CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Five members of an anti-LGBT church in Spindale, N.C., were indicted on several felony charges this week, following a complaint lodged by a young gay man who says church members kidnapped him and assaulted him because of his sexual orientation.
A grand jury indicted Justin Brock Covington, Brooke McFadden Covington, Robert Louis Walker Jr. and Adam Christopher Bartley on second degree kidnapping and simple assault charges. A fifth member, Sarah Covington Anderson, was indicted on second degree kidnapping as well as simple assault and assault by strangulation. The grand jury met on Monday, with indictment announcements released on Tuesday.
All are members of The Word of Faith Fellowship, a church which has continually come under fire for its alleged cult-like behaviors and severe treatment of members, particularly young people. In 1995, the church was the subject of an “Inside Edition” report on its “blasting” techniques, in which a person is encircled by church members and subjected to high-pitched shrilling sounds, screams and prayers. Blasting sessions can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.
In this most recent case, 21-year-old student Matthew Fenner, a member of the church since age 16, alleges that several members targeted him because of his sexual orientation. On Jan. 29, 2013, Fenner says he was threatened with confinement for two days, slapped, strangled and verbally assaulted in an attempt, he says, to free him of “homosexual demons.”
Faith in America, a Taylorsville, N.C.-based LGBT advocacy group, has taken up Fenner’s cause.
They report in a press release: “Fenner said that at the time of the assault, he had a number of places on his back and neck that had been biopsied two weeks earlier for possible malignancy due to Fenner having cancer when he was a young boy. Fenner said members of the church who were involved with the assault ‘continued to grab at these spots resulting in much pain.’ He states in the affidavit that he believed he would have been severely beaten if he had admitted to any same-sex relations.”
Fenner has said it took several attempts — including several stalling tactics from local law enforcement and prosecutors — to get local officials to take his allegations seriously or allow him to file a formal complaint.
The church and the accused have said the allegations are not true.
“I knew it was a lie from the beginning,” Patrick Covington, a brother of one of the accused, told WLOS. “Because especially my sister is not capable of doing what he’s accusing her of doing.”
Patrick Covington told the news station he is also gay and left the church with Fenner, but he denies any abuse took place at the church.
Josh Farmer, an attorney for the church, has also denied the allegations.
“They are innocent of the charges leveled against them and we look forward to proving their innocence and to their complete vindication before a trial court,” Farmer said in a statement to WSPA. “We are adamant that no one ever physically harmed Mr. Fenner… The church does NOT target members who are gay.”
Affidavit reveals extreme abuse
An affidavit signed by Fenner and submitted with his complaint to local law enforcement reveals extreme abuse by several members of the church.
In the affidavit, Fenner recounts “at least three instances that resulted in Word of Faith Fellowship ganging up on me for being homosexual,” he writes.
The first took place on Jan. 27, 2013, in which Sarah Covington Anderson led a group of members in questioning Fenner about his “sin.” Brooke Covington then threatened Fenner with confinement in the sanctuary for two days if he did not begin to confess his sins.
“By this point, Sarah began to tell me how much she couldn’t stand to be around me and that I was disgusting because of my sexual orientation,” Fenner writes in the affidavit. “I told her that I was sorry that I didn’t know what she wanted me to tell her and to which she then slapped me with a great amount of force across my left cheek. At this point I was really starting to get scared.”
A group of members then surrounded Fenner, peppering him with question.
“Deliverance soon ensued (which meant extremely rough pushing, loud screaming, and other violent measures intended to ‘break me free of the homosexual ‘demons” they so viciously despite), and I was at one point grabbed by my throat by Sarah and shaken, punched, and beaten,” Fenner continues. “I received many bruises on my collarbones, neck, chest, and shoulders.”
Fenner continues, “I had at least 15-20 college age men around me, screaming, shaking me, punching me, hitting my chest, grabbing my head, telling me to repeat different phrases, all of which caused (and have resulted in much) mental distress to high levels.”
Later in the incident, Fenner says he was surrounded again by a larger group of young men. “The pushing, screaming, hitting, and shaking ensued again, and this time with more force,” he writes. “If I so much as adjusted myself in the chair, I was knocked bak down and was told to stop resisting.”
Church has past allegations
Faith in America has also been involved in past cases, including allegations of abuse made in 2012 by Michael Lowry. His allegations led the U.S. Department of Justice to initiate a hate crimes investigation. Lowry had been placed under FBI supervision, but he later recanted his story and returned to the church. According to Faith in America, Lowry has since left the church again and now claims he was manipulated into recanting his story.
Fenner is no longer a member of the church and he is now an anthropology student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. His mother and brother are still members of the Spindale church and testified against Fenner in the grand jury deliberations.
Faith in America says the church compares homosexuals to the “demon-possessed.” In 2012, they note, the church’s website stated, “Those who were once drug addicts, alcoholics, homosexuals, etc. are now delivered by the power of God and are living normal lives, serving God and doing his will,” though that statement has now been edited to drop the word “homosexuals.”
The church also operates an unaccredited private school, which was due to receive state funding under North Carolina’s new private school voucher program. The program has been ruled unconstitutional by a state appeals court and is awaiting a hearing at the North Carolina Supreme Court.