Brazil­ians fun­neled as ‘slaves’ by US church, ex-mem­bers say

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

When An­dre Oliveira an­swered the call to leave his Word of Faith Fel­low­ship con­gre­ga­tion in Brazil to move to the mother church in North Carolina at the age of 18, his pass­port and money were con­fis­cated by church lead­ers - for safe­keep­ing, he said he was told.

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 evan­gel­i­cal church and later work­ing at busi­nesses owned by the sect’s se­nior min­is­ters. Any vi­o­la­tion of the rules risked the wrath of church lead­ers, he said, rang­ing from beat­ings to sham­ing from the pul­pit.

An As­so­ci­ated Press in­ves­ti­ga­tion has found that Word of Faith Fel­low­ship used its two church branches in Brazil to siphon a steady flow of young la­bor­ers who came on tourist and stu­dent visas to its 35-acre com­pound in ru­ral Spindale. The Brazil­ians of­ten spoke lit­tle English when they ar­rived and many had their pass­ports seized. “They kept us as slaves,” Oliveira told the AP. “How can you do that to peo­ple - claim you love them and then beat them in the name of God?”

As­saults

Un­der US law, vis­i­tors on tourist visas are pro­hib­ited from per­form­ing work for which peo­ple nor­mally would be com­pen­sated. Those on stu­dent visas are al­lowed some work, un­der cir­cum­stances that were not met at Word of Faith Fel­low­ship, the AP found. In 2014, three for­mer con­gre­gants told an as­sis­tant US at­tor­ney that the Brazil­ians were be­ing forced to work with­out pay, ac­cord­ing to a record­ing of the meet­ing ob­tained by the AP.

Jill Rose, now the US at­tor­ney in Char­lotte, promised she would “take a fresh look at it,” ac­cord­ing to the record­ing. But the for­mer mem­bers said she never re­sponded when they re­peat­edly tried to con­tact her in the months af­ter the meet­ing. Rose de­clined to com­ment to the AP, cit­ing an on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Oliveira, who fled the church last year, is one of 16 Brazil­ian for­mer mem­bers who told the AP they were made to work while be­ing sub­jected to phys­i­cal or ver­bal as­saults.

For­mer con­gre­gant Jay Plum­mer, an Amer­i­can, su­per­vised re­mod­el­ing pro­jects for a church’s leader busi­ness and con­firmed the Brazil­ians’ as­ser­tions that the U.S. work­ers who la­bored along­side them were paid while they were not. The rev­e­la­tions of forced la­bor are the lat­est in an on­go­ing AP in­ves­ti­ga­tion ex­pos­ing decades of abuse at Word of Faith Fel­low­ship. Based on exclusive in­ter­views with 43 for­mer mem­bers, doc­u­ments and se­cretly made record­ings, the AP re­ported in Fe­bru­ary that con­gre­gants were reg­u­larly punched and choked in an ef­fort to “pu­rify” sin­ners by beat­ing out devils.

The church has rarely been sanc­tioned since it was founded in 1979 by Jane Wha­ley, a for­mer math teacher, and her hus­band, Sam. Another pre­vi­ous AP re­port out­lined how con­gre­gants were or­dered by church lead­ers to lie to au­thor­i­ties in­ves­ti­gat­ing re­ports of abuse. The AP made re­peated at­tempts to ob­tain com­ments for this story from church lead­ers in both coun­tries, but they did not re­spond.

Re­la­tion­ship with God

Un­der Jane Wha­ley’s lead­er­ship, the church grew from a hand­ful of fol­low­ers to about 750 con­gre­gants in North Carolina and nearly 2,000 mem­bers in its churches in Brazil and Ghana and af­fil­i­a­tions in Swe­den, Scot­land and other coun­tries. Wha­ley and her lieu­tenants travel sev­eral times a year to the Brazil­ian branches, in the south­east­ern ci­ties of Sao Joaquim de Bi­cas and Franco da Rocha.

She tells the Brazil­ian mem­bers of her flock that they can im­prove their lives and re­la­tion­ships with God with pil­grim­ages to Spindale, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral of those in­ter­viewed. Some said they also were en­ticed with the chance to at­tend col­lege, to learn English, to see a bit of the US Oth­ers said they felt they had no choice but to travel to North Carolina. Per­haps to cir­cum­vent the rules against em­ploy­ment, church lead­ers some­times re­ferred to the forced la­bor pro­jects as “vol­un­teer work,” ac­cord­ing to Brazil­ians in­ter­viewed in both coun­tries.

Many fe­males worked as babysit­ters and in the church’s K-12 school, and many males worked in con­struc­tion, the for­mer mem­bers said. The work in­cluded rip­ping out walls and in­stalling dry­wall in apart­ments owned and rented out by a se­nior church min­is­ter, they said. “It was slave la­bor,” said Re­beca Melo, 29, who grew up in the church in Brazil and vis­ited the US about 10 times. Wha­ley’s brand of “love” also played a key role in en­tic­ing Brazil­ian males to Spindale - and keep­ing them there once their visas ex­pired, ac­cord­ing to for­mer mem­bers of the church.

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