The Word of Faith Fellowship is a notoriously secretive evangelical church with a base in North Carolina and another congregation in Brazil. The Associated Press has uncovered Brazilian Word of Faith members who say they were trafficked to the US and held as forced laborers by church leaders.
In the past, the church has been investigated for abuse towards children and violent attempts to “exorcise” gay members. In interview with the AP, former members say hundreds of Brazilian congregants have traveled to the US on tourist or student visas. Upon arrival in Spindale, North Carolina, they allege their money and passports were taken from them; a man named Andre Oliveira said this happened to him at the US compound when he was only 18:
Trapped in a foreign land, he said he was forced to work 15 hours a day, usually for no pay, first cleaning warehouses for the secretive evangelical church and later toiling at businesses owned by senior ministers. Any deviation from the rules risked the wrath of church leaders, he said, ranging from beatings to shaming from the pulpit.
“They trafficked us up here. They knew what they were doing. They needed labor and we were cheap labor — hell, free labor,” Oliveira said.
According to the AP, most men were forced into construction, while women were made to act as school teachers or babysitters on the compound. While some people traveled to the US voluntarily after being promised a chance to learn English, others were compelled or manipulated into traveling by church elders. A woman named Ana Albuquerque says she started making the journey to Spindale with her parents at five, but when she returned at 16 with a group of other students she was forced to work:
“They come to you and say, ‘You will get to know the United States of America. You will get to go to the malls,’” she said. “But when you get there, everything is controlled.”
Albuquerque, now 25, said she worked full time without pay — as a teacher’s aide at the school during the day and then babysitting congregants’ children at night.
Her reckoning came during her final trip, when she was 16. Albuquerque said Whaley and another minister repeatedly spanked her with a flat piece of wood while screaming that she was “unclean” and possessed by the devil.
“Pray for it to come out of you!” Albuquerque recalled being exhorted during a session lasting 40 minutes.
During her final two weeks in Spindale, Albuquerque said she endured days of forced isolation, Bible reading, threats of being placed in a psychiatric ward and refusals by Whaley to let her call her parents. She finally was allowed to return to Brazil, where she left the church.
Beatings were allegedly frequent, and discouraged people from complaining about conditions like sleeping with large groups in church leader’s basements. Phone calls home were monitored. Many people told the AP it was common for couples to be forced into phony marriages when visas were set to expire. Yet one of the strongest holds that the church had on enslaved congregants was their faith. Paulo Henrique Barbosa, who said he was encouraged to go to Spindale at 17 and kept captive for six months, told the AP, “From the time you are a kid, you are trained to believe that leaving the church will mean you go to hell, get cancer or get AIDS.” He said he frequently asked to go home but was only told it was “God’s will” for him to be there.
The AP reports that in 2014, US attorney Jill Rose was informed by three ex-congregants of the abuse at Spindale, and asked about it directly in a recording. The ex-congregants say they tried to contact Rose multiple times following their interview with her, but she never responded. She refused to comment on the AP’s story, claiming her department still has an “ongoing investigation” into the case.
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