This story begins in 2014, when five members of Word of Faith Fellowship, an evangelical congregation in western North Carolina, were indicted for beating a young man because they thought he was gay. Mitch Weiss, an investigative reporter based in Charlotte, reached out to the man, Matthew Fenner, who told a harrowing tale.
Fenner told Weiss he'd been beaten for hours during his deliverance – a ceremony to expel his “homosexual devils.” He said he thought he was going to die – and that it took two years to get police to take his case seriously.
Weiss did some research. He found that Word of Faith, a secretive church in the town of Spindale that is presided over by pastor Jane Whaley, had been in the news before because of allegations of abuse. But nothing ever stuck.
For Weiss, that conversation was the beginning of a nearly two-year quest to tell the story of Word of Faith and its controlling leader, Jane Whaley, a 77-year-old petite former math teacher with a thick Southern accent. Working alongside Atlanta-based video journalist Alex Sanz, Weiss eventually pieced together a startling and comprehensive look at a religious community that promised its members peace and prosperity. What they got was violence and abuse, administered in the name of God, former followers told him. Part one of that series, published this week, wins Best of the States, and there is more to come.
“If anyone wanted to talk, I would listen,” Weiss says. Many were reluctant. For months, no one called at all.
Weiss compiled a list of former members and went down the list methodically, “If anyone wanted to talk, I would listen,” he said. But there were also ground rules. If they did want to talk, all the interviews were on the record and he would use their names. Many were reluctant. Most initially hung up on him. For months, no one called at all.
Then, in July 2015, John David Cooper, a medical school student at the University of North Carolina, telephoned out of the blue. Cooper, whose parents joined the church in the early 1990s, said he left the church in 2014. After a few conversations, Cooper said he was ready to meet.
Weiss interviewed Cooper and his close friend Jamey Anderson, who had just graduated from law school. They spoke for five hours and told him horrific stories of beatings, being put in isolation for up to a year, being taken from their parents and forced to live with ministers who abused them. They told him about the Lower Building – a place where men and boys deemed the worst sinners were sent. There, they said, they endured the worst of the beatings.
This all went on, they said, because everyone believed that Jane Whaley was a prophet. Cooper and Anderson said they came forward to tell their stories to AP because they feared for the children who were left behind. He asked them for the names of people who could corroborate their stories. They gave a few, but said the former members would probably be reluctant to talk.
Weiss eventually spoke to a staggering 43 former members, all named and on the record.
But, Cooper said, if they won’t talk, tell them “that I did.” For months, Weiss used shoe-leather reporting to track down former members. He knocked on doors, went to businesses. So many didn’t want to talk because, even though they left, they were still afraid of Whaley. With some, he used the “Cooper card,” telling them that John talked. That was enough to get a few to open up.
Weiss eventually spoke to a staggering 43 former members, all named and on the record. He reviewed hundreds of pages of law enforcement, court and child welfare documents, and listened to hours of recorded conversations with Whaley that were secretly taped by followers.
For his incredibly dogged pursuit of the story, Weiss wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize. Stay tuned for part two of the story next week.