In this Thursday, March 30, 2017 photo, Juliana Oliveira, a former member of the Word of Faith Fellowship, cries during an interview in Betim, Brazil. “When you are in a cult, you don’t know you are in a cult because… (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
SAO JOAQUIM DE BICAS, BRAZIL (AP) — At the Word of Faith Fellowship churches in the Brazilian cities of Sao Joaquim de Bicas and Franco da Rocha, the signs of broken families are everywhere: parents separated from their children, siblings who no longer speak, grandparents who wonder if they will ever know their grandchildren.
Over the course of two decades, the U.S.-based mother church took command of both congregations in Brazil, applying a strict interpretation of the Bible and enforcing it through rigorous controls and physical punishment, The Associated Press has found.
Many of the more than three dozen former members interviewed by the AP in Brazil said they live in perpetual fear of retribution. Some have sought psychological help. Others ask themselves how they put up with the abuse for so long.
Former member Juliana Oliveira remembers when life was normal in the Sao Joaquim de Bicas church, but that was years ago, before the Americans came from Spindale, North Carolina. Before the Brazilian traditions were stripped away, she said, and the screaming and beatings began.
“When you are in a cult, you don’t know you are in a cult because little by little it all becomes ‘normal,’” said Oliveira, 34. “It’s like a frog in a pot of water. By the time it’s boiling, he can’t jump out.”
The examination of Word of Faith Fellowship’s spread into Latin America’s largest country is part of the AP’s lengthy ongoing investigation into the evangelical church, founded in 1979 by Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam.
Based on exclusive interviews with dozens of former members, the AP reported in February that congregants in the U.S. were regularly beaten, punched and choked to “purify” sinners by expelling devils.
The AP also has detailed how Word of Faith Fellowship funneled a steady flow of young Brazilian members to the United States on tourist and student visas and forced them to work both at the church and companies owned by sect leaders.
Neither Whaley nor the pastors at both Word of Faith Fellowship branches in Brazil responded to requests for comment.
The church has nearly 2,000 members in Brazil and Ghana and its affiliations in Sweden, Scotland and other countries, in addition to 750 congregants in Spindale.
In Brazil, the takeover of the two churches was a slow evolution that culminated in drastic rules dictating almost every aspect of congregants’ lives, former members said.
Many of the edicts echoed Whaley’s mandates in North Carolina, such as a ban on wearing jeans and children talking to members of the opposite sex without approval.
In Franco da Rocha, former members said Whaley prohibited soccer as Brazil was getting ready to host the 2014 World Cup because she felt the church’s young males were focused on the event at the expense of God.
“We just dealt with a major ‘soccer devil’ down in Brazil two weeks ago,” Whaley told the Spindale congregation in a sermon transmitted to branches in Brazil and Ghana that was viewed by the AP.
When Oliveira was a teenager in the late 1990s, the evangelical school she attended was “strict but normal,” she said. The Bible was the guiding principle at Ministerio Verbo Vivo (Live Word), but general subjects were taught just like at any Brazilian school.
By the time she returned from college to teach at the school, life at Verbo Vivo was barely recognizable, said Oliveira, who broke with Word of Faith in 2009.
Schoolbooks reviewed by the AP show heavy redactions. Instead of human sexuality, for example, the life cycle is taught via plant reproduction.
“The influence of American pastors was getting stronger and stronger in the school and church,” Oliveira said, wiping away tears during an interview at her home in nearby Betim. “They stopped emphasizing the teaching of Portuguese, geography, mathematics — the normal things. It turned into mostly Bible study and a lot of abuse.”
Students deemed as “rebellious” were isolated from others during the school day, made to read the Bible or shouted at for hours to “expunge devils,” according to many former students and their parents.
When state inspectors visited, the long palm tree-lined driveway from the gate to the school provided plenty of time for school employees to pull out regular books and make things look “normal,” Oliveira said.
Over the years, former members say the Brazilian churches introduced physical assaults and “blasting” — a Word of Faith Fellowship practice where ministers and congregants surround members and scream in their faces for hours to drive out demons.
Flavio Correa said his oldest son was slapped so many times during a blasting session by pastors at the Franco da Rocha church that he suffered several cuts on his face.
“At the time I thought it was absurd, exaggerated,” said Correa, 52, who left the church last year after 23 years. “But I confided in them and you start to think it is good for the person. Today, I just think it’s stupid.”
THE TENTACLES INTO BRAZIL
Word of Faith Fellowship’s reach into Brazil began with John Martin, an American missionary who arrived in the late 1970s, married a local woman and served as pastor at a Baptist church near Belo Horizonte, one of the country’s largest cities.
Former members say Martin met Sam Whaley on an airplane in 1986, sparking a relationship that led both Whaleys and other ministers from Spindale to begin visiting Martin’s church.
Martin founded Verbo Vivo in Belo Horizonte in 1987 and, gradually, year by year, the Americans began to gain control of the parish, former members said.
In 2005, Martin moved his church to Sao Joaquim de Bicas, a small city about 45 minutes away. That same year, dozens of church families moved to a large plot of land in Betim, a small adjacent city.
Though land was cheaper outside Belo Horizonte, former members cite another motivation: Isolating the flock from the outside world.
Children attended school on church land — property ringed by an 8-foot-high fence topped with barbed wire — and returned home to a neighborhood with a manned gate and its own 8-foot-high fence.
Adult members had little contact with the outside world, going to work and returning straight home to the community. Some ex-members continue to live there, such as Juliana Oliveira’s family. Current congregants and former ones pass each other daily without speaking.
About 360 miles (580 kilometers) south, a similar transformation took place. Former members say evangelical pastors Solange Granieri and Juarez De Souza Oliveira, a married couple, met the Whaleys at a religious conference in Sao Paulo in the mid-1980s.
In 1988, De Souza Oliveira opened Ministerio Evangelico Comunidade Rhema, or Rhema Community Evangelical Ministry, which includes a church and a school, in the Sao Paolo suburb of Franco da Rocha.
Just as in Sao Joaquim de Bicas, congregants in the second branch were encouraged to buy land in a remote area outside the city, former members said. In both places, there was an emphasis on building close-knit communities modeled after the original sect in North Carolina.
In 2009, almost two decades after the founding of Verbo Vivo, the increasingly harsh treatment and strict rules imposed by the Americans led to a revolt by dozens of congregants in Sao Joaquim de Bicas.
Two Brazilian pastors left, contending in television interviews that Martin and the other American ministers who periodically visited were “brainwashing” and controlling congregants at Whaley’s behest.
Their departures created a rupture so great — and led to so many complaints — that the human rights committee in the Minas Gerais state legislature held hearings.
Two dozen ex-members testified about abuses, from forced isolation to being shaken and hit during services and at the church school. Former students recounted being spanked with wooden spoons and yelled at for extended periods in front of their classmates.
Andre Gustavo Morais de Oliveira, who is no relation to the other Oliveiras, testified he had been taken to Spindale four times as a teenager, starting at age 13. He said he was not put to work during the first trip, which lasted 27 days, instead spending his days praying and learning the church’s doctrine.
“The following trips, I was obligated to work as a painter, a gardener, everything for the sake of the sect,” he testified. When contacted by the AP, Morais de Oliveira stood by his testimony but declined to be interviewed.
Parents also testified that their children were sent to the U.S. and indoctrinated to the point that they turned against their families.
Eduardo Gonzaga, one of the pastors who left the church, said his 19-year-old son and 22-year-old daughter had broken off contact after traveling to North Carolina.
“Father, don’t try to speak to us anymore,” Gonzaga recounted them telling him during a phone call from Spindale on Father’s Day. All future communication must go through church leaders in Spindale, he was told.
Gonzaga testified that he tried repeatedly to reach his children, even traveling to Spindale. Since they are adults, he said, authorities could not intervene.
The hearings in Brazil created a stir, but ultimately no one was charged. Many of the abuse allegations came down to the word of former members against church officials, similar to the way investigations at the North Carolina parent church have stalled over the decades.
Martin, the lead pastor, denied the allegations and called the disciplinary rules “guidelines and not prohibitions,” according to news media reports at the time. He declined to offer fresh comment to the AP.
The turmoil did lead to at least one change: Former members said there was a sharp drop in Martin’s congregants, from about 600 to 300.
While the Franco da Rocha branch did not suffer the same internal strife, congregants who left in recent years estimate that the number of members there dropped from 700 a decade ago to 250 now.
Naara Abe, a member of the Franco da Rocha church for a quarter-century, said the dramatic changes in the church made her want to leave a decade ago but that she mustered the courage only last year.
The final straw, she said, was a conversation with Jane Whaley about her teenage son, who liked a fellow congregant but was not allowed to talk to her because the sexes are strictly separated. If she was a really good mother, Abe said Whaley told her, she would crack down on her son.
Today, Abe, 51, feels full of regret — from the birthdays not celebrated, because the church forbids it, to the tremendous strain on her marriage. Her husband, also a long-time member, had doubts about the church and argued for years that they should leave, she said.
“Little by little, the church makes you do more things, subtle things, that you don’t even notice,” said Abe, citing cutting off contact with friends who are not members.
“Then you are like a caged animal that no longer knows how to live outside,” she said.
Prengaman reported from throughout Brazil, Weiss from Spindale, North Carolina, Mohr from Jackson, Mississippi. Associated Press reporter Sarah DiLorenzo contributed from Sao Paulo.
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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