A North Carolina church allegedly used its branches in Brazil to entice its members to come to the U.S. and make them work for little or no pay.
An investigation conducted by The Associated Press (AP) has found that the Word of Faith Fellowship Church in Spindale, North Carolina used its two branches in Brazil to siphon a steady flow of young workers who came to the U.S. on tourist and student visas.
Andre Oliveira, one church member who was invited to Spindale when he was 18-years-old, recounted that the church leaders confiscated his passport and money when he arrived. He said that he was forced to work 15 hours a day, usually for no pay, cleaning warehouses for the church and toiling at business owned by senior ministers.
"They trafficked us up here. They knew what they were doing. They needed labor and we were cheap labor — hell, free labor," he said, noting that the church leaders also beat and shamed members who deviated from the rules.
AP reported that Word of Faith Fellowship absorbed two churches in Brazil, in the southeastern cities of Sao Joaquim de Bicas and Franco da Rocha, over the course of two decades.
Jane Whaley, the leader of the church, frequently visited the churches and promised the Brazilian members that they could improve their lives and their relationships with God with a pilgrimage to the mother church.
While some were enticed with the chance to attend college, to learn English, and see a bit of the U.S., other members said they felt they simply had no choice.
Elizabeth Oliveira, who is not related to Andre, said she was being sent to the U.S. to "correct" her bad behavior because she talked back to pastors as a child. She narrated that she was only 12 when she traveled to Spindale, where she was immediately put to work. During the day, she would help out in school, then she sewed clothes and baby sat in the evenings, but she never received compensation for her work.
"I suffered so much there. When I turned 18, I left and was told, once again, that I would die on my own in the world and go to hell," she said.
The imposition of the church's strict rules in Brazil has led to complaints to the police and a legislative hearing in 2009 but the church never faced any official censure.
Brazilians interviewed by AP have revealed that church leaders sometimes referred to the forced labor projects as "volunteer work," in an apparent attempt to circumvent the rules against employment.
AP noted that in 2014, three-ex members alerted the authorities that the Brazilians were being forced to work for no pay.
"And do they beat up the Brazilians?" asked Jill Rose, who is now the U.S. attorney in Charlotte.
"Most definitely," a former member replied. Ministers "mostly bring them up here for free work," said another congregant.
Rose reportedly promised to look into the issue, but the former members said she never responded when they tried to contact her in the months after the meeting.
In 2012, Word of Faith was accused of abusing and imprisoning Michael Lowry, a gay man who was a member of the church. A chaplain said that the allegations are a complete fabrication being pushed forth by a gay activist.