A North Carolina church has been accused of siphoning slave labor from its branches in Brazil. It’s just the latest awful development for a church that’s already been in the news for shaking babies to banish their demons, screaming into the ears of members to banish their demons, and kidnapping and beating a gay man to eradicate his “homosexual demons.”
The devil was never as bad as the leaders of Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina.
The latest accusations, courtesy of Mitch Weiss, Holbrook Mohr and Peter Prengaman of the Associated Press, say that the church brought in any number of members from their local congregations in Brazil, took their passports and money, then kept them in Spindale to perform menial tasks for little or no pay. While the AP spoke directly with 16 victims, there may have been many, many more.
Trapped in a foreign land, [Andre Oliveira] said he was forced to work 15 hours a day, usually for no pay, first cleaning warehouses for the secretive evangelical church and later toiling at businesses owned by senior ministers. Any deviation from the rules risked the wrath of church leaders, he said, ranging from beatings to shaming from the pulpit.
“They kept us as slaves,” Oliveira said, pausing at times to wipe away tears. “We were expendable. We meant nothing to them. Nothing. How can you do that to people — claim you love them and then beat them in the name of God?”
Although immigration officials in both countries said it was impossible to calculate the volume of the human pipeline, at least several hundred young Brazilians have migrated to North Carolina over the past two decades, based on interviews with former members.
Word of Faith Fellowship was founded by Sam and Jane Whaley in 1979, with Jane being at the center of the myriad accusations:
They are listed as co-pastors but all of those interviewed said it is Jane Whaley — a fiery, 77-year-old Christian Charismatic preacher — who maintains dictatorial control of the flock and also administers some of the beatings herself.
She has scores of strict rules to control congregants’ lives, including whether they can marry or have children. At the top of the list: No one can complain about her or question her authority. Failure to comply often triggers a humiliating rebuke from the pulpit or, worse, physical punishment, according to most of those interviewed.
Under Jane Whaley’s leadership, Word of Faith grew from a handful of followers to a 750-member sect, concentrated in a 35-acre complex protected by tight security and a thick line of trees.
The group also has nearly 2,000 members in churches in Brazil and Ghana, and affiliations in other countries.
Whaley, the AP says, visited Brazil frequently and told church members they would have a better life in the U.S., not to mention a better relationship with God. The reality was very different.
Luiz Pires said he was 18 in 2006 when he was encouraged by ministers in the Sao Joaquim de Bicas church to travel to North Carolina for his spiritual betterment.
Upon arrival, he said he found “horrific” living conditions, with eight people crammed in the basement of a church leader’s house, forced to work long hours at church-related businesses. Any payment went to living expenses, Pires said, despite the fact that he and others cleaned and did yard work at the member’s house where they lived.
“There was never time to sit down. We were worked like slaves,” he said.
Another victim relayed this detail:
Anyone in the bathroom for more than the mandated five minutes was suspected of committing the “sin” of masturbation, and Whaley would be called to the house to decree the punishment.
In some cases, members were able to outstay their temporary U.S. visas by being “married off” to female members of the congregation, a practice that is also illegal.
As of this writing, the church has not responded to the reporting. There is, however, a statement on the “blog” part of their website that doesn’t exactly deny any wrongdoing but creates a motive for all the bad press.
The whole set of AP articles are targeted to incite hate crimes against us at the Word of Faith Fellowship. We have received multiple threats. It appears that the accusers want the church doors closed, but they also want businesses closed. The church owns no businesses, and this ought to be against the law. If they do this to us, what will they do to you and others?
I don’t know when that was written since there’s no timestamp. Maybe they don’t need one. It reads like one universal denial.
The obvious question is why it took so long for this to be discovered. If not for the AP, would anything have happened? Apparently, “three ex-congregants” told an assistant U.S. attorney about the slavery at the church — and the AP has a recording to prove it. While the attorney said she would look into it, it didn’t seem to go anywhere and the victims were never able to get in touch with her after their meeting. The attorney said nothing to the AP, claiming this was an “ongoing investigation.”
That also raises another question: How many traditional members of the church knew this was going on and said nothing? How many refused to believe what they were witnessing with their own eyes because they didn’t want to displease Whaley (or God)? How many assumed, wrongly, that she was acting in everyone’s best interests?
That’s cult-like behavior. That’s what happens when you’re convinced the pastors know best even when common sense tells you otherwise. That’s what happens when you’re taught to stop thinking for yourself and just accept whatever the church teaches you.
How far down the rabbit hole will this reporting go? That this church was harming members isn’t new information. In 1995, there was even a segment on Inside Edition about the bizarre practices (referred to as “child abuse” at times) at this church. The segment was introduced by none other than Bill O’Reilly.
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