SPINDALE, N.C. (AP) – 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 secretive evangelical church and later toiling at businesses owned by senior ministers. Any deviation from the rules risked the wrath of church leaders, he said, ranging from beatings to shaming from the pulpit.
“They trafficked us up here. They knew what they were doing. They needed labor and we were cheap labor – hell, free labor,” Oliveira said.
An Associated Press investigation has found that Word of Faith Fellowship used its two church branches in Latin America’s largest nation to siphon a steady flow of young laborers who came on tourist and student visas to its 35-acre compound in rural Spindale.
Under U.S. 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.
On at least one occasion, former members alerted authorities. In 2014, three ex-congregants told an assistant U.S. attorney that the Brazilians were being forced to work for no pay, according to a recording obtained by the AP.
“And do they beat up the Brazilians?” Jill Rose, now the U.S. attorney in Charlotte, asked.
“Most definitely,” one of the former congregants responded. Ministers “mostly bring them up here for free work,” another said.
Though Rose could be heard promising to look into it, 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 forced to work, often for no pay, and physically or verbally assaulted. The AP also reviewed scores of police reports and formal complaints lodged in Brazil about the church’s harsh conditions.
“They kept us as slaves,” Oliveira said, pausing at times to wipe away tears. “We were expendable. We meant nothing to them. Nothing. How can you do that to people – claim you love them and then beat them in the name of God?”
The Brazilians often spoke little English when they arrived, and many had their passports seized.
Many males worked in construction; many females worked as babysitters and in the church’s K-12 school, the former members said. One ex-congregant from Brazil told AP she was only 12 the first time she was put to work.
Although immigration officials in both countries said it was impossible to calculate the volume of the human pipeline, at least several hundred young Brazilians have migrated to North Carolina over the past two decades, based on interviews with former members.
The revelations of forced labor are the latest in an ongoing AP investigation exposing years 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, smacked 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 sect leader 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.
Under Jane Whaley’s leadership, Word of Faith Fellowship grew from a handful of followers to about 750 congregants in North Carolina and a total of nearly 2,000 members in its churches in Brazil and Ghana and its affiliations in Sweden, Scotland and other countries.
Members visit the Spindale compound from around the world, but Brazil is the biggest source of foreign labor and Whaley and her top lieutenants visit the Brazilian outposts several times a year, the AP found.
Former member Thiago Silva said he was excited when he boarded a plane in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte to fly to a Word of Faith youth seminar in North Carolina in 2001. He was 18 and expecting to use his tourist visa to meet new people and visit the U.S.
He soon learned, he said, that there would be “no happiness.”
“Brazilians came here for labor. I’m telling you, that’s it,” Silva said. He called the treatment “a violation of human rights.”
Silva, now 34, recounted being among a group of Brazilians working alongside Americans – the locals were paid, the Brazilians were not, he said.
Silva and others also said Whaley took complete control of congregants’ lives on both continents, mandating such daily staples of life as where they lived and when they could eat – and even forcing some into arranged marriages to Americans so they could stay in the country.
The lack of freedom was pervasive, they said: Silva, for example, said he could phone his parents from the U.S only if someone who spoke Portuguese monitored the call.
“There’s no free will,” he said. “There’s Jane’s will.”