“I didn’t think I was going to come out alive.”
This is how 21-year-old Matthew Fenner described to the Daily Beast a torturous two-hour “deliverance” spearheaded by members of his former North Carolina church—The Word of Faith Fellowship. They wanted to expel the demons which they believed caused impure thoughts. Fenner had been openly gay for years.
I spoke to Fenner days after a grand jury indicted Justin Brock Covington, Brooke McFadden Covington, Robert Louis Walker Jr. and Adam Christopher Bartley on second degree kidnapping and simple assault. Sarah Covington Anderson faced the same charges, with an added assault by strangulation.
“I had at least 15-20 college age men around me, screaming, shaking me, punching me, hitting my chest, grabbing my head, telling me to repeat different phrases,” Fenner, a junior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, stated in the affidavit filed with Rutherford County.
“Deliverance soon ensued (which meant extremely rough pushing, loud screaming, and other violent measures intended to ‘break me free of the homosexual “demons” they so viciously despised), and I was at one point grabbed by my throat by Sarah and shaken, punched, and beaten,” he described in the affidavit. “I received many bruises on my collarbones, neck, chest, and shoulders.”
Fenner’s case comes after years of suspected cult-like behavior on the part of the Church. Since 1979, when the Spindale, N.C.-based Word of Faith Fellowship was founded, it has been the subject of an investigative exposé on abuse, seen previous lawsuits regarding the harsh treatment of its members and, according to Fenner, become a feared organization within the community in which it operates.
Fenner’s involvement with the Church began in 2010 when his mother and grandparents decided to attend a service. His grandfather, a pastor, had visited the church decades before—in the 1980s—when the church was popular within the community.
But, by 1995, an Inside Edition investigation had exposed the Church’s radical (and quite horrifying) “blasting” techniques—subjecting members to screams and high pitched noises.
The sessions, which the church was still using during Fenner’s attendance, range from a couple minutes to a few hours. “Allegations of child abuse, sexual molestation, unlawful imprisonment, and cult-like mind-control techniques,” were raised during the show’s investigation, aided by Dallas-based Trinity Foundation.
“You have to live with the guilt of the things you allowed to go on and the things you witnessed and never said anything about,” a concealed former member said in the segment. Rumors of these allegations spread throughout the town, according to Fenner.
“Several former members made allegations to the sensational, tabloid journalism show,” a statement from the Church’s attorney, Josh Farmer, said. “The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the Rutherford County Department of Social Services investigated those false claims and determined no wrong doing had occurred.”
His mother “never really believed it,” Fenner told the Daily Beast of the rumors. “She was always positive and tried to give them the benefit of the doubt.” Fenner also had the same mindset. “I didn’t want to pass judgment on them because I didn’t know them or if it was true.”
He was also trying to amend his relationship with his mother: since coming out as gay at 14, then again at 16 (she dismissed it as a phase initially), they had become slightly distant. He said that she had voiced her disapproval and shame, stating he was “going to hell” and that she “didn’t want gay children.” She hoped the church, which reinforced her views, would be a good environment for him, he explained.
“It was really hard not having the acceptance,” he said, “and it was really hard feeling ostracized by her because we were always really close.”
Fenner’s first visit to the church engendered mixed emotions. The congregation was warm, friendly, and welcoming—traits, he says, he later came to believe they used to coax members in. But, growing up, he had never ascribed to any kind of religion, always doubting and questioning it. He didn’t plan on going back.
Yet, as teenagers often do to get things they want, he succumbed to a deal with his mother. His high school prom was around the corner, and he had been hanging out with a boy that he had a crush on. In order to go to prom, and see his friend, Fenner had to go to Friday night service at the Word of Faith Fellowship.
So he went.
“They were all very accepting and friendly,” he said. “It felt good.” He made some friends and attending didn’t seem so bad. So, he decided to give the church a chance, if not just for the sake of mending his relationship with his mother.
Soon, he claims, he would start seeing, little by little, the alleged abuse that others have claimed happens behind the fortified walls of the fellowship.
The Church’s youth, according to Fenner, live almost completely separate from the world. Kids are very limited in the amount of exposure that have in the outside community, he says, claiming the adults don’t want to “expose [them] to the unclean” or things that might “make [them] want to leave” the Church.
They aren’t allowed the luxuries of television, music, movies, and video games, he says. Though, some would still indulge, even with the risk of punishment. Those caught would be beaten, Fenner said.
“I cannot reiterate enough that there is so much abuse that goes on in this place,” he asserted. “Especially towards the children.”
Fenner says he saw a 12-year-old boy isolated from his parents for weeks because he was being “rebellious.” He was kept in a dorm-like building, which has also been reported in other allegations.
The church would “keep people separated from their families,” Fenner says, while “being dealt with for sexual sins.” It included mostly men, there for masturbation, trying to sleep with their wives without permission or having thoughts of people considered “unclean.”
Students at the church’s unaccredited school were beaten, he says. Fenner claims that tutors—volunteer church members—were instructed to hit kids in the head to “break witchcraft off their minds” for moving too slow with their studies. He was instructed several times to abuse the kids, he says, or he would suffer the abuse.
“You could hear Jane [Whaley, the pastor] at the end of the hallway screaming at people about how they are wicked and going to hell and full of the devil,” Fenner said.
In 2012, Michael Lowery, another member who filed a lawsuit against the church, alleged he had been held against his will for months in this dorm-like area while being physically and emotionally abused by the church’s leaders. All, he says, because he told them he was gay.
Lowery later recanted his story, causing the U.S. Department of Justice to drop the hate crime investigation, but now Lowery claims he was persuaded into changing his stories.
A decade earlier, the Word of Faith Fellowship was involved in a court case against former member Shana Muse, who had recently returned from treatment at Wellspring Retreat, a counseling center for victims of spiritual abuse.
Muse was looking to regain custody of her four children—Justin, Sarah, Patrick and Rachel. She claimed the church forced her to sign over the custody of her kids to Brooke Covington when she left the congregation with no money or job security. Brooke, Justin and Sarah are three of Fenner’s accused. Brooke is the daughter of head pastor Jane Whaley.
The four children were taken into custody by the Department of Social Services. Judge Randy Pool had ruled that the Church’s practices constituted abuse and neglect.
By the end of the trial, “the presiding judge found Ms. Muse to be unfit and found the Covingtons to be fit and proper parents and awarded custody of the boys to the Covingtons,” according to a statement made by Farmer, the Church’s attorney. “The two girls were legally emancipated and returned to the Covington household.”
Patrick, who is openly gay and escaped the church with Fenner, is coming to their defense.
“I knew it was a lie from the beginning,” Patrick told WLOS. “Because especially my sister is not capable of doing the stuff that he is accusing her of doing.”
The two once lived together under the same roof, after Brooke asked Fenner to live with them. His stepfather had left his mother and they could no longer afford the house in which they lived. They witnessed and experienced the same types of abusive events, Fenner claims.
“I was treated as a special case,” Fenner said. The church thought he would be able to alleviate people’s concerns, Fenner said—to convince people that the rumors weren’t true. He never suffered any physical abuse and had grown close with Jane, Brooke, and her family.
Then, he says, everything changed.
Fenner said that they realized that he had only been appeasing the leaders and family members with their requests. The family’s attitudes, as he described, shifted from concern to annoyance and disgust. “She [Brooke] would just call me a snake and say I was disgusting for me being gay,” and constantly reprimanding him for the way he would sit, stand, and talk.
“Brooke knew that I wasn’t going to change. That’s what led to the night when all this stuff happened.”
After a Sunday evening service on January 27, 2013, Fenner says Brooke, Sarah and Sarah’s husband, Nick, pulled Fenner to the back of the sanctuary to talk about his sins of being gay. Others from the congregation began to trickle back.
After going back and forth for a bit, Fenner says he was subjected to a couple “blasting sessions” before allegedly being slapped by Sarah, punched by Brooke—who is “a very large, strong woman”—and grabbed by the others who screamed and shook his body.
He says he was crying. He couldn’t breathe. His vision was going in and out. “The only option was to get through the night and run away.”
And he did.
In the middle of the night, Fenner says, he and Patrick escaped to Fenner’s grandparent’s house who took him in and alerted authorities.
It took almost two years of working with and urging along authorities for Fenner, who has no legal representation, to get his case brought to light.
“They are innocent of the charges leveled against them,” a statement issued by Farmer, who also represents the accused, said. “We look forward to proving their innocence and to their complete vindication before a trial court.”
“I know it’s going to be a long process, I know it’s going to be an emotional process,” Fenner said of the pending court case. “It’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of patience but … I feel like even if it doesn’t get the outcome … we desire, I know at least I put my truth out there.”
Fenner has since moved in with his grandparents and transferred to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill where he is majoring in Anthropology and on a pre-med track. He hopes to attend Columbia Medical School and specialize in Oncology. Through a work-study program with the school, he is a Program Assistant at the UNC-Chapel Hill LGBT Center.
“It’s made me a lot stronger and … honest about who I am,” Fenner said of the experience and his sexuality. “It’s made me embrace it a lot more … because of the things that I’ve had to fight through to be as open and comfortable as I am.”
Discussing the future of the case, which he says has its first hearing scheduled for February 11, 2015, Fenner said that he just wants the abuse to stop. They “can believe whatever they want as long as [they] are not harming other people,” he said of the religious organization. “I just want the abuse to stop and I want them to stop tearing families apart.”