Matthew Fenner was leaving a Sunday prayer service in January 2013 when a group of church members surrounded him.
As he told police, a church leader and more than 20 other members of the Word of Faith Fellowship – based in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Spindale, North Carolina – repeatedly punched, beat and knocked him down for about two hours. At one point, someone grabbed him by the throat and shook him, he said.
That attacks took place “to break me free of the homosexual demons they so viciously despise,” Fenner, who identifies as gay, told television station WSPA a year later. After the episode, he left the fellowship.
In December 2014, a minister and four members of the Rutherford County church were indicted on charges that they kidnapped, beat and strangled Fenner, then 21. They pleaded not guilty.
And on Thursday, Fenner was the first person to testify in the trial of Brooke Covington, 58, the church minister accused of leading the alleged kidnapping and assault of Fenner on that day, more than four years ago. She is the first of five church members to face trial in the case, the Associated Press reported. If convicted, she faces up to two years in prison.
Fenner said he thought he was “going to die” while the church members beat and choked him. He accused Covington of telling him, “God said there is something wrong in your life.”
“I’m frail and in my mind, I’m thinking, ‘is my neck going to break, am I going to die?'” Fenner said, adding he had cancer as a child and underwent a biopsy a week before the attack took place, the Associated Press reported.
When Fenner brought the allegations three years ago, it was not the first time the church had been accused of beating church members over their sexual orientation. Two years earlier, former church member Michael Lowry said he was beaten and held against his will at the church as an effort to eliminate his gay demons.
Lowry testified before a grand jury, but about a year later, the same month Fenner says he was beaten and strangled, Lowry rejoined Word of Faith and took back his allegations. He has since left the church, and later said in a statement that his original claims are true.
The Word of Faith, opened by Jane and Sam Whaley in 1979 in a former steakhouse, began with a handful of followers and grew to a 750-member congregation in North Carolina. Eventually another 2,000 members would join affiliated churches in Brazil, Ghana and other countries.
The church was described in a 2012 profile in the Charlotte Observer as diverse and close-knit congregation with an ecstatic style of worship. Sometimes members would hop, sway, shout prayer songs and speak in tongues. “God has freed us” to be loud, Whaley would say.
In the four decades since the Word of Faith was founded, it has been entangled in a series of lawsuits, criminal charges and custody fights surrounding its treatment of children. More than 15 years ago, the state and Rutherford County Department of Social Services launched a series of investigations into allegations the church abused children, the Charlotte Observer reported. Jane Whaley was charged with assaulting one of her followers.
Brooke Covington, the minister accused in the assault of Fenner, is the daughter of Jane and Sam Whaley, according to the Charlotte Observer.
In an Associated Press investigation in February, which relied on interviews with dozens of members, documents and secret recordings, the agency reported that Word of Faith congregants were routinely punched, smacked, choked, slammed to the floor or thrown through walls “in a violent form of deliverance meant to ‘purify’ sinners by beating out devils.”
The church’s strict set of rules mandate whether its congregants can marry or have children. Members can’t watch television, go to the movies, read newspapers or eat in restaurants that play music or serve alcohol, the Associated Press reported.
Covington’s lawyer, David Teddy, argued that Fenner once publicly commended the church for releasing him from a life “filled with sin” and praised it in his high school graduation speech. Teddy also said Fenner never told anyone to stop hitting him, to which Fenner responded, saying complaining would have made the physical abuse worse.
“We are adamant that no one ever physically harmed Mr. Fenner,” attorney Josh Farmer wrote to WSPA in 2014. “The church does NOT target members who are gay.”
At a grand jury hearing in 2014, Fenner’s mother and brother, who were then still members of the church, were among the witnesses who testified against him.
Recounting his alleged attack in a WSPA interview that year, Fenner said his attackers caused his head to fling back, and his vision to blur.
“I couldn’t breathe,” Fenner said. “I’m sitting here thinking if I don’t get out of this, I’m probably going to die.”