The secretive Word of Faith Fellowship is the focus of tonight's episode of People Magazine Investigates: Cults
Christina Bryant was 11 years old when she traveled with her mother and siblings from Jacksonville, Florida, to the Word of Faith Fellowship church in North Carolina.
Church members had reached out to the family: They’d heard Bryant’s mom was sick, so they shared an audiotape of services and invited them to visit.
But for Bryant, the visit to Word of Faith quickly became disorienting, she says in People Magazine Investigates: Cults, which airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET on Investigation Discovery. (An exclusive clip is shown above.)
“I don’t remember how the prayers started,” she says. “I just remember people started screaming all around me … like, I don’t know what to do here, I’m scared.”
Begun in 1979 under the leadership of founder and pastor Jane Whaley, the church in Spindale upheld a level of secrecy by closing itself off to non-members. But every few months it held weeklong seminars for those interested in learning more about its teachings.
That’s where Bryant’s family encountered Whaley’s practice of a form of prayer called “blasting,” in which church members loudly shout and allegedly circle and verbally and physically assault others in an effort to drive out perceived demons.
Bryant was horrified to find her 2-year-old brother targeted as the volume around them rose.
“He started screaming hysterically,” she says. “He was terrified. And they told my mom that those were the devils in him, and they held him down, and I’ll never forget his face being covered in sweat, him being beet-red, crying until he passed out, and I just remember thinking if I fight this, this is gonna happen to me, so I might as well start making sounds like they are.”
Matthew Fenner’s family had joined the church when he was 16, invited in by a prominent church leader. In his first encounter with blasting prayer, “I thought it was really silly,” he tells PEOPLE. “It was really loud.”
But he and his family both were seeking new starts. His divorced mom was ill and struggling financially; Fenner himself was working through the coming-out process as a gay teen, and had been met with a contentious response at home. Welcomed to a youth fellowship event, “I was made to feel important,” he says. “I didn’t feel judged.”
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He enrolled in the church’s school, in which fellow church member Danielle Cordes had grown up and become accustomed to rigid rules — enforced with corporal punishment both in school and at home — that banned most interactions with people and influences outside of the church.
“I did not know exactly the definition of a cult, but I felt trapped,” says Cordes. “Our parents really didn’t make decisions for us. Ministers did. I always knew we were different, and I wanted to know why. To me it was a form of them controlling us.”
Yet both Fenner and Cordes tried to keep their heads low. They became friends, and after reaching a milestone where the church relaxed enforced barriers between boys and girls, they paired off in what Cordes, unaware of Fenner’s sexual orientation, believed would be a path toward marriage.
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But any notion the pair would remain together within the church ended in 2013, when Fenner was allegedly violently assaulted for more than two hours under the guise of prayer. At least one of those involved invoked Fenner’s “homosexual demons.” A day later Fenner fled the church, as well as the home where he and his family lived with a church leader.
Now, with the local district attorney taking steps to expose the sect’s alleged abuses and inner workings, Fenner is speaking out against what he says were routine abuses inflicted by those within the church.
He, Cordes, Bryant and Bryant’s mother have all renounced their church membership. Current and past church members accused of assault have denied the allegations against them.
“One day I fear they’re going to kill somebody,” says Fenner. “They’re going to kill a baby because they held it down too long. Or they’re going to kill a baby from shaking it too bad during these prayer things. I know that they’re going to kill someone someday, and I want to know for myself that I’m doing everything I can.”
People Magazine Investigates: Cults, Word of Faith, premieres tonight on Investigation Discovery (8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT).