For the better part of two decades, a fringe charismatic church in western North Carolina has been under fire for abusive and cultish practices–such as banshee-like screaming at people to drive demons out, and appalling abuse of people suspected of being possessed–even kids.
However, it took until this spring for someone to finally start peeling back the dark matter. We have since learned that two local prosecutors who are also church members are accused of helping cover up child abuse at the church and its school. They are also accused of helping cover up a brutal attempt to beat the gay out of a church member.
As appalling as this is, the Associated Press may have uncovered something that may be even worse. Evidence has come to light that suggests this church is engaged in human trafficking.
Since February, the AP has been rolling out the results of its lengthy investigation into Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, located roughly halfway between Charlotte and Asheville in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Interviews with several former members confirmed allegations that have arisen against the church almost unabated since “Inside Edition” first delved into allegations of kids being emotionally and physically abused in 1995. Watch that report here.
That piercing, banshee-like screaming you hear is called “blasting.” It can go on for hours on end in hopes of driving out demons–even if the target is a child. According to the former members, WOFF’s idea of “deliverance” includes beating, shaking, smacking, and choking people–even kids and babies.
The founder and pastor, Jane Whaley, rules this church with absolute authority. Movies and television are banned, and Whaley decides whether you can go to college, marry, or have children. Few people have been willing to speak out until recently, in part because Whaley has warned that if you do so, God will kill you where you stand.
Under the circumstances, it was only a matter of time before something more horrific came to light. On Monday, the AP may have found just that. It revealed evidence that WOFF’s satellite churches in Brazil are conduits for a steady stream of slave labor. Watch the AP’s report here.
WOFF operates churches near Belo Horizonte and Sao Paulo. Whaley frequently encouraged her Brazilian followers to make “pilgrimages” to Spindale so they could get closer to God. But according to at least 16 former WOFF followers from Brazil, what they got was far different.
Andre Oliveira came to Spindale soon after turning 18. Church leaders promptly took his passport and money, supposedly for “safekeeping.” He worked 15-hour days without pay cleaning church-owned warehouses and then working for businesses owned by church members. This was blatantly illegal, since he was on a tourist visa; tourists aren’t allowed to do work for which you are normally paid.
After several months, he was allowed to go back to Brazil for a few months before coming back to North Carolina on a student visa. While he enrolled in some college classes, he didn’t have time to study because he frequently worked from 9 in the morning until midnight or 1 a. m., under conditions that flagrantly violated the rules for student visas. Oliveira recalled that he and others could hardly protest these conditions because “we would be screamed at, blasted, hit.” In any event, they spoke virtually no English and had no documentation.
Oliveira fled the church last year, and describes how he was treated in stark terms.
“They kept us as slaves. 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?”
Other former Brazilian members tell similar stories. Thiago Silva came to Spindale in 2002 for what he thought was a youth seminar, but found himself working without pay alongside Americans who were paid. He was only allowed to call home if a Portuguese-speaking church member monitored the call.
Elizabeth Oliveira–no relation to Andre–was flown to the States at least eight times during her teen years because she was branded as a rebellious child. She helped in the church’s Christian school during the day, then sewed and babysat at night–and never saw a penny.
Ana Albuquerque came to the States 11 times in a decade from the age of 5, first with her parents and then by herself. She worked as a teacher’s aide during the day and as a babysitter at night–all without pay. On her final trip, when she was 16, Whaley and another minister suspected she had a demon in her, and beat her with a piece of wood while yelling, “Pray for it to come out of you!” She left the church soon afterward, when she returned to Brazil.
It was no secret that WOFF was a horror, but Brazilian adherents were pressured to come anyway. Pablo Henrique Barbosa was told that God wanted him to come to Spindale in 2011, even though he knew it was “not about tourism. He helped in the school during the day, then worked construction jobs until as late as 1 a.m. He slept in a basement with 15 other men, and was only allowed five minutes in the bathroom lest he be accused of masturbating. He also recalled that he and the others were often rousted out of bed to “blast” a roommate suspected of having an “impure dream.”
Besides visa violations and allegations of human trafficking, the AP also found evidence that Whaley arranged sham marriages between her American followers and congregants from her satellite churches around the world. Former member Rebeca Melo recalled “at least five or six Brazilian guys” being flown in to marry American girls when she was a member. Not only did this allow church members to legally work in this country, but it allowed Whaley to keep control over her female followers by ensuring they married within the church. She doesn’t allow anyone to date, let alone marry, someone who isn’t a church member.
The former members say they tried to alert a federal prosecutor, Jill Rose, about this outrageously illegal situation as early as 2014. However, they claim that Rose blew them off. Rose is now the U. S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, which includes Spindale. She isn’t commenting on the case, citing an ongoing investigation–one that was presumably prodded by the AP.
There was already ample reason why Whaley belongs in an orange jumpsuit. This only adds to it.
(featured image courtesy WSPA via WBTV)