Word of Faith Fellowship
Word of Faith Fellowship began in 1979 in a former steakhouse with Jane Whaley and her husband Sam Whaley. She was a math teacher and he sold used cars. Jane Whaley, the daughter of a plumber and a homemaker who had two brothers in rural North Carolina, led the group as it grew from a few people to 750, and added almost 2000 followers in related churches in Brazil, Ghana, Scotland, Sweden and other countries. The Whaleys' student from Rhema Bible College, Brooke Covington, is a minister in the church.
In Brazil, missionary John Martin started Ministerio Verbo Vivo (Live Word) near Belo Horizonte in 1987 after serving as pastor of a Baptist church. Former members said in 2017 that the Whaleys and others from Spindale visited Martin's church after Martin met Sam Whaley in 1986. Eventually, Word of Faith Fellowship had more influence. The church moved to São Joaquim de Bicas in 2005 and many members moved to Betim.
Solange Granieri and Juarez De Souza Oliveira met the Whaleys in São Paulo, and in 1988 they opened Ministerio Evangelico Comunidade Rhema (Rhema Community Evangelical Ministry) in Franco da Rocha.
Jane Whaley began visiting the Brazilian churches frequently and encouraged members to go on a pilgrimage to the Spindale church. Those who did, she said, would receive many advantages such as a college education.
Style of worship
A 2012 Charlotte Observer article described worship at Word of Faith as "ecstatic .... Sometimes members hop. Sometimes they speak in tongues. The music and prayer booms through the sanctuary." Jane Whaley said, "'God has freed us' to be loud."
Young people are told to have a positive attitude regardless of how they feel, and a song that helps them has the words "Happy, happy, happy, happy are the children whose God is the Lord."
The control Jane Whaley assumes over the members of her church - including her husband, Sam Whaley, is extreme. According to the Associated Press, it includes
- Followers are banned from celebrating birthdays and religious or secular holidays, including Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July.
- Congregants are prohibited from watching television and movies, reading newspapers, or eating in restaurants that play music or serve alcohol.
- Men and women must swim with shirts covering their upper bodies and cannot take the extra clothing off in public - not even in their own backyards.
- Men cannot grow beards.
- Followers are not allowed to enroll in college without permission and, if permission is granted, can attend only alongside other members so their behavior can be monitored. Whaley also picks their majors, and they must work for the church or a business owned by church leaders once they leave school.
- Whaley's permission is required to buy a house or a car.
- Members are not allowed to wear Nike products because Whaley believes the company's iconic "swoosh" logo is a pagan symbol.
- Congregants aren't allowed to play board games like Monopoly.
In addition the church has what AP titles as 'Unconventional rules for sex and marriage':
- Congregants need permission from leader Jane Whaley and other ministers to get married, and it then can take months - or even a year - before the newlyweds are allowed to have sex.
- No one is allowed to date without permission, and most relationships and marriages are arranged by Whaley and ministers.
- On their wedding night, couples are permitted only a "godly peck on the cheek." When they get in bed together, they must roll over and go to sleep.
- For all married couples, love-making is limited to 30 minutes, no foreplay is allowed, the lights must be turned off and only the missionary position is sanctioned.
- Couples need permission from church leadership to have children, and leaders dole out condoms to make sure unapproved women don't get pregnant.
The former followers said couples violating the rules can be publicly rebuked, subjected to violence or forced to separate.
In 1995, Jane and Sam Whaley denied allegations made by several former members on the TV program Inside Edition. One former student said he had been beaten multiple times by church members to remove a "destructive spirit". Other former members described sitting in a "prayer chair" as former members walked around them shouting prayers.
The church was investigated by the SBI in the 1990s for child abuse. after more than forty former members told the Forest City Daily Courier and other news outlets what they believed had happened there. No charges resulted. In 2000, a woman testifying in a child custody case said her one-year-old son was subjected to "blasting", or standing in a circle and loudly praying, sometimes for hours, in order to drive out demons. She also said her son was beaten enough to cause bruises. Jane Whaley, asked about discipline at her church, said God wanted children to be beaten if that was necessary. Whaley cited Acts 2:2 to justify disciplinary practices, members said.
Jane Whaley was convicted of misdemeanor assault in 2004 as a result of an incident two years earlier where former member Lacy Wien described "blasting" by a group of members, followed by the assault by Whaley. Wien was suing the church for $2.5 million in a separate case. After five years of appeals, the conviction was overturned.
Another former member, Michael Lowry, claimed to have been beaten and held prisoner in 2011 to drive out gay demons. Lowry testified before a grand jury but in 2013 he rejoined the church, recanting his allegations. Lowry later left the church again and has said he stands by his earlier statements. However, one gay couple who attended the church after hearing what happened to Lowry said, "They didn't judge us; they didn't ostracize us. It was truly a wonderful experience."
Former member Jamey Anderson said he joined the church at age 4. Many former members described his treatment as some of the harshest anyone suffered. Anderson said he was frequently sent to a storage area called the green room, and one former member said he was "brutally paddled" after incidents where other children told on him for the most minor offenses in school. Anderson said when his grandfather died he was not allowed to attend the funeral and left out of the obituary. He also said he was forced to work, and that in 2002, he and four other boys were punished by being put in a room by themselves to watch Whaley on video during school, and restricted to his home outside of school. He said after leaving the church, family members who remained members cut off contact. Whaley's attorney denied the allegations and said other members supported Whaley.
An Associated Press investigation included interviews with 43 former members, who told stories of physical abuse resulting in injuries which were not treated, families being separated, and males being held prisoner in a former storage building for as long as a year. Former members described being afraid to leave the church or even oppose Whaley for fear of public reprimand or worse. Children at the church's school were beaten for minor offenses, former members said, even by the other children. The investigation also included numerous documents, and recordings of Whaley made without her knowledge. Whaley denied abuse took place and defended certain practices as being protected by the First Amendment. She refused to be interviewed for the AP investigation, instead accusing former members of lying.
Matthew Fenner case
In 2017, Matthew Fenner testified that, after he and his family joined the church in 2010, he witnessed members being shouted at for hours to remove demons. In January 2013, Fenner, along with almost twenty others, were allegedly beaten for two hours "to break me free of the homosexual 'demons'", he said in a police affidavit. He said he escaped to the home of his grandparents, who reported the incident to law enforcement. Fenner tried and failed to get law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, to pursue the case. Because Fenner persevered, five church members were indicted in December 2014 and charged with kidnapping and assault.
In May 2017, Brooke Covington, with whom Fenner lived before his escape, became the first Word of Faith member to go on trial. Because the jury foreman shared documents that were not supposed to be made public, Superior Court Judge Gary Gavenus declared a mistrial and a new trial was scheduled for September 11, 2017. As of October 2017, Covington's trial had not taken place but it would still be in Rutherford County. Four other related cases were moved to Buncombe County. Robert Walker was scheduled to appear in court in October but his case and those of Sarah Anderson, Adam Bartley and Justin Covington were moved to January 2018.
A month later on June 19, 2017, Matthew Fenner's grandfather Robert Marvin Rape was found dead in his yard from a gun shot wound to the chest. The cause of death is unknown.
The Associated Press found that the churches in Brazil also have the same practices as the Spindale church. Former members claimed that a move by Verbo Vivo and its members was intended to keep them away from the rest of the world. The church and the area where members lived were both surrounded by high fences. In 2009, two of the pastors quit, accusing the church of "brainwashing". A committee of the Minas Gerais state legislature held hearings. John Martin described practices as "guidelines and not prohibitions". Both churches lost many members. For the Associated Press investigation in 2017, over three dozen former members were interviewed and many reported being afraid of what the church would do if they spoke out. Some needed therapy. While the changes in Brazil happened slowly, they were drastic. Blasting and assault were among the practices. Some young people were taken to the United States and required to work at the church or companies owned by members. Some young people were told not to contact their families. One of the rules in Brazil was the banning of soccer. The school at Verbo Vivo, whose teachings included the Bible, eventually was limited to mostly the Bible. Former students reported being isolated and shouted at for bad behavior.
Three former members said in 2014 to a U.S. Attorney that Brazilians brought to the United States were not paid for their work, while Americans working with them were paid, and that they were beaten if they disobeyed. One former member who left the church in 2016 also said his passport and money were taken away. Rules included not speaking Portuguese.
On May 11, 2018, Dr. Jerry Gross and his son Jason Lee Gross were charged in U.S. District Court. The U.S. attorney's office claimed their business received $150,000 between 2009 and 2013 by claiming they had laid off employees who as a result became eligible for unemployment benefits, when in fact the employees continued to work at the business. Eleven former members claimed in September 2017 that Word of Faith leaders insisted church members take similar actions. Randy Fields told the Associated Press that during the 2008 economic slowdown, he asked to be able to donate less to the church. Fields said Jane Whaley told him to take fraudulent actions in order to keep giving 10 percent of his income to the church, calling this "God's plan." The Associated Press found six cases of companies allegedly making fraudulent unemployment claims, in which many of the companies' employees belonged to Word of Faith. Jerry Gross and Jason Gross pled guilty to wire fraud on May 25.
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