Matthew Fenner, a then 21-year-old gay man, was leaving a prayer service in Spindale, North Carolina, on January 27, 2013 when he was suddenly surrounded by a group of church members. A church leader and 20 other members of the Word of Faith Fellowship repeatedly punched and beat him for a period of about two hours: at one point he was grabbed by the throat and shaken. Why was Matthew attacked? According to Matthew Fenner, the church members beat and choked him for hours to expel his “homosexual demons.”
The Washington Post reported that Word of Faith Fellowship is based on the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and a year after the attack, Fenner told television station WSPA that the attack took place to break him free of the homosexual demons they so viciously despise.
In December 2014, a minister and four members of the Rutherford County Church pleaded not guilty to kidnapping, beating, and strangling Fenner. Prosecutors said on Thursday said that a North Carolina minister both “directed and participated” in the assault of Matthew Fenner, when he was beaten and choked for two hours.
Matthew Fenner was in court on Thursday and was the first person to testify in the trial of the church minister, Brooke Covington, 58-years-old, who is accused of leading the alleged kidnapping and assault of Fenner on that frightening day more than four years ago.
According to The Washington Post citing Associated Press, Covington is the first of five members to face trial in Fenner’s case, and if convicted, she faces up to two years in prison.
Matthew Fenner says that, while the church members beat and choked him, he thought he was going to die. He said that Covington told him “God said there is something wrong in your life.”
Fenner had cancer as a child and, just one week before the attack took place, he underwent a biopsy.
“I’m frail and in my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Is my neck going to break, am I going to die?'”
It was three years ago when Fenner first made allegations against the church, but this is not the first time they’ve been accused of beating members over their sexual orientation.
Michael Lowry, a former church member, said he also was beaten and held against his will in an effort to free him of his gay demons. In an interesting twist, a year after Lowry testified before a grand jury, the same time Fenner alleges he was beaten and strangled, Lowry re-joined Word of Faith and withdrew his allegations. He now says that his original claims are true and that he has left the church.
Jane and Sam Whaley opened Word of Faith in 1979. Jane Whaley was a former maths teacher and her husband Sam was formerly a used car salesman. It began with just a handful of followers and increased to a 750-member congregation in North Carolina. Another 2,000 members eventually joined affiliated churches in Ghana, Brazil, and other countries.
Since its conception, Word of Faith has been involved in a series of criminal charges, lawsuits, and custody fights regarding its treatment of children. The State and Rutherford County Department of Social Services launched investigations 15 years ago into allegations that children were being abused by the church.
Jane Whaley was charged with assaulting one of her followers, but these charges were dismissed.
The minister accused of assaulting Fenner, Brooke Covington, is Jane and Sam Whaley’s daughter.
An investigation conducted by Associated Press in February reported that Word of Faith congregants were routinely smacked, punched, slammed to the floor, choked, or thrown through walls, “in a violent form of deliverance meant to ‘purify’ sinners by beating out devils.” The investigation relied on interviews with dozens of members, documents, and secret recordings.
According to Associated Press, the Word of Faith Church has a very strict set of rules determining whether it’s congregants can marry or have children. Members are not allowed to go to the movies, watch television, eat in restaurants that serve alcohol or play music, or read newspapers.
David Teddy is Covington’s lawyer. He argued that Matthew Fenner once publicly praised the church for releasing him from a life filled with sin. He also said that Fenner never told anyone to stop hitting him, to which Fenner replied that complaining would have made the physical abuse much worse.
Attorney Josh Farmer wrote to WSPA in 2014, saying “We are adamant that no one ever physically harmed Mr. Fenner. The church does not target members who are gay.”
Even Fenner’s mother and brother testified against Matthew at a grand jury hearing in 2014, because they were still members of the church. During a WSPA interview that year, Fenner recalled his alleged attack saying his attackers caused his head to fling back and his vision to blur.
“I couldn’t breathe. I’m sitting here thinking if I don’t get out of this, I’m probably going to die.”
CBS News reported that, besides Brooke Covington, the defendants include Justin Covington, Robert Walker Jr., Adam Bartley, and Sarah Covington Anderson. Each defendant will be tried separately.
Associated Press conducted an ongoing two-year investigation into abuse by church leaders of the Word of Faith Fellowship and interviewed four former church members who allegedly witnessed Fenner being attacked. Their report concluded that members of the church were regularly assaulted to purify them of their sins.
It also revealed that church leaders ordered congregants to lie to authorities investigating reports of abuse. They discovered that a veteran social worker and two Assistant District Attorneys were among those who coached congregants and their children on what to say to investigators.
Following the release of the Associated Press report, the social worker resigned and the prosecutors, including the son-in-law of a church founder, left their jobs.
Fenner joined Word of Faith in 2010 with his mother and brother but fled after his attack.
“You can’t imagine the emotional toll this has taken on my life. I had to put a lot of things on hold because of this. I can’t do anything until this is over.”
[Featured Image by Holly Michele/Shutterstock]