The Word of Faith Fellowship has been under scrutiny for more than 20 years. An investigation by the Associated Press has uncovered allegations of human trafficking, child abuse, and a former storage facility said to house the worst sinners.
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The Word of Faith Fellowship congregation in Spindale, North Carolina, is alleged to have been trafficking Brazilians to work as "slaves" in the United States, according to the latest chapter of a long and ongoing investigation into the church by the Associated Press (AP).
"They kept us as slaves," said former congregant Andre Oliveira, who told the AP that he was brought to the United States when he was 18 and had his passport taken away by church leadership. From then on, Oliveira "was forced to work 15 hours a day, usually for no pay, first cleaning warehouses for the evangelical church and later working at businesses owned by the sect's senior ministers," the report states.
A woman named Jane Whaley founded the evangelical WFF in 1979. It is an extreme evangelical institution and has been described as a cult. According to the AP, Whaley is from rural North Carolina, and she became a religious leader without any formal training. Over several decades, Whaley grew the WFF into a church with 750 members and fellowships around the world—including Brazil. Her success, former members claim, is related to her uncanny ability to compel people to do what she tells them by promising them eternal salvation.
Some Brazilian members are reportedly lured to the United States with promises of various religious, economic, or professional benefits, while others claimed to have been forced to go.
"It was slave labor," a Brazilian woman named Rebeca Melo told the AP.
The AP has reportedly conducted interviews with 16 Brazilian ex-members as well as dozens of interviews with other former congregants. An earlier report from the Associated Press, which was published in February, claims that there is a history of violence against congregants in the name of "beating out devils": "Victims of the violence included pre-teens and toddlers—even crying babies, who were vigorously shaken, screamed at, and sometimes smacked to banish demons." The most sinful members were allegedly put into a former storage facility called the "Lower Building," where they were allegedly subjected to "vicious" physical and emotional punishment.
In March, the AP released the second chapter in their investigation, reporting that two assistant District Attorneys, Frank Webster and Chris Back, were congregants at WFF and had helped to coach other church members on how to lie to the police. They even reportedly assisted in conducting a fake trial for congregants who'd been accused of harassing a former member. (Both Webster and Back have since been removed from their positions as ADAs.)
In the wake of claims made by former congregants, the WFF has responded by claiming the AP reports are "targeted to incite hate crimes" and the result of "religious bigotry." Their website is filled with videos and statements from current church members, all of which deny allegations of abuse within the WFF.
"They kept us as slaves."
The investigation by the Associated Press not the first. The Word of Faith Fellowship has been under scrutiny for decades—in 1995, Inside Edition unveiled their own investigation into the church, exposing extreme practices within the fellowship, as well as claims of child abuse. "One time I walked in the nursery, and all the kids were tied in the chair[s]," one young man told Inside Edition. According to the woman who used to run the nursery, restraining children with bedsheets was encouraged by Jane Whaley, who reportedly called the practice "the restraints of god."
Shockingly, it appears that Inside Edition also caught a glimpse of the Brazilian trafficking alleged in the AP investigation. The series interviewed a Spindale police officer who claimed to have "once helped a Brazilian man who was desperate to get away." The church was reportedly holding his possessions.
In their most recent report, the AP obtained a recording that revealed a 2014 attempt to stop the alleged human trafficking. "Three former congregants told an assistant US attorney [Jill Rose] that the Brazilians were being forced to work without pay," the AP reports. Rose "promised she would 'take a fresh look at it'... but the former members said she never responded when they repeatedly tried to contact her in the months after the meeting." When contacted by the AP in 2017, Rose declined comment and told the press that there is an "ongoing investigation."
In a statement sent to Broadly, Anti-Slavery International explained that using religion is a known tactic in human trafficking. "Using faith to traffic and exploit people in this way follows common patterns of trafficking in general, in that it targets specific vulnerabilities of people to lure them into a situation where it's easy to control them," said Jakub Sovic, Anti-Slavery's communications director.
According to Sovic, in the case of the Word of Faith Fellowship, is appears that there is "huge peer pressure and especially religious beliefs," that help to "force people into submission." Because people are coming under the guise of a religious organization, such instances of trafficking can be "very difficult to detect for the authorities, making it a very low risk crime," Sovic explained.
"Using religion to traffic people, using their deepest beliefs to control their lives is a really vile crime, leaving the victims with life-long traumas," he said. "Targeting children in this way is particularly sickening."