Matthew Fenner's experience in the secretive Word of Faith Fellowship is the focus of the July 8 episode of People Magazine Investigates: Cults
At age 16, Matthew Fenner sensed that stability and acceptance in his life were missing.
As a teen he’d come out as gay, and his mother didn’t accept it. She’d also lost her job and struggled with the onset of multiple sclerosis. His parents had divorced; there were financial problems at home.
That summer of 2010, when contacted by a leader of the World of Faith Fellowship, a Spindale, North Carolina, church that his family occasionally had visited, he accepted the invitation to talk.
“I kind of had a moment where someone was actually just listening to what I was saying,” he says. He enrolled in the private church school for his senior year, and his mother and brother officially became church members with him. “I liked the idea of a fresh start,” he says
But his dream of a new beginning would become a nightmare.
Begun in 1979, Word of Faith was a secretive sect that embraced a traditional evangelical doctrine — and its founder and pastor, Jane Whaley, saw demons everywhere. “If you have a cold, it’s because you have a demon,” Paul Ditz, an attorney familiar with abuse allegations against the church, says in People Magazine Investigates: Cults, which airs Monday, July 8 at 8 p.m. ET on Investigation Discovery. (An exclusive clip is shown above.) “If you are questioning Jane, it’s because you have a demon.”
Fenner did not publicly question anything at first. He had been sold on the private school’s academic mission, and wanted to please his mom, who thought the church might be beneficial to him. But in Word of Faith’s practice of “blasting” prayer — where church members scream and allegedly punch and choke others under the belief this will exorcise perceived evil thoughts or acts — he came to sense a physical threat that one day would be turned on him.
“They look for people who are in a moment of weakness,” Fenner tells PEOPLE. “If you start kind of deviating or don’t live up to what they say, they make you feel like you’re ungrateful, or not thankful for the things God gives you.”
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Guided by strict rules — among them, how to dress, who to spend time with, and what to read and listen to — the church “was more like a controlled environment, which is to the ‘T’ what a cult is,” he says.
Fenner, now 26, adopted a go-along-to-get-along manner, as did his friend, Danielle Cordes, 25, who had been raised by her parents in Word of Faith Fellowship and didn’t know any other life. “You have to have your guard up,” she says. “You’re never able to be yourself.”
To that end, Fenner also kept his sexual orientation hidden as he had been instructed to do by a church leader, one of the few who knew about it.
Then came the Sunday in 2013, when he says he was blasted, punched and strangled in the sanctuary by a circle of fellow church members, at least some of whom railed loudly against what they called his “homosexual demons” as they inflicted bruises Fenner later photographed and shared with police.
The incident lasted more than two hours. “I began to get scared for my life,” he says.
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Cordes watched it unfold before she was called over to join in — and she panicked. “I knew if I tried to stop it,” she says, “I would be the next one in the circle.”
After the night ended, first Fenner, and then Cordes, fled Word of Faith, leaving behind family members and others within the church who subsequently turned their backs on them.
Then the district attorney’s office got involved, and the sect’s abuses and inner workings were thrust into the open.
People Magazine Investigates: Cults, Word of Faith, premieres Monday, July 8, on Investigation Discovery (8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT).