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Brooke Covington, a minister with Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina, is standing trial on kidnapping and assault charges. Prosecutors allege that Covington and other church members tried to beat the gay out of congregant Matthew Fenner.
One of five people charged with beating a fellow church member to expel homosexual demons admitted in court that she started the physical assault by slapping the man.
Sarah Anderson testified Friday that she told other leaders at Word of Faith Fellowship she thought Matthew Fenner was unclean and sinful.
Minister Brooke Covington is standing trial on kidnapping and assault charges.
Anderson says Covington began the confrontation by screaming at Fenner after a January 2013 service at the church in Spindale, North Carolina.
She says she then slapped Fenner, and then Covington and about 30 others joined in, slapping, beating, choking and screaming at the man for two hours.
Previously when Fenner testified, he said he thought he was ‘going to die’ when members of the evangelical church beat and choked him for two hours to expel his ‘homosexual demons.’
Fenner, 23, 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.
Prosecutor Garland Byers said during opening statements that Covington ‘directed and participated in’ the assault.
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, it was 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.
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.
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.
Word of Faith denies the accusations made against the church and Covington. You can read their responses here.