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A Glimpse Inside "One Of America's Most Dangerous Cults"

"With every line of the prayer came another blow to Matthew’s chest. All he could think was ... 'Am I going to die?'" (An excerpt from Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America's Most Dangerous Cults.)

Posted on March 29, 2020, at 9:50 a.m. ET

Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Hanover Square Press

Matthew Fenner was 16 years old in 2010, when his family joined Word of Faith Fellowship. Wiry, neatly dressed, with a quick smile and kind eyes, he grabbed Danielle Cordes’s attention right away. Danielle was always intrigued when new kids arrived. She wondered where they came from, the things they’d seen and done in the world outside. Matthew was something special. His soft voice and body language radiated kindness, something Danielle longed for more than anything. She fell in love. The church approved. But Matthew was not what he seemed to be.

Now, three years later, he was gone. Disappeared. And no one in the church would talk about it. Maybe it was because of the vicious beating he’d taken in the sanctuary, a blasting so violent Danielle thought he might be killed. Danielle had been there; she had done what she could to stop it. But when she didn’t see Matthew in class at Isothermal Community College a few days after the beating, she knew something was very wrong. She asked the professor about Matthew. He said the young man had dropped the class. She was perplexed. Danielle knew how much school meant to Matthew. If he’d escaped, if he was somewhere on the outside, she’d join him somehow. She had tried to escape before, but didn’t get far. This time she’d be more careful. She couldn’t take Word of Faith without Matthew. He was her hope.

Over the years, Danielle figured she’d been beaten by at least 40 different adults in her life — her parents, teachers, principals, and ministers — not to mention being slapped and thrown to the floor countless times by her peers during blasting sessions — ear-piercing, screaming group prayers meant to drive out demons. Danielle never believed the prayers were meant to help her. No, she believed the people in those circles wanted to hurt others, whether they stomped your toes, yanked your hair, or punched you in the chest. Jane Whaley liked to say to “do whatever it takes.” In Danielle’s life, violence “was normal and encouraged.” And how could she forget her freshman year of high school, when an accusation of impure feelings for a boy escalated, leading to a confrontation with Jane Whaley. Whaley alternated hands, slapping her on each side of the face “probably fifty times.” The violence only fed her determination to someday escape.

Matthew and his family first attended a service at the Word of Faith Fellowship in 2010. Matthew thought the church was “a wild mess,” and he never wanted to go back. He didn’t believe in God, so church seemed like a waste of time. But his mother, Linda Addington, was impressed. When she heard Whaley preach about the sin of homosexuality, she believed God had led her home. The year before, Matthew had come out as gay to his family. He’d always known he was different. Even as a child, when his friends talked about growing up and getting married, he pictured himself with a man. Linda tried to ignore the signs. She believed homosexuality was a sin condemned in the Bible.

Once Linda joined the Word of Faith Fellowship, the church’s teachings reinforced her fears. Matthew was an angry teen, but now he had a bargaining chip. His mother was intent that he go to church. He agreed to attend the Friday night fellowship meetings if his mom would let him to go out with a boy he liked. Matthew knew his mother couldn’t accept him for who he was, but he longed for her love and approval. He agreed to keep an open mind about the church. And the first time he attended a Friday night social event, something surprising happened: He liked it.

Everyone was fun and friendly. Nobody asked about his sexuality. For the first time in years, he felt like he fit in. And there was something else: People in the church seemed so much better off than his family. While his mom and siblings struggled at times, depending on unemployment and food stamps to get by, people in the church had nice clothes, new cars, and beautiful homes.

When church minister Brooke Covington asked Matthew if they could spend some time together, he happily agreed. She picked him up and drove to a McDonald’s restaurant. They ordered from the drive-through window. Matthew, a vegetarian at the time, ordered only water. Brooke ordered a drink and fries. They sat in her car in the parking lot and she asked him about his dreams and aspirations.

The longer they talked, the more comfortable he felt. It was “like a therapy session, only less formal,” he later said. He told Brooke about how his parents had divorced when he was a child, and how difficult his relationship with his father had become. His mother got sick, he said, so they had to live with his grandparents.

And Matthew had been sick, too, he said. He’d been diagnosed with melanoma when he was 13 years old. It was in remission now, but he worried about it coming back.

She nodded, listening intently as the young man unloaded a lifetime of pain and resentment. When he finished, he felt relieved. Covington seemed to care about what he had to say. He felt important, like his life and struggles mattered. Over time, Matthew came to believe that the Word of Faith Fellowship was the right place for him. Soon as his junior year of high school ended, he transferred to the Word of Faith Christian School.

He committed himself to the church, attending events nearly every day. It was a “fresh start,” his mother said. She hoped Matthew would meet a nice girl and “live a normal life,” maybe even give her grandchildren one day.

Matthew was observant by nature, watching closely how others behaved and interacted. He made mental notes of what seemed to please the church leaders and what made them mad.

This place is a big, nonstop psychological game, he thought. Like a method actor, Matthew slipped into character. He dressed the way he was told and prayed the way he was expected. He told on others when he believed they were in sin, participated in blasting, and “dealt with” people who needed it.

And when it was his turn to be blasted, he found a dramatic way to signal a breakthrough: He’d pretend to have a seizure, flopping around on the floor. It was over the top, but it thrilled the ministers.

Yes, he had figured things out. Listen to what they say, observe everything that’s going on, and just play the part. But there was one part Matthew was not ready for. By their senior year, teenagers were expected to start looking for a mate. It wasn’t a surprise when Robin Webster announced to Matthew’s class that it was time to start “walking out a relationship.”

“Is anyone carrying anyone?” she asked. “If you are, raise your hand.”

Danielle lowered her head, wanting to be as small as possible, invisible. She didn’t know what to say. She wanted to leave the church. Getting paired up with someone wasn’t going to make that any easier.

But Matthew raised his hand. He knew that his mother wanted him to be with Danielle, and if he had to spend time with a girl, it might as well be her. She was friendly and outgoing and, best of all, trustworthy. Only a few ministers in the church knew he was gay, and they were convinced God could change that.

“I feel like I should fellowship with Danielle,” he said.

Danielle felt her heart beat faster. Matthew was an outsider. She had wanted to leave the church ever since she was a child. Maybe Matthew would be her way out.

And just like that, they were a couple. They sat together at Friday night youth socials, where couples gathered around tables for pizza and salad. Danielle began having Sunday lunch with Matthew’s family. In time, she developed strong feelings for him. He could sense that she was falling for him, but what could he do? He wanted to tell her he was gay, but he was too afraid. So he continued playing the part, hoping his feelings would eventually change.

Chuck Burton / AP

Word of Faith Fellowship church leader Jane Whaley talks to members of the media Thursday, March 2, 1995, accompanied by her husband, Sam, in Spindale, N.C.

In the spring of 2012, Whaley said God wanted the Fenners to move into the Covington house. It seemed a natural fit. Brooke had taken Matthew under her wing. A dozen other people lived there, too, including Patrick Covington. He and Matthew found they had a lot in common.

Both were “bubbly and excitable, not hypermasculine.” When they could steal moments alone, they talked about the outside world. They realized that when Patrick had been in foster care during a custody battle, they had attended the same elementary school. They knew some of the same people. They talked about music and movies they remembered from their time outside the church, and the things they’d like to do someday. There were giddy moments, with a “flirty undertone.”

That was dangerous. The ministers noticed. “The way you two interact with each other is not godly,” they were told. “It’s not what it means to be a godly man.”

One day in late January 2013, Matthew was working in the laundry room at the Covingtons’ house when Patrick walked in and closed the door. Spontaneously, as if it was something they couldn’t control, they embraced. Then they locked eyes and kissed. It shocked them both.

“We need to go,” Matthew said. “If they find us here, we’ll be in trouble.”

For Matthew, it was a pivotal moment. He had been trying to suppress his feelings for Patrick, but now he felt validated. It was terrifying, too. Matthew shuddered to think what would happen if anyone found out.

The following day they were sent together to paint the basement of a church member’s house. While one of them stood on a ladder painting, the other grabbed a leg, slowly edging his hand higher, trying to see how far things would go. Eventually they were touching each other’s crotches, enjoying the excitement of a new, forbidden romance.

Danielle was oblivious to it all.

When Brooke and Jayne Caulder pulled her aside after a church service, they only confused her. “We know that you know about Matthew’s problem,” Brooke said. “You need to deal with his sin. If you don’t do something, he is going to leave the church. If that happens, his blood will be on your hands.”

Danielle nodded, but she had no idea what Brooke was talking about. She knew Matthew was a little different than other boys in the church, but strict rules forbade any kind of intimate knowledge of his character, much less his sexuality. Everyone worked hard to keep her in ignorance, then expected her to understand it all.

She’d been taught there was a sin called “homosexuality,” but that was it. Sexuality was a taboo subject, and homosexuality was beyond the realm of her understanding. Danielle couldn’t figure it out exactly, but she knew something was seriously wrong.

Ever since they’d moved in with the Covingtons, Patrick’s sisters Sarah and Rachel were on the fast track to becoming ministers, Brooke’s sidekicks. They sat alongside as Brooke and Jane discussed church business at the dinner table. They were good girls. They followed the rules, and made sure others did, too.

Sarah was assigned to “watch over” Matthew at church and school, so it was no surprise when she approached Danielle after the Sunday morning service on January 27, 2013.

“I think there’s something going on with Matthew,” Sarah said.

“What do you think it is?” Danielle asked.

“I don’t know — he just kept smirking at Patrick. I feel like something is going on between them. I think he has the unclean,” Sarah said.

That night after church, Matthew was taken aside by Brooke, Sarah, and Sarah’s husband, Nick Anderson. They asked him to “open up about the sin in his life.”

At the same time Jayne Caulder accused Danielle of having “perversions” for her sister, meaning their relationship was too personal. “You need prayer,” Caulder said.

Danielle knew exactly what to do. She “went through the motions,” listened to the screaming, confessed her sin, and “had a breakthrough.”

When it was over, Danielle noticed a commotion across the room, where a growing number of people had surrounded Matthew. They were blasting him. She wanted to go over to him, but Caulder waved her away. Matthew started to scream, real bloodcurdling screams.

Danielle bolted to the other side of the sanctuary, where Matthew was seated within a circle of nearly two dozen people. Brooke was pushing on his chest, screaming, “Open your heart!”

Sarah slapped him hard in the face, leaving four red fingerprints on his cheek. Before he knew what was happening, Matthew was being shoved and punched. He weighed only about one hundred and thirty pounds, and a week earlier doctors had taken biopsies to ensure his melanoma hadn’t returned.

“The way you hold your hands, the way you cross your legs, that’s all homosexual devils. We are going to get it out of you,” Brooke screamed. “Did you have homosexual thoughts in a dream? Did your body manifest?”

Danielle had seen and heard many blasting sessions over the years, but this seemed more frightening, more hysterical, and clearly more violent. She shivered when she heard her name.

“Danielle, get over her and deal with your friend,” Brooke shouted.

When Danielle approached, Brooke “shoved” her into the middle of the circle. Matthew was crying and pleading, shaking his head, denying he’d done anything wrong. Danielle had to do something or she’d be in the same spot.

“Matthew, you better tell your sin,” Danielle wailed. Others joined in.

“Come out of him, you wicked demon. You’re so wicked!”

“You disgust me!”

“You’re going to die and go to hell.”

“You satanist!”

“You’re going to burn in hell.”

“He’s not saying what his sin is,” Brooke exclaimed. Sarah and Patrick’s brother Justin grabbed Matthew and began “beating him in the sternum.” Adam Bartley stood behind Matthew “with his hands wrapped around his neck,” shaking hard. With every line of the prayer came another blow to Matthew’s chest. Matthew felt “frail.” All he could think was, “Is my neck going to break? Am I going to die?”

Danielle thought he might. All the punching, slapping, choking, being thrown to the floor only to be picked up and beaten more. At one point he lost consciousness and urinated in his pants. It went on for two hours.

Danielle couldn’t watch Adam Bartley choking him anymore. She slid her hands under Bartley’s fingers, “trying to peel them off.” Bartley looked at Danielle with wide eyes, then turned to tell Brooke she was interfering. Danielle knew what would happen if she was accused of “getting in the way of God’s will.” She had to think fast. She brought up Matthew’s biopsy on his neck.

“Adam, wait, wait, wait,” she pleaded. “He just had surgery on his neck. Remember?”

Bartley paused and shook his head, satisfied with Danielle’s explanation. He pulled his hands away.

Matthew finally got his “breakthrough.” He panted on the floor, dripping with sweat. His face was ghostly white, his eyes dark and sunken. To Danielle, he looked “like a dead person.”

The crowd broke up. Danielle helped Matthew to his feet and helped him get home. Matthew felt like he’d been flattened by a truck, but there was no time to rest. He had to get out. He waited until Patrick passed in the hallway, then pushed him into the bathroom.

“Look, Patrick, after what happened tonight, I’m getting out of here,” Matthew said. “They’re going to get on to me again. It’s about to get really bad for me here. I can’t do it. I’ve got to go. If I’m going to be safe, I have to leave. You can come with me if you want. Either way, I have to go.”

Patrick didn’t hesitate. “I’m coming,” he said.

“OK. So let’s give it till tomorrow. Tomorrow night we’re out of here,” Matthew said. “You just need to listen to what I say and do it. Just trust me.”

Matthew went over the plans. The next night, they’d each pack a bag, making it look like they were taking work clothes for a church project.

“Just get what you need. We can’t try to take too much. We won’t have time. And we can’t make anyone suspicious,” he said.

Then at 2:10 a.m. they’d sneak out of the house, jump into his mother’s car and drive to his grandparents’ house. He knew they’d take them in. They had been trying to get him out of the church for years.

The next night, everything was set. Matthew kept checking the clock, but couldn’t sleep. He still had some time, so he went to his mother’s room and crawled onto her bed.

“How are you doing, Mom?” he asked, hugging her.

“I’m fine, Matthew, how are you?”

“I’m fine. I need to get ready for bed,” he said. “I just wanted to say I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Matthew palmed the car keys on the night table. He glanced back as he was walking out of the room. He wondered if he would see her again. He went to his room, which he shared with his younger brother Madison, and chatted to him until he drifted off to sleep.

Matthew set the alarm for 1:55 a.m., but he didn’t need it. He couldn’t sleep. He listened as people came into the house from working late at church projects. He counted each time the door closed, trying to account for everyone in the house. His heart raced.

When it was time to meet Patrick, Matthew grabbed a backpack and tossed in extra underwear and a stuffed corduroy bear he’d had since childhood. He slipped on his shoes and began to tiptoe toward the stairs. Suddenly, he heard a bang. He crept down the stairs as fast as he could to the ground floor. It was Patrick; he was coming up another set of stairs from the basement, carrying his trombone. He’d banged it against the wall.

“Put that down and go,” he whispered. “Go, go, go! Don’t look back,” Matthew said. “We’ve gotta get out of here.”

They ran out of the house and down Brooke Breeze Lane, through the woods and finally into Matthew’s mother’s white Ford Edge.

“Here we go!” Matthew said.

Patrick was excited, like a bank robber making an escape after a daring heist. “I can’t believe we’re doing this!”

Matthew turned the key, yanked the stick into Reverse, and stomped the gas pedal, nearly slamming into another vehicle parked in the driveway. He took a deep breath and glanced at Patrick.

“This is it,” Matthew said. He shifted the car into gear and sped down the winding driveway onto Hunting Drive, past the homes of other church members.

“I’m free. I can’t believe it, I’m free!” Patrick shouted.

“I know,” Matthew said. “Let’s listen to some music.”

Matthew pulled out his phone and played the song “Fragile” by John Ralston, soaking in the lyrics he loved before the church took away his ungodly music: “We’re so fragile, we’re so calm. We are innocent of what went wrong…”

Matthew gripped the steering wheel with both hands, hugging curves and blowing through stop signs. Patrick rolled down the window and let out a long “woohoo.” As they pulled into the driveway of Matthew’s grandparents’ house, the two looked at one another and let out a sigh.

“We made it,” Matthew said. “Let’s go inside.”

Matthew’s grandfather answered the door and wiped the sleep from his eyes.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“Something bad happened. We had to get out of there,” Matthew said. “Can you please take me to drop Mom’s car off? I don’t want to get in trouble for taking it.”

Matthew drove the car alone. His grandfather and Patrick followed in another vehicle. Matthew left his mother’s car just down the hill from the Covington home. Riding back with his grandfather, he stared out the window.

“Are y’all sure you want to do this?” his grandfather asked. “You know what’s going to happen.”

“Yes,” Matthew said. “We had to get out.”

“Well, you know they’re going to be calling. They’re going to try to get you back.”

“I know,” Matthew said. “It’s going to be a big mess. I just can’t stay there anymore. A bunch of stuff happened. There’s no way I can go back.”

“You know I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”

When they got back to his grandparents’ house, Matthew and Patrick told them everything. It was worse than his grandparents had imagined. They promised to stand by the boys.

“Well, we better get some sleep,” his grandfather said. “It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.” ●


Hanover Square Press

Excerpted from Broken Faith by Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr, Copyright © 2020 by Mitchell Weiss and Holbrook Mohr. Published by Hanover Square Press.

Mitch Weiss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist with the Associated Press and the co-author most recently of The Heart of Hell: The Untold Story of Courage and Sacrifice in the Shadow of Iwo Jima.

Holbrook Mohr is an award-winning investigative journalist for the Associated Press.

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