RUTHERFORDTON, N.C. – A North Carolina man thought he was "going to die" when members of his evangelical church beat and choked him for two hours to expel his "homosexual demons," he testified Thursday.
Matthew Fenner was the first person to take the stand in the assault and kidnapping trial of Brooke Covington, a 58-year-old minister at Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina.
Fenner, 23, said Covington was the leader in a 2013 beating involving numerous congregants. He said Covington pointed out his sexual orientation, saying, "God said there is something wrong in your life."
Fenner said he had cancer as a child and had a biopsy one week before he was assaulted.
"I'm frail and in my mind, I'm thinking, 'is my neck going to break, am I going to die?'" Fenner said.
Covington faces up to two years in prison if convicted. She is the first of five church members to face trial in the case. Each defendant will be tried separately.
Prosecutor Garland Byers said during opening statements that Covington "directed and participated in" the assault.
Fenner has said he was leaving a Sunday night prayer service Jan. 27, 2013, when nearly two dozen people surrounded him in the sanctuary. He said they slapped, punched, choked and blasted him — a church practice that involves intense screaming — for two hours as they tried to expel his "homosexual demons."
Covington's lawyer, David Teddy, tried to poke holes in Fenner's testimony, noting that Fenner praised the church in his high school graduation speech and visited a Word of Faith Fellowship church in Brazil.
"Before I got to Word of Faith, my life was filled with sin," Teddy said, quoting from the transcript of one of those speeches.
Teddy also said Fenner never told anyone to stop hitting him. "When you've been emotionally abused, you cannot say stop," Fenner said.
Complaining would have made the punishment worse, Fenner said.
During opening statements, Teddy said the congregation gave Fenner routine prayer that lasted no longer than 15 to 20 minutes. When the prayer was over, Fenner "hugged everybody and left the church," Teddy said.
As part of an ongoing, two-year investigation into abuse of Word of Faith Fellowship congregants by church leaders, The Associated Press interviewed four former church members who say they witnessed Fenner being attacked.
Based on interviews with 43 former members, documents and secretly made recordings, the AP reported in February that Word of Faith Fellowship congregants were regularly punched, smacked, choked, slammed to the floor or thrown through walls in a violent form of deliverance meant to "purify" sinners by beating out devils.
The church has scores of strict rules to control congregants' lives, including whether they can marry or have children. Failure to comply often triggers a humiliating rebuke from the pulpit or, worse, physical punishment, according to numerous former members interviewed by AP. Members can't watch television, go to the movies, read newspapers or eat in restaurants that play music or serve alcohol. If church leaders believe a congregant has sexual or dirty thoughts, they can be accused of being "unclean" and be punished, the former members said.
Fenner said he joined the sect with his mother and brother in 2010. He fled after he said he was attacked.
The defense had filed requests to move the trial out of Rutherford County, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains midway between Charlotte and Asheville, due to years of negative publicity about the church's practices. As an alternative, the defense asked to have a jury brought in from another area.
Superior Court Judge Gary Gavenus denied those requests.
The AP's investigation also revealed that congregants were ordered by church leaders to lie to authorities investigating reports of abuse and that two assistant district attorneys and a veteran social worker were among those who coached congregants and their children on what to say to investigators. After the AP report, the prosecutors, including one who is a son-in-law of a church founder, left their jobs, and the social worker resigned.
The sect was founded in 1979 by Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam, a former used car salesman. Under Jane Whaley's leadership, Word of Faith Fellowship grew from a handful of followers to a 750-member congregation in North Carolina, and another nearly 2,000 members in churches in Brazil and Ghana. It also has affiliations in other countries.
Mohr reported from Jackson, Mississippi.
Read more of AP's investigation of the Word of Faith Fellowship here .
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org