Word of Faith Fellowship sees 'persecution' for a godly walk; critics see an abusive church

Charolotte Observer/November 19, 2012

Spindale, North Carolina - A decade ago, God spoke to Jane Whaley, and she says he told her to fight.

The advice came, she says, during the worst of what the Word of Faith Fellowship still calls "The Persecution." In 2002-03, the church was being pilloried regularly in the media and on blogs. The state and Rutherford County Department of Social Services had launched a series of investigations into whether the church abused children. Whaley, Word of Faith's lead pastor and co-founder, had been charged with assaulting one of her followers. Meanwhile, church members were openly derided around Spindale and Rutherfordton and Forest City as "Woffers," and when they went out with their kids to Hardees or Walmart or Big Lots, they say their neighbors often woofed at them like dogs.

In the midst of it all, Whaley says, she was visited by the Holy Spirit.

"God told me, 'Jane, you are at the beginning of a holocaust,'?" Whaley says. "Before ... we turned the other cheek. We let them run all over us. And God said, 'Jane, they're going to close your doors if you don't rise up and fight.'?"

Today, that battle still rages, part of what Whaley describes as a spiritual war into which godly congregations such as hers are inevitably drawn.

At the very least, this diverse and charismatic congregation remains at the center of a roiling public debate that has spawned more than two decades of lawsuits, criminal charges and bitter custody fights over how church children are raised.

Few of the allegations against Word of Faith have led to formal charges. When they have, the charges haven't stuck. Whaley's assault conviction was overturned after five years of appeals. Over one five-year period, the church says it spent more than $3 million in legal fees.

Yet, complaints focusing on the church's unusual religious practices continue to surface. Word of Faith's aggressive legal strategy, critics say, has weakened government oversight.

Meanwhile, the fight for public opinion long ago took on the look of trench warfare. The church says its critics are few in numbers. But no one in this Foothills county of small towns and rolling countryside appears neutral. And 33 years after Word of Faith opened in a former steakhouse, attitudes toward the church remain as defined as a battle line.

Church or 'a cancer'?

A visit to Word of Faith on Nov. 7 revealed a diverse and close-knit congregation representing more than 15 nationalities. Smiling, immaculately dressed families, which included doctors and lawyers as well as recovering addicts, gripped their Bibles, swayed and shouted prayers and songs.

The worship style is ecstatic. Sometimes members hop. Sometimes they speak in tongues. The music and prayer booms through the sanctuary - "God has freed us" to be loud, Whaley tells her people.

Despite its battles, Word of Faith continues to attract new members from around the world, its leaders say.

Sam Whaley, who started the church with his wife, says membership has doubled since 2002 and now stands at 750.

Word of Faith, about 70 miles west of Charlotte, has churches and missions in Brazil and parts of Europe and Africa. The Spindale church has just launched a campaign to raise money for a new sanctuary, one of several congregational efforts shored up by the shared belief that the church's legal difficulties have made it a stronger and holier place.

Yet critics, from former Word of Faith members to some of its Rutherford County neighbors, describe the church as a dangerous cult. They say it breaks up families, abuses followers and wrecks lives.

"They've taken faith and weaponized it," says a former member, now deployed in Afghanistan. He asked that his name not be used for fear of further involvement with the church. "Faith is supposed to be about love and grace and forgiveness. They've weaponized it to control people and to further their agenda for power."

Last month, a 22-year-old man who grew up in Word of Faith said he was beaten and held against his will as church members tried to rid him of the demon that they believe makes him gay.

Michael Lowry, as with others before him, described a church atmosphere of suffocating conformity, shunnings and a deep distrust of the outside world.

Around the time Lowry made his allegations, three members of the Word of Faith security team and another church member were arrested after confrontations with Lowry and a companion, Jerry Cooper. Cooper, a former Word of Faith member and critic of the church, filed the charges.

In the aftermath of the Lowry case, Whaley says, a local nursing home cut ties with a Word of Faith program that sent volunteers to visit the elderly for 25 years. After the church received threats, she says, the state prison system, citing safety concerns for its prisoners, suspended Word of Faith from a pre-release program that allowed inmates to attend church.

The Whaleys, in some of their most extensive comments ever to the media, say their church is the target of a conspiracy. They say Lowry's allegations are lies and that he is being manipulated by bitter ex-members who have fallen in with the devil and now want to bring the church down.

"It's the love of God that causes people to repent," Sam Whaley says. "It's not abusive. ... It's not casting out demons and beating up people to do it. When we minister to the people, it's very loving, it's very kind. You submit in the sense that you want it. You're not forced into anything."

After the Nov. 7 service, Jane Whaley and other church leaders, including Michael Lowry's brother, led a reporter through the building where they say Lowry stayed. They say he was not restrained but lived there because he had no place to go. The doors had no locks.

Nonetheless, Faith in America, a Hickory-based watchdog on abusive church practices, has described the Lowry case as a possible hate crime and has called for a federal probe.

Rutherford County District Attorney Brad Greenway said at the time of Lowry's allegations that the county was investigating. He could not be reached for comment Friday.

Peter Lane, a local attorney who filed a barrage of lawsuits against Word of Faith a decade ago, says the church has used its money and political connections to spread its influence across Rutherford County.

"Everybody just tiptoes around it; that's kind of the way it works," he says. "But this place is a cancer on this county. It's malignant. It corrupts decent people."

Ben Carmona agrees.

"Everything Michael Lowry says is absolutely right," says Carmona, whose family joined Word of Faith when he was 7. He says he left in 2006 while his father, mother, stepmother and oldest brother remain members.

Carmona, now 22 and a married college student in Chicago, describes a Word of Faith childhood in which he was paddled on hundreds of occasions by church ministers, sometimes so severely that he couldn't sleep on his back. He says the church was obsessed with sexual or "unclean" demons and that talk of the devil and sin was nonstop. Members were required to report their friends, families or spouses for spiritual transgressions and potential demonic possession.

"If you were a true friend or a true son, why wouldn't you want to see the other person saved?" Carmona says. "Otherwise the two of you were going to hell together."

Jane Whaley, 73, says such depictions are not true and result from "the devil speaking through men."

Church leaders say under her leadership and God's blessing they have built an integrated, welcoming and prosperous spiritual community that operates a successful school, supports other congregations around the world and improves lives. Word of Faith often attracts members in crisis, and church leaders say they give them homes, jobs and a structured, Bible-based philosophy that turns them around.

Still, the church is not for everyone, Jane Whaley says.

"We don't want to be hypocrites," she says. "People who come here know the standard of righteousness we require, a standard of walking with Jesus every day."

John Gresham, a Charlotte attorney who has represented the church or its members in several lawsuits, says allegations against the church consist of rumor and hearsay and "have not been sustained in a court of law."

"They have their own beliefs - and parts of their religion are better than what I would find in the rest of Rutherford County," he says. "I'm not up there every day, but I find them to be congenial and decent folks."

Yet distrust of the church persists. In the last two years, the community debate has bubbled up in a local election and a subsequent legal fight that pitted a church member against the officeholder who fired her. (See related story above.)

To outsiders, Rutherford County, which describes itself on billboards as "small-town friendly" shows few signs of this prolonged civil war. But that changed shortly after the Michael Lowry story made national headlines.

Today, a 26-word sign stands along Old Flynn Road, which leads to Word of Faith's 35-acre campus.

"Blessed are you when people revile and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things against you falsely on my account," it reads. "We love all people."

On a recent Sunday, those last words of welcome had limits. A few yards from the sign, members of Word of Faith's security team stopped and questioned visitors turning onto Old Flynn Road, which is public.

Farmer says the checkpoint and sign were put in place after Lowry's allegations circulated the globe and somebody called the Word of Faith office threatening to cut everybody's throats.

Church leaders fear "The Persecution" has resumed.

'Raising the dead'

The Observer first wrote about the church in 2000. Then, as now, former members spoke of an unrelenting control in which Whaley and other church leaders told congregants where to live and work and what to wear and read.

During his years with the church, Carmona says, many routine parts of daily life required approval by a church minister assigned to the household.

Members - two or three families can live together - do not celebrate Christmas, Easter or birthdays because they believe they have pagan roots. Students at nearby Isothermal Community College must have their textbooks cleared by church superiors, former members say.

The congregation practices "strong prayer," also known as "blasting." It can involve dozens of members shouting and screaming prayer at penitents, sometimes until the subject throws up in a bucket, a sign that the demon responsible for a particular sin has been expelled.

Jane Whaley and other Word of Faith leaders describe blasting as a rapturous means of spiritual and physical health.

"I've seen the dead raised," she says. "I've seen cancer cured. I've seen demons come out of people."

But some former members say strong prayer is not always voluntary and can involve forcible restraint. On those occasions, it becomes a punishing ordeal. All Word of Faith members are required to sign a waiver, found on the church website, releasing the church from liability for any injuries suffered during worship.

Carmona, for one, says he once underwent two weeks of intense "discipleship," which the church describes as a individual period of thought or prayer in which a person who has sinned can reconcile with God.

Critics, however, call it a form of shunning in which children may be separated from their families and friends and subjected to blasting, paddlings or other forms of discipline.

Carmona says his sin was staring into space while daydreaming. The church called it "witchcraft," he says, and he was forced to read the Bible and watch videos of Jane Whaley's sermons for up to nine hours a day.

Each day ended, he says, with him "writing notes to Jane," pleading for her forgiveness.

Ties to Kenneth Hagin

The Spindale church has its roots in Oklahoma, where Sam Whaley studied under evangelist Kenneth Hagin, the founder of the Word of Faith movement.

But in a break from Hagin's teaching and Word of Faith practices, Jane Whaley began performing "deliverances" - designed to rid subjects of demons that prevented them from achieving godliness, prosperity and good health.

Hagin, who died in 2003, distanced himself from the couple in the late 1980s, in part due to a deliverance at the Whaleys' church involving a 54-year-old woman suffering a prescription-drug reaction who remained at the church for 13 days while members tried to expel demons.

Gresham and others say ignorance of the church's beliefs has made Word of Faith the target of community distrust, government investigations, media inquiries and featured roles on "Inside Edition" and YouTube. It is also why, Gresham says, the church receives threats and its security teams keep watch on Old Flynn Road.

Yet several people who have crossed the church say the security teams have showed up at their homes and jobs and have tailed them through the county - allegations that church leaders say are not true.

Word of Faith keeps close tabs on its own, former members say, with the multi-family residences ensuring that more people are watched. Ex-members have said they were warned that if they left the church they would die of cancer or burn in hell.

"I felt like a prisoner," says the former member now in Afghanistan, who left the church some 20 years ago. "Somebody was always watching. If I left the property without permission, Satan was going to kill me."

When he first tried to break away, he says, someone alerted church leaders, and he was stopped. When he tried again, he had to plan his escape "like I was breaking out of prison."

Still, it was hard to leave. "You believed in your mind, your heart and in almost every fiber of your being that 'this is right,'?" he says. "Even to this day, there are still inklings, thoughts, that this may have been God."

The Whaleys say their church is an open one, and members are free to leave if Word of Faith is not for them.

Not all the neighbors are critical. Chris and David, who asked that their last names not be used, are a gay couple who run a retail shop in Rutherford County. They moved from Florida four years ago and say they were surprised by the strong feelings against Word of Faith.

After Lowry said Word of Faith had abused him because he is gay, two friends of the shop owners invited them to the church to see for themselves.

"They didn't judge us; they didn't ostracize us," David says. "It was truly a wonderful experience."

Soon after, the pair said they went back to the church to share their perspective of faith as gay Christians. Again, they say, the church was open to conversation.

"One hundred percent of what we hear comes from what people say they've heard or been told," Chris says. "When we tell them we went there, their eyes get big as pancakes, and they back away.

"We offer an opinion that's factually based, and we lose credibility."

'The wrong church'

Moments before the start of the Nov. 7 service, Jane Whaley walks from her office with open arms.

"We're a huggin' place," she says, then touches her temple to her visitor's. At Word of Faith, full embraces are considered ungodly.

The Rutherford County native and former schoolteacher leads an entourage of family and members of the church's praise-and-worship team down a long hallway to a sanctuary filled with families.

Even though it is a weeknight, adults and children alike are dressed in their Sunday best - dressing "godly," Whaley says - with suits, sports coats and ties for the men and boys, dresses and jewelry for the women and girls.

Often with their parents' urging, the children greet strangers the same way, with yessirs and no m'ams, smiles, firm handshakes and hugs.

Afterward, several of the kids, Whaley's grandson Brock among them, change out of their good clothes and chase one another around the complex, like any other group of kids. "Wait till the adults leave," Whaley says, sounding like a grandmother. "I know you've got all that energy."

Most probes of Word of Faith have focused on its treatment of children. In an interview with the Observer last month, Lowry said his dissatisfaction with the church started in part over how children are disciplined. Carmona says he was paddled far more often by church leaders than by his father.

Once again, Jane Whaley dismisses those accounts as lies and says children are almost exclusively disciplined by their parents. Abuse by anyone, she says, is not tolerated.

In 2003, a district judge took four children away from a church family and put them under the control of the Rutherford County Department of Social Services. The children's mother had given custody of the four to Brooke Covington, Jane Whaley's adopted daughter, and her husband Kent. Later, the mother wanted her children back.

The judge gave them to DSS instead. "The court finds that WOFF authorities attempt to exercise complete control over the mind, body and spirit of its members, both adults and children," he wrote.

This control stems from the use of "physical and mental discipline through excessive corporal punishment, blasting and other practices and behaviors found herein. The environment created at WOFF has an adverse effect on the health, safety and welfare of children."

In the end, two of the four children returned to the Covingtons when they became old enough to choose where they wanted to live. The other two rejoined after the judge's order was overturned on appeal. All four remain a part of the Covington family now.

Following that case and a series of other child-neglect investigations that stretched back to the mid-1990s, the church and a group of Word of Faith parents filed a federal suit in 2003 against the county's DSS. In it, they accused the agency of violating the families' religious freedom as well as DSS rules governing child-neglect cases. According to the suit, a DSS investigator told parents the agency intended to remove every child and "padlock" the church.

The two-year legal fight ended in 2005. The church received $305,000 along with DSS guarantees that strong prayer, discipleship and other core beliefs could no longer be the sole basis for future child-abuse claims.

Two agency supervisors were banned from taking part in any other probes of the church. In addition, 12 ongoing child-abuse investigations involving church parents were closed.

According to published reports at the time, DSS claimed the church spent more than $1 million in legal fees.

Jane Whaley says the congregation sued because DSS ordered that children be excluded from strong prayer and other religious experiences, which she says was ordering her to forsake God. In the end, she says, God stood with Word of Faith, and its children continue to thrive.

"DSS," she said in her recent sermon, "walked into the wrong church."

A pointed finger

Church critics, which include several child-protection professionals, still believe that some Word of Faith children remain at risk, and, because of the suit, government oversight is hindered.

"We washed our hands of it," says David Reno, a former chairman of the Rutherford County DSS who joined the agency's board just as the settlement to the church's suit was being reached. "The end result is children with Word of Faith are not being protected."

Valerie Pearce, a senior attorney for the Council of Children's Rights of Charlotte, says she was stunned when she read the 2005 settlement.

"... A government agency has had their hands tied by an agreement that limits their ability to investigate abuse and neglect," Pearce says. She has been looking into a custody fight between a Rutherford County woman and two Word of Faith members seeking permanent custody of her son.

"That agency is under a federal mandate. This agreement sounds crazy to me."

But Rutherford County DSS Director John Carroll said his office has continued to protect children.

"Nothing in the settlement keeps us from investigating a report," he says.

Asked if DSS has investigated any complaints concerning Word of Faith since the settlement was signed, Carroll declined comment.

Some of Word of Faith's dealings with government remain strained.

In January, and in front of a packed church during a Sunday morning service, Jane Whaley confronted a Cleveland County guardian ad litem assigned to two young brothers placed under the foster care of a Word of Faith family.

Whaley says the guardian, Nancy Burnette of Boiling Springs, was openly hostile and mocking of the worship. She says she told Burnette she was welcome to be there if she respected the service.

Burnette, who was accompanied by her boss, Cleveland County guardian supervisor Dawn Scoggins, remembers events differently. She says the pair was invited to be there and sat quietly in the back until an angry Whaley stopped services, walked the full length of the center aisle, pointed her finger at Burnette and accused her of coming to Word of Faith "to cause strife."

Burnette says she and Scoggins decided to leave.

She says she had never heard of Word of Faith before being assigned the case, which she worked for 14 months. After the boys were placed with the church family, she says their behavior toward her grew distrustful. When she visited the boys at home or school, Burnette says, she was never allowed to be with them alone.

After the Sunday confrontation, Whaley says she called Burnette that afternoon but never heard back. She says she called Scoggins on the next day and talked with her for almost an hour, telling her that Burnette was biased against the church and the foster family.

That Wednesday, Burnette says, she was removed from the case.

She says Scoggins told her it was for her own safety, since Burnette had already reported that church members had showed up at her home and college and had begun following her.

Scoggins declined comment, citing rules that protect the privacy of the children under the program's care.

Burnette, the wife of a Shelby police officer, soon left the ad litem program.

She has since become a confidante for Michael Lowry and other former church members, as well as the Rutherford County woman fighting a church family for the custody of her son. She says she believes the 2005 court settlement and the church's clout influenced the Cleveland County decision.

"I was taken off the case because of the desire of the church," she says, "not for the well-being of those children."

She says she still worries about how they're being raised.

Whaley says the children are fine and she doesn't understand Burnette's bitterness.

Walking with Jesus

The Bible warns us, Jane Whaley says, that those who live a truly godly life will be attacked.

She grew up a Baptist and also attended Presbyterian and Methodist churches. Unlike those denominations and most other churches, Word of Faith doesn't try "to walk with Jesus and also walk in this world." Unlike the others, she says, Word of Faith deals directly with sin.

In recounting her 2002 conversation with the Holy Spirit, Whaley says God has always taught her to fight back with love. She ticks off the names of her accusers, former church members, the attorneys and officeholders and all the rest whom she says have brought the church so many years of pain.

She says she loves them all.

No longer does Jane Whaley fear for her church's future. The Bible also tells us, she says, that those who bless God's people will be blessed. And those who curse God's people will be cursed. Word of Faith, she believes, is among God's chosen few.

The accusers? Well, that's a different story. Several, Whaley says, have died of cancer.

She grieves for the rest, she says, because she knows what God has in store.

Staff Writer Joe DePriest and researchers Marion Paynter and Maria David contributed.

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