of his training.

"It was so humiliating, so disgusting," he said. "I have no way to describe it."

Kimotho said he shared the small basement room with another man, Kwame "Mark" Mwaga.

After four months, Kimotho said he and Mwaga decided to leave. In October 2005, while at a Western Union branch at a nearby Kmart, Kimotho said he wired himself $20 and went back to the church to tell them he needed his passport to retrieve it. He got his passport and never went back. The following day, Kimotho said, Mwaga left as well.

They went to Sakina and Thomas Hjerpe, who live down the street from the church. The Hjerpes put them in contact with Community Action Duluth, a nonprofit that assists people who believe they were the victim of injustice.


Sonia Bonilla, a program manager for Community Action Duluth, said both men wanted to continue their religious studies but were worried that they would be deported.

"Their human rights were totally violated," she said.

Mwaga wrote a four-page statement for Community Action Duluth detailing his treatment: He came to the church to undergo training to become a priest and found no seminary. He said that he often lived without a shower, and at times had no food, heat or water. He wrote of being forced to use a public library bathroom to clean himself, of being sick many times but not getting proper medical attention, of being forced to work 12 to 13 hours a day without pay and feeling like he was being treated like a slave.

Doug Bowen-Bailey, who at the time was a member of the dismantling racism team at Peace United Church of Christ and president of the Arrowhead Interfaith Council, said he met with Kimotho and Mwaga and was stunned by they told him. Kimotho later lived with Bowen-Bailey.

"When I first heard the story, I thought: No way could this be true in 2005," he said.

Bowen-Bailey, along with the Interfaith Council and Community Action Duluth, worked to help the two. They found another seminary for Kimotho, who now is studying at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, Minn., which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ. However, Bonilla said, her group was not able to find a seminary for Mwaga.

Mwaga lives in the Duluth-Superior area and declined to be interviewed for this story, citing advice given to him by his lawyer, Kim Hunter.

Hunter, a Minneapolis immigration attorney, said her client is working to find a seminary and remain in the country and felt that commenting might jeopardize his immigration status.

Still, Hunter, who also represented Kimotho, said the conditions at the church as described to her by her clients were "tantamount to slavery."

Slavery 'offensive'

Since 2000, Thomas said, the church has brought about "six or seven" international students to Duluth. He said the students were treated well and given adequate food and water, and were allowed to shower "three to four times a week." He called allegations that they were mistreated and forced to work without pay "lies."

"We're paying for them to be here," he said, "so they in turn work in our office and do chancery work."

He said all of his international students left the church because they "couldn't get what they wanted."

"The people who have come here have come for ulterior motives," he said.

"We have parishes in Africa and Pakistan," he said, though Kjera later refused to give contact information for these parishes. "A lot of people in those countries have people that want to get to the U.S., and we don't know their whole history there. There's no way to screen them."

Kjera said none of the students were mistreated. He said the school requires several hours a day of prayer, study and work as part of preparing students to become priests in their Orthodox faith.

"The idea of using such a term as slavery is offensive. I'm very saddened by that," he said. "It's not the Hilton. Nobody was asked to do something I didn't do myself."

A person who was employed as a secretary in the church for two years, Joetta Serio, said she worked closely with Mwaga and doesn't understand how he can say he was mistreated.

"He received excellent treatment," said Serio, who now lives in Colorado and is studying behavioral science at the Metropolitan State College of Denver.

Serio said she used to live around the corner from the church and frequently would attend services, noting that a maximum of "10 to 12" others would attend.

Asked why many of the former students told others that they were mistreated while at the church, Serio said it might have been cultural differences, or it might have been that they were desperate to stay in the country.

The Duluth Police Department opened an investigation into the allegations made by the school's former students after community members complained, and deputy chief John Beyer said there is "still potentially some work that could be done on the case." However, he added, "as of right now it is not actively being worked on."

A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency could not say if there is an investigation into the church unless there were formal charges that had been filed, which has not happened.

What To Read Next
Get Local