The Word of Faith Fellowship Church in Spindale, North Carolina was home to acts of kidnapping, violence, and torture — all in the name of Jesus. That’s according to Associated Press reporter Mitch Weiss, who spoke with dozens of former members of the church and learned quite a bit about how found evangelical leader Jane Whaley (below) operated.
Victims of the violence included pre-teens and toddlers — even crying babies, who were vigorously shaken, screamed at and sometimes smacked to banish demons.
Word of Faith also subjected members to a practice called “blasting” — an ear-piercing verbal onslaught often conducted in hours-long sessions meant to cast out devils.
They said members were forbidden to seek outside medical attention for their injuries, which included cuts, sprains and cracked ribs.
Several former followers said some congregants were sexually abused, including minors.
Teachers in the church’s K-12 school encouraged students to beat their classmates for daydreaming, smiling and other behavior that leaders said proved they were possessed by devils, the former followers said.
Why didn’t anyone say anything for so long? Because, as you’d expect, they were threatened with banishment (or worse) if they exposed the inner workings of the church. It’s the same sort of mental manipulation you hear in Scientology and other cults: Don’t betray us or we’ll come after you.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the story was that there was a specific room in the church where bad parishioners were brought to repent. It effectively functioned as a prison — people would be sent there for untold amounts of time, beaten without good reason, and forbidden from communicating with the outside world.
Former members recounted dozens of vicious assaults, including one in which a mentally handicapped man was repeatedly punched in his face as he begged for help. Those interviewed also recalled elementary school-age boys placed in the make-shift penitentiary with teens and adults — and felons from the church’s prison ministry.
“No one wanted to be sent to the Lower Building. No one,” said Rick Cooper, 61, who said he was held captive there for a year. “It was a prison without bars.”
Many of those remanded to the Lower Building said they were allowed out only when forced to perform free labor at nearby businesses owned by different church leaders.
According to the rules of the church:
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.
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.
If you broke those rules, the church has the option of mocking you publicly, forcing you to separate, or imposing even more violence on you.
Maybe the biggest question is: What happens now? Dozens of former members may have spoken out, but hundreds of people are still said to belong to the church. What happens to them? Arresting Whaley would just add to their belief that Christians are unfairly persecuted in this country.
Legally, I don’t know what the government can do about this. Even if they charged Whaley with something, how many people in church leadership were complicit in all this? Can they all be punished?
Ethically speaking, however, this is no different from the actions we often criticize in the Catholic Church: The leaders relied on secrecy, control, and their own supposed power from God to manipulate other people.
It’s finally coming back to haunt them.
What’s truly disturbing is that this isn’t a new story, per se.
In 1995, Inside Edition, then hosted by Bill O’Reilly, did a long segment on the church’s scandals:
In 2014, the Daily Beast ran an article about Matthew Fenner, who was beaten by church members for being gay.
There are also all the lawsuits against the church that haven’t seemed to prevent further awful actions.
No matter what happens, this is a disturbing story. This is what can happen when people are blinded by religious dogma — they believe that anything can be justified by God even when common sense would dictate there’s something wrong.
Faith has never been a virtue. And this church is about as far from virtuous as one can get.
***Update***: The church has responded to the AP articles in a press release, denying all the accusations against it without going into any detail:
(Thanks to Scott for the link)