A 22-year-old man has accused his former Rutherford County church of holding him for four months against his will while he was physically and emotionally abused because he is gay.
Michael Lowry filed a complaint in February against Word of Faith Fellowship Church, a nondenominational Christian congregation in Spindale that has made national headlines with some of its practices.
In a statement given to a sheriff’s department investigator last week, Lowry said he was kept in a church building from Aug. 1 to Nov. 19, 2011. He said he was knocked unconscious during his first day of confinement.
Lowry’s former pastor, Jane Whaley, said Sunday that all of his allegations are “lies.”
Whaley said Lowry was not held or beaten. She said the church only learned that he was gay when his family did – after watching a news report by an Asheville television station Thursday.
Lowry said he first told his family and church leaders of his sexual orientation when he was 15 or 16. That set off years of harassment and abuse, he said, as church members tried to expel the demon that they believed caused his homosexuality.
A Hickory advocacy group has called for a federal investigation.
Brent Childers, executive director of Faith in America, said in a statement that Lowry’s case is “the most disturbing I’ve encountered” in the six years he’s worked with the group. The nonprofit addresses what it describes as “the harm” caused gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people by “misguided religious teaching.”
If Lowry’s account is accurate, Childers said, “there’s no question that these actions constitute a hate crime.”
Last week, a friend of Lowry who is also a former church member filed charges against four Word of Faith members after a confrontation near the church, court records indicate. The four, all listed under the church’s address, are part of the Word of Faith security team and were charged with false imprisonment and misdemeanor stalking.
Rutherford County District Attorney Brad Greenway said the case is being investigated and it’s too early to say if it will reach a grand jury.
“We’ll continue to investigate, talk to some other people, and then make a decision,” he said Sunday.
Sam and Jane Whaley started Word of Faith in 1979, and the couple have been running it continuously since 1985. Jane Whaley says the church now has 750 members. It operates from a 35-acre complex, 65 miles west of Charlotte.
Church leaders also run several businesses and the church is politically active. A decade ago, Sam Whaley gave the opening prayer in the U.S. House at the request of then U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, an Asheville Republican.
Word of Faith has also been accused of enforcing extensive control over its congregation.
Former members interviewed by the Observer in 2000 say they were told where to live, where to work, what to read, how to dress or even when it was OK to have sex with their spouses.
Lowry says many of those controls continue today.
Word of Faith also practices “blasting,” a form of hands-on, high-pitched, screaming prayer, a ritual that has landed it on “Inside Edition” and YouTube. The church, according to its website, also doesn’t celebrate “pagan holidays” ranging from birthdays to Christmas.
Word of Faith was investigated twice in the late 1990s for its treatment of children, and later sued the local Department of Social Services in connection with what is now referred to on its website as “the persecution.”
Whaley said the church has been exonerated of all allegations.
Lowry was born into Word of Faith, and his parents and two brothers remain members.
He said he hoped to be trained by the church to become a minister. But there was a problem: Lowry said he has known since puberty that he was gay.
He had always been active in the church, but said he became increasingly uncomfortable living under constant scrutiny and watching how children were disciplined.
About six years ago, when he said he told his family and Jane Whaley he was gay, Lowry said he became a target of those same methods.
Lowry: ‘It was jail’
His dissatisfaction with the church had deepened by summer 2011. On Aug. 1, 2011, he said he was taken by church members to the Word of Faith complex and placed in a building with other men and boys having trouble at home.
“The doors were locked, it was jail,” he said. “You weren’t allowed to speak to your family. Many of the men had wives and children but they weren’t able to communicate with them.” Blastings were common, he said.
Also on Aug. 1, according to court records, Lowry took a shower at the church, during which his handlers accused him of masturbating. He told investigators that he was roughed up and eventually knocked unconscious.
Lowry said he was allowed to leave in November when he made it clear to the church “that God is telling me it’s time to go. I don’t want to be told what to do anymore.”
Jane Whaley says Lowry stayed in what amounts to a dormitory, not because he was confined but because he’d been thrown out of his house by his parents.
Church: Lowry was free to leave
Those who stayed there were free to come and go, she said. Because of his behavior, Whaley said, Lowry was eventually asked to leave.
Asked why Lowry would lie, Whaley said he had been talked into filing his complaint by former church members who held grudges and had even threatened her life.
She said the church believes in “strong prayer,” of laying on hands. That prayer is useless, she said, unless the subject takes part.
“We want to serve Jesus,” she said. “We don’t want to be hypocrites. If this church is not for you, people leave.”
When Lowry left, he moved in with relatives in Michigan. He is now staying at an undisclosed location with a friend, he said, to avoid church harassment.
Lowry said he came back to Spindale last week to follow up with his complaint and to visit the church and other sites from his past “so I could realize there was nothing to fear.”
Nancy Burnette of Boiling Springs, who met Lowry in January and has since become his friend, said Lowry has often expressed frustration at the pace of the investigation. She said she called the department herself, urging investigators along.
Rutherford County Sheriff Chris Francis could not be reached for comment.
Thursday night, the Asheville television station ran its report on the case.
Friday night, Greenway and sheriff’s investigators talked with Lowry for about three hours.
The investigation has been slowed, the district attorney said, because Lowry had been hard to reach after moving out of state.