by Mitch Weiss, Associated Press
RUTHERFORDTON, N.C. (AP)—A man who claims he’s being stalked for helping a 22-year-old man escape a North Carolina church that abused him for being gay says the harassment won’t stop him from encouraging others to leave.
Jerry Cooper has filed false imprisonment and stalking complaints against four members of the Word of Faith Fellowship church.
The complaints stem from Cooper’s visit to the Rutherfordton area in October with Michael Lowry, who’s accused the church of holding him against his will.
Lowry filed a complaint with the Rutherford County sheriff’s department in February about the abuse. He returned to the area with Cooper on Oct. 16 to talk to the sheriff’s department about the case, and to prove to himself that he was free of the church’s grip, Lowry told The Associated Press.
During the visit, Cooper and Lowry also drove by the church. That’s when they were spotted by the church’s security team, who followed them and later tried to block their car from leaving a mall parking lot, Cooper said.
“They didn’t want to let us leave,” Cooper said. “It’s typical of their intimidation tactics.”
On Friday, the four men—Jason Gross, Chris Hall, Randy Fields and Gilbert Carmona—appeared in Rutherford County court. The case was continued until Jan. 4.
All of the men refused to comment about the case. They ignored questions as they walked out of the courthouse.
Church spokeswoman Carol Reynolds said the allegations are unfounded. She said that Cooper “is on a mission from God to destroy the church.” She said he has been sending harassing emails to the church for years and that Lowry’s allegations were also false.
“We all love Michael,” she said, adding she was shocked to find out about the allegations.
Lowry’s case has drawn the attention of civil rights groups that are urging the sheriff’s department to take action.
“I’m not out to destroy anyone,” said Cooper, who changed his last name and lives in an undisclosed location because of the alleged harassment. He has a safe house where former members have sought refuge over the years. “I’m not out to destroy them. My main purpose is I know people who are in there who are going through what Michael is going through.”
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.
Jane Whaley said she’s upset her church has become a target again. She said they have spent millions in the past fighting off claims of abuse.
“You hope it goes away and it gets worse,” she told the AP through tears.
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.
Word of Faith was investigated twice in the late 1990s for its treatment of children but was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Cooper said he joined the church 20 years ago. At the time, he had just graduated college with a psychology degree and was working in Georgia as a mental health counselor. He said he wanted to become a missionary, like his parents, and had heard that Word of Faith Fellowship held bible classes.
At first, Cooper said, there was a real fellowship.
“They were very dynamic, very outwardly passionate about what they were doing. Their main purpose was to train people to teach and preach in the streets. It really was exciting. I was 25 years old and I was ready to go out and do some things. I just got caught up in it all,” he said.
But then things began to change. He said church leaders began pressuring him to cut ties with his family—especially around the holidays.
They told him where to work and what to do with his life. And then they forced him and others to work on “church projects.” That usually meant performing manual labor at ministers’ homes—painting, mowing the grass or fixing the roof.
When Cooper decided to leave, he said he had to keep it a secret. So one day, he told church leaders he was going to work, but then drove to a friend’s house in Kentucky, where he went to college.
Over the years, he tried to help others leave the church, even getting arrested once for trespassing when he showed up at a church service a few years ago, he said.
When Cooper heard that Lowry had left the area, he decided to reach out to him. But he said what he heard from Lowry was shocking.
Lowry told the AP he fled after the church had confined him to a building on church grounds because he was gay. Lowry claims that from August to November 2011 he was taken to the building and beaten and abused. The doors were locked. He had no communication with his family. And “blastings” were common. It was all part of the church’s way of trying to cure him of being gay.
He said his family, who have been church members for more than 20 years, knew what was going on but didn’t help.
Lowry said the church released him to his parents in November 2011, but Lowry said he had enough. He convinced his parents to take him to a hotel, where he called friends who helped him flee. He spent time in Michigan with relatives before moving to Cooper’s safe house.
“You can’t imagine what I went through,” Lowry said.
Brent Childers, executive director of gay rights group Faith in America, said the Lowry case was disturbing. His group says it addresses harm done to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people by “misguided religious teaching.”
He said he’s pushing law enforcement officials to investigate the allegations as a hate crime.