By MITCH WEISS
SPINDALE, N.C. — For Matthew Fenner, a crowd of parishioners gathering around him in a church sanctuary after a prayer service was a sign of trouble.
Within minutes, he said they began to berate him because he was gay. One woman told him he was “disgusting.” Then for two hours, they pushed and hit Fenner, screaming at him as they tried to “break me free of the homosexual ‘demons,'” he said in a police affidavit about the Jan. 27, 2013 attack.
Nearly two years later, five Word of Faith Fellowship church members have been indicted for kidnapping and assault in connection with Fenner’s beating.
But the case has opened new wounds in the rural North Carolina community where the church has been a lightning rod of controversy.
Now a student at the University of North Carolina, the 21-year-old Fenner told The Associated Press that he believed his life was in danger that night.
He said he had to press authorities to investigate his allegations because of the church’s influence in the community.
“The line between religion and abuse, they are crossing it quite severely. That’s why I’m doing this. They have to know you cannot hurt people,” he said.
But Joshua Farmer, whose law firm is representing the five church members, said that was nonsense.
“In short, this stuff is an absolute complete fabrication,” Farmer told the AP. “They are innocent of the charges.”
This is the latest controversy to surround the church founded in 1979 by Sam and Jane Whaley. The church, which has 750 members and operates a 35-acre complex in the rural community of Spindale, has been accused for years of enforcing extensive control over its congregation.
Former members say they were told by church leaders where to live and work, what to read, how to dress and when to have sex with their spouses.
Word of Faith also practices “blasting,” a form of hands-on, high-pitched, screaming prayer. The church says it doesn’t celebrate Christmas and other holidays because of their pagan origins.
The church was investigated twice in the late 1990s for its treatment of children but was cleared of any wrongdoing.
In recent years, national gay rights groups have criticized Word of Faith after several young men — whose parents are church members — claimed they were abused because they are gay.
“It’s pretty clear to me … that these individuals wanted to inflict pain on Matthew because of his sexual orientation,” said Brent Childers, executive director of Faith in America, a group that addresses harm done to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people by “misguided religious teachings.”
Several telephone messages for church leaders, including Jane Whaley, were not returned. But Whaley has told the AP that her church has become a “target” — and they have spent millions in the past fighting off claims of abuse.
Rutherford County Sheriff Chris Francis and District Attorney Brad Greenway did not return telephone messages.
Justin Covington, 20, of Rutherfordton; Brooke Covington, 56, of Rutherfordton; Robert Walker Jr., 26, of Spindale; and Adam Bartley, 25, of Rutherfordton have been indicted on one count each of second-degree kidnapping and simple assault.
Sarah Covington Anderson, 27, of Rutherfordton, faces the same charges — and one count of assault inflicting physical injury by strangulation. It’s unclear how the Covingtons are related, but the indictments show they live at the same Rutherfordton address.
The police documents and interviews with Fenner reveal details of the case.
Fenner’s family joined the church a few years ago at a time when Fenner said he was struggling with his sexuality.
He said he decided to attend the church and its school because of his mother.
“My mom and I were always really close and I just thought maybe I can keep an open mind and see if it works — see if I can change. Obviously, that was really a stupid decision because you can’t change who you are. But in my mind it seemed like the right thing to do,” he said.
During that period, he said he became a tutor, helping other students at the church, and going to services. He said church members suspected he was gay — and later began harassing him, the police affidavit said.
But Fenner said nothing prepared him for what happened on Jan. 27, 2013.
After a nighttime church service, three members asked him to go to the back of the sanctuary. In the affidavit, Fenner said the three were soon joined by about 20 others and they surrounded him. And that’s when “deliverance soon ensued.”
He said they began pushing him and hitting him and using “other violent measures” that were all part of the church’s way of trying to cure him of being gay.
It lasted about two hours before they let him leave.
When he got home, he said he told his mother, but she didn’t believe him — even though he said he was covered in bruises.
He said he went to his grandparents’ house and he called the sheriff’s office. And he said that was the beginning of his struggle to get law enforcement to take action.