'Nobody saved us': Man describes childhood in abusive 'cult'

Jamey Anderson vividly recalls being a skinny kid trembling on the floor of a dank, windowless storage room, waiting in terror for the next adult to open the door.

He was bruised and exhausted after being held down while a group of Word of Faith Fellowship congregants — including his mother and future stepfather — beat him with a wooden paddle, he said. As with most punishments at the secretive Christian church, Anderson said, it was prompted by some vague accusation: He had sin in his heart, or he had given in to the "unclean." The attacks could last for hours until he confessed to something, anything, and cried out to Jesus, he said.

Sometimes even that wasn't enough for redemption. Then, Anderson said, he would be locked in a dark place he called the "green room," where he would bang his head against the brick wall, wanting to die.

"I just wanted it to end," he recalled in a series of interviews with The Associated Press. "Of course, they told us that killing yourself is the unforgivable sin."

Today, Anderson is a 29-year-old handsome, articulate attorney with a quick wit and a sarcastic side. At first glance, he seems well-adjusted. But he finds it hard to trust anyone.

He fled the secretive evangelical church when he was 18, but he is not free. More than a decade later, he still struggles to find his footing in a world that he doesn't understand, having been raised, as he puts it, in a "cult."

Night terrors jolt him awake. He fears people will think he's delusional if he discusses his experiences in Word of Faith because the stories seem unbelievable. He missed a lifetime of pop culture, which makes it difficult for him to build connections with his peers.

Worst of all is the suffocating anguish that rushes in when he looks back on the beatings and isolation.

"There were times that mentally you just feel broken," he said. "I mean, I was a kid — I couldn't even process why this was happening to me."

As part of an ongoing investigation into Word of Faith Fellowship, dozens of former congregants have told the AP that church members were regularly beaten in an effort to "purify" sinners — even children. But despite allegations of abuse spanning two decades, authorities have done little to intervene.

As a child, Anderson said, he was questioned by social services investigators in church co-founder Jane Whaley's office, but was too afraid to tell the truth. In 2003, he said, the church forced him to sign an affidavit saying he had not been abused and that "church discipline" was "God's mercy on my life."

Anderson was about 4 years old when his mother joined Word of Faith. He describes his childhood as nothing short of hell.

Throughout his adolescence, he was singled out as a rebel and suffered some of the most brutal treatment in the church, nearly two dozen former congregants told the AP. Among his transgressions: making a funny face at a classmate.

His most traumatizing memories stem from the "green room," a storage area named for the color of its outdoor carpeting in a house his family shared with more than a dozen church members. The long stretches of isolation, the incessant hum of a dehumidifier and the pervasive smell of mildew almost drove him mad, he said.

"I remember thinking about it in that room, thinking, 'I wish that someone cared. I wish that someone got me out of here,'" he recalled.

Former Word of Faith member Risa Pires said that when she visited her aunt, who lived with Anderson's family, it seemed like "Jamey was always in that room."

Pires, who left the church three years ago, said children were encouraged to tell on Anderson — and others — for the slightest perceived infractions in the church's K-12 school, where she was in his class until the ninth grade.

Anderson would be pulled from the classroom and brought to another room where he would be "brutally paddled," she said.

"You could hear the loud whacks through the wall," she said. "You just sat there, hoping you weren't next."

After breaking with Word of Faith, Anderson lost all contact with his mother and brother, who remain in the church. He said Whaley even refused to let him attend the funeral of his grandfather, the most important male figure in his childhood, and that he was omitted from the list of family members in the obituary.

He is free and yet, he said, he cannot escape the church's reach. It has branded him — permanently, he fears.

He is speaking out now, he said, because "I want to make sure that kids there, they know that there's a better way to live. That people can love you for who you are. That they're not going to mistreat you."

Noell Tin, an attorney for Whaley, denied Anderson had been mistreated. "Mr. Anderson's claims are disputed not only by Ms. Whaley, but also by members of the church," he said.

To understand what Anderson lived through, it is necessary to understand Word of Faith. Founded in 1979 by Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam, the church has grown to a congregation of nearly 750 people in rural Spindale with hundreds more followers extending to Brazil, Ghana and other countries.

Jane Whaley is the unquestioned leader, presenting herself as a prophet. Over the years, she has decreed ever more stringent rules, dictating how followers dress, where they live, who they marry and even when they have sex. Birthday celebrations, television and music are strictly off-limits.

A series of AP stories over the past year have documented widespread abuses within Word of Faith, prompting investigations in the U.S. and South America. In July, the AP revealed how the church mined its two branches in Brazil for a steady supply of young laborers who say they were forced to work for little or no pay in the U.S. at businesses owned by church leaders. In November, the AP documented how the sect used it power and influence to wrest children from poor single mothers.

Anderson said some of his earliest memories are of a church practice called "blasting," in which congregants are shrieked at, sometimes for hours, to drive out devils. The sessions often graduate to slapping, punching and choking, according to more than 40 former members interviewed by the AP.

The members said Whaley quotes Acts 2:2 and other scriptures to justify the practice: "When suddenly there came a sound from heaven like the rushing of a violent tempest blast ..."

From early childhood, Anderson always seemed to be in trouble, resulting in regular severe beatings, several former members said.

Anderson recounted a particularly brutal attack when he was about 9, when he said a female church member pinned his arms down while his mother sat on his legs and beat him with a paddle.

"It hit me in many other places than where it was supposed to. But they didn't stop, because I needed a 'breakthrough.' The demons were 'taking me over,' as a kid. I was going to go to hell. And so they kept swinging the paddle, swinging the paddle," he said.

Anderson's mother, Patricia Dolan, did not respond to phone and text messages from the AP.

Former congregant Danielle Cordes said it was common for adults to hold children down by their arms and legs during attacks. It happened to her, too. "That was normal," she said.

Forced child labor was another staple of life, several former members told the AP.

Anderson said his work details began around sixth grade — sometimes during school hours — on construction and real estate projects performed for church members. He recalled being diagnosed with asthma in middle school, a condition aggravated by the outdoor work, and being rebuked for "laziness and foolishness."

Over the years, he said, the work increased. Anderson said he cleaned the Whaleys' house, sometimes working until after midnight, then would return in the morning to mow their lawn. At times, he said, he was forced to work several nights a week, often doing remodeling work like painting and drywall repair. He said church leaders called it "volunteer work," but that the punishment for refusing could be severe.

And though he thought his life couldn't get any worse, it did.

When he was 14, Anderson said, Jane Whaley called a mandatory church meeting, on a weekday. Waiting in the sanctuary that day in early 2002, "we knew it couldn't be good," he said.

When Whaley arrived, she pointed to Anderson and a group of "troublemakers" she called the "five boys." For two hours, he said, Whaley screamed and shamed them.

They were expected to fall to the floor and cry out to Jesus for forgiveness. Some did, but Anderson said he was too scared to move.

"That meant to Jane that my heart was hard. I was unreachable and that's when she got very close to my face and called me everything she could think of, yelling at me at the top of her lungs," he said.

Whaley placed Anderson and his four friends in isolation for a year, he said. Instead of attending class, he said they sat in a room watching videos of Whaley preaching and were confined to their homes after school and on weekends. Family members weren't allowed to talk to them. When it was time to eat, someone would open the door and slide food in, "like in a prison," Anderson said.

They were treated as if they did not exist — except when it came time for punishment and they were told they were full of "witchcraft and warfare," he said.

Ministers constantly grilled them with questions that would devolve into the "sexual realm," said Peter Cooper, another of the five, who called the ministers relentless. If the boys didn't answer the "right way," he said, they were blasted and beaten.

"After you've been told repeatedly that you're unclean, you know it's better to go ahead and admit it. You start confessing to things you didn't think about. They destroy your will," said Cooper, 28, who left the church in 2014.

To this day, Anderson said he can't understand why the boys were singled out and considered so unworthy of love and acceptance.

"If there was ever a time I was broken, that was it," he said, pushing back tears.

When Anderson walked away from Word of Faith, he left behind the only life he had ever known. He wanted "freedom," even though he wasn't quite sure what that meant.

Despite having an outgoing personality, his isolated upbringing made it hard for him to fit in. If he was hanging out with a group of peers and someone cited a scene from a movie or line from a song, he had no idea what they were talking about. He didn't always get their jokes. The loneliness could be crushing, he said.

It also was difficult for him to form romantic relationships, crippled by the fear of questions about his past and embarrassment about his night terrors.

"I don't trust anybody. With this thing, it can change the way people look at you," Anderson said.

Still, he forges on, determined to build a happy life.

He graduated from law school and was hired by a respected firm in Charlotte, and his future — for a change — seemed bright. Then one night in October 2016, the police knocked on his apartment door and arrested him for trespassing on his brother's property.

Nick Anderson had sworn to a magistrate judge that another church member spotted Jamey on his property. When presented with overwhelming evidence that Jamey was nowhere near his brother's home that night, District Attorney Ted Bell dismissed the case. But Jamey said he was humiliated by having to explain to his neighbors and law firm that members of a "crazy church" had made false accusations against him.

Reached by phone, Nick Anderson declined to comment.

The district attorney said he considered charging Nick Anderson and the church member with intimidating a witness, but instead would "send them a strongly worded letter to not do it again."

That provides little solace to Jamey. Like the skinny little kid locked away in the storage room anticipating the next beating, he still can't escape the fear of what the church might do next.

Because he does not want any other child in Word of Faith to suffer like he says he suffered, he tells his story to "be the light that I used to see as a small child, that got extinguished when nobody saved us. . I don't want to watch and see as other kids grow up and they start to leave and say, 'Why didn't someone come and help us? Why was our childhood destroyed, when you knew better?'"


AP researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.


The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate@ap.org.


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