Censorship and Abuse in the Word of Faith Fellowship

On the Darkness Within Jane Whaley's Church

Word of Faith Fellowship was braced for the worst demonic attack in all its history. Satan was out to topple their church, Jane Whaley warned, and it was time for all believers to hunker down, pray louder than ever and, most important of all, turn off their televisions.

Jane Whaley didn’t disclose details. She didn’t have to. Her followers believed that Jane was a prophet, and asking questions meant disloyalty, or a lack of faith.

Truth was, Jane was terrified: Inside Edition had asked to interview her about allegations of physical and emotional abuse inside the church. They had videos of children being blasted. The show’s producers said several former members had claimed, on camera, that adults and children at Word of Faith were subjected to “extreme discipline.”

Whaley had seen what became of Robert Tilton’s empire after the Primetime Live piece aired. She had counted on his support, but soon as Inside Edition contacted her, Tilton scurried back to Dallas. He didn’t want any part of another scandal.

Now Jane was really seething. The investigation not only ended her ambitious affiliation with the TV-star evangelist, it might also bring down the ministry she had worked so hard to build. She couldn’t let that happen.

“Expect the worst,” she intoned from the pulpit. “Tie up your loose ends and get ready for a satanic attack.”

For Rick Cooper, that meant getting plans for his new home in order. A few weeks before, ministers at Word of Faith had approved his plan to buy 33 acres on Old Stonecutter Road, about a mile from the church. The approval was a reward for his family’s steadfast devotion to the church.

By February 1995, Rick and Suzanne Cooper had become true believers. Any doubts they had about the church’s practices had long faded, and they enthusiastically told friends and family members about Word of Faith Fellowship. The couple gushed about Jane Whaley’s healing powers to anyone who would listen. They were evangelists, recruiters. A few of Rick’s Navy buddies had moved their families to Spindale, and Suzanne was on the verge of the biggest coup yet: bringing her sister, Cynthia Cordes, into the fold.

If everything went to plan, Cindy, as everyone called her, her husband, Stephen, and their three children would be the Coopers’ new neighbors—as soon as Rick closed on the Old Stonecutter Road property.

Once the papers were signed, Rick planned to sell half the land to his brother-in-law. The Cooper and Cordes families would then build homes for their growing broods. Rick also planned to build a small house on his side of the property for his mother, Cora. He wanted her close enough to keep an eye on, but not inside the same house. He and his mother were still at odds.

The same was true for Rick and Suzanne. The marriage counseling seemed to make things even worse. Sex was dirty and evil, they were told, and Rick needed to control his lust or lose his soul. Their primary loyalty should be to the church, which should come before even spouse and family.

As Suzanne became more and more indoctrinated, she grew colder toward Rick. The church and the children were her priorities. She attended every school function and every service. Suzanne was strict with her children, believing that firm discipline had a godly effect on their lives. Television viewing was limited to chipper family-friendly programs or nature documentaries. The Cooper children did their homework the moment they walked through the door after school. Suzanne’s children loved to read, but now, aside from their textbooks, they could only read Bible stories, or the Bible itself. Nothing else.

The children occupied themselves by memorizing Scripture passages. But at 8:30 p.m., no matter what they were doing, the children had to stop everything and go to bed. Even Jeffrey and Lena, who were practically teenagers.

Word of Faith members were encouraged to tell on one other, even if there was no evidence of sin.

Rick and Suzanne believed that Word of Faith Fellowship was the panacea their family needed. Their children were happy and healthy, they’d tell everyone. That was the sales pitch Suzanne used on her sister. For years, she had invited and accompanied Cindy and Stephen to church seminars and other events, and they’d grown in their Christian faith. Moving to Spindale was their next step on the road to salvation, Suzanne told them.

Much like the Coopers, the Cordeses were the prototypical Word of Faith Fellowship couple: decent, hardworking, and flawed.

Cindy was ten months younger than Suzanne, and they looked like twins with their slender figures and long brunette hair. When she was a teenager, Cindy was a party girl, popping quaaludes and smoking weed.

By the time she graduated high school, Cindy’s addictions were taking over. Instead of continuing her education, she took a job sweeping the floors in a water-filter factory. And that’s where she met Stephen.

Stephen’s father was an engineer at the factory, and Stephen had been studying engineering himself when his family moved from New York down to Ocala. In 1982, when he took a draftsman job at an aerospace company in Orlando, he asked Cindy to move in with him.

Despite the change of scenery, Cindy continued to struggle with drugs. Wanda pushed Cindy to get out of Florida, to move to Hawaii and live with Rick and Suzanne. She even bought Cindy an airline ticket.

Cordes knew if Cindy went to Hawaii he’d never see her again. The night before she was to leave, he asked her to marry him. Cindy said yes.

The Cordes family was chasing the American dream. Stephen advanced in the company. They bought a house in 1986, and had a son, Brent. A boat, nice cars, and clothes didn’t bring happiness. When their second baby died soon after birth, their grief brought them to their knees. They found answers in the Bible, and comfort at a local church.

A job opened in Thomasville, Georgia, and Stephen decided to transfer. There they attended an Assemblies of God church, where lively music, healing, speaking in tongues, and other “gifts of the spirit” were common practice. Cindy gave birth to Heather in 1991. And as Cindy became more involved in church, she looked for a deeper relationship with her sister Suzanne, a fellow Christian.

Suzanne invited Cindy to a weeklong Bible seminar at Word of Faith Fellowship. Stephen volunteered to stay at home with the kids so Cindy could go with her sister. Cindy didn’t know what to expect at the North Carolina church, but as soon as she opened the sanctuary door and heard the loud prayers, she “felt the love of God,” she said.

On her return, Cindy praised everything about Word of Faith Fellowship. “This church is loving. They take care of one another. They’re real people,” she told her husband.

Stephen was glad she liked it, but they were staying put for now. They were making a life in Thomasville. But Cindy continued making trips to Spindale.

Soon after the death of Stephen’s mother, Cindy persuaded her grieving husband to go with her to the next Bible seminar. During a noisy public prayer session, a visitor from Sweden approached Stephen. He had a “word of knowledge,” a message for Stephen straight from the Lord.

“You are very bitter at God for your mother passing away, and you haven’t forgiven,” the man said. “It’s like you have your fist raised at God and you are angry with him.”

It was uncanny. Stephen broke down and wept. And when his tears dried, he felt cleansed, refreshed. God was doing something in his heart.

The Cordeses decided to move to Spindale, after all, for the sake of their spiritual growth. They waited until late 1993, for their daughter Danielle to be born.

Meanwhile, Suzanne continued sending glowing reports from Word of Faith Fellowship. When Rick offered them a plot of land next door to his, it seemed like a sign from above.

And then another of Cindy’s sisters walked through the door.

Like Cindy, Shana Muse had made her share of bad choices. Although she was a licensed practical nurse, Shana was a drug addict.

In November 1994, Shana was living in Northern California with her sister Sonya and wanted to get away from an abusive boyfriend. She had just given birth to her fourth child. She told Cindy she wanted to get out of California.

Cindy didn’t hesitate. She sent Shana money enough to get to Thomasville, and three days later, Shana and her children were at Cindy’s house. Shana had to give up drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes, her sister told her. She needed a complete spiritual makeover, for the sake of her children, and for the survival of her own soul. Only Jesus could do that, and Cindy knew the perfect place for her to meet the Savior and get her life straightened out: Word of Faith Fellowship.

Shana wasn’t interested in a religious conversion, but she needed a safe place to stay. It had been a long trip. “Later,” she said.

Cindy broached the subject several times over the next few weeks. She told Shana about the plan to buy property in North Carolina and build a home near Suzanne. They were moving in the summer, Cindy said.

“It’s empty land. Where will you live while the house is built?” Shana asked. “Why not wait?”

True, their home wouldn’t be ready, but they’d worked that out, too. They would rent a house, maybe live with other church members, Cindy said.

Shana sighed. She knew from Suzanne that many church members lived in shared houses. Word of Faith Fellowship had promoted communal living, like hippies in a California commune. There were clusters of homes near the church where several families lived under the same roof. They shared expenses and helped raise each other’s children.

But there was another reason the church endorsed communal living: members were accountable to one another. If someone veered off course and gave in to “the unclean” or “evil ways,” the others were there to help rein them in. At least, that was the theory. In reality, members were encouraged to tell on one other, even if there was no evidence of sin. Shana would discover that in time. But for now, she was just happy to have a clean place to stay. She was taking one day at a time.

It was different in Spindale, where Rick was juggling his work and home life. He had started a new job with an electronics company. He earned more money, but it was a forty-five-minute commute to and from work each day, and church services afterward. When he had time he drew floor plans for the new house. Rick believed the new house would save his marriage.

Rick planned to build the house himself. He had spent a good part of his life working on building sites and home maintenance, helping his father through his school years. He’d learned electrical wiring in the Navy, and could subcontract the foundation work, plumbing, and finish carpentry. If everything went right, his children could learn how to frame and wire a house, put up cabinets and drywall. It would be a real family affair.

There was still some paperwork to track down, but he had a little time to pull everything together before the closing in the spring. But then Sunday came, and Sam Whaley took him aside for a private word.

“Rick, I know you’re buying that property. But I wanted to let you know something. There are going to be some lies coming out in the news. If you want to buy that land, you’d better hurry. I don’t know how the seller will react to the lies.”

Rick grimaced. “We’re supposed to close the deal soon.”

“That’s good. God’s decided you should have that land. I just don’t want the lies to mess things up for you,” Sam said.

Rick had never seen Sam so distraught. He knew what he had to do. He called Cordes, the landowner, and attorney, and on February 27th, 1995, Rick borrowed $61,875 from Centura Bank to help buy 33 acres. Then Rick sold half the property to Cordes.

That evening Rick stood in the middle of a farm field. He gazed at his land: the towering pines, the winding creek, the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. The Lord had heard his prayers. He was truly blessed.

But 24 hours later, everything changed.

*

The Inside Edition piece was worse than Jane Whaley had expected. Evans’s secret videos made their worship services appear hysterical and violent. Former members exposed the church’s secretive practices and aired old grievances.

The host, Bill O’Reilly, spoke in an outraged voice-over: “They say they are following God’s will, but are they really abusing children?”

With footage of members going into the church building, O’Reilly revealed stunning details.

Whaley knew she had to take action fast. She convened a group of her closest ministers and told them the Inside Edition broadcast was “all lies.”

“Until now, many of the members may have been kept in the dark about allegations of child abuse, sexual molestation, and unlawful imprisonment, and cult-like mind control techniques,” he said, noting that the church’s leader, Jane Whaley, was a 55-year-old “former schoolteacher with no formal theological training.”

One former member said he had been hit so hard that he flew over a desk. Another said children were routinely spanked with wooden paddles, leaving deep bruises as well as emotional scars.

Local law enforcement had turned a blind eye, the segment suggested. In a small county, a church with hundreds of congregants could sway an election. County Sheriff Dan Good and his deputies cozied up to Jane Whaley, they said. When police had a chance to take action, they did nothing.

The Inside Edition piece was an eye-opener for the people of Spindale. Until then, the church’s practices were largely hidden from the public, save for whispered rumors around town.

Most local residents only knew that church members and their children were polite, respectful, educated, and successful. Church leaders owned more than two dozen businesses. Their big new houses stood out in the poverty-stricken district.

The rest of the sect lived in clusters of family homes in middle-class neighborhoods. Members rarely mingled with the locals. Most of them held jobs at the businesses run by church leaders.

The images and audio descriptions were gripping. One showed a small group of people sitting in a circle with a man at the center, praying for him and “regularly screaming to split the ears of devils, delivering this man and others from demons inside them so they can walk with God.” In another, children barely out of diapers were shouting to heaven to expel demons, aping the adults around them.

The people of Spindale saw the show, but the people of Word of Faith Fellowship did not. Jane Whaley had forbidden them to watch television.

Whaley knew she had to take action fast. She convened a group of her closest ministers and told them the Inside Edition broadcast was “all lies.” She charged them all to call and write to law enforcement and local and state political leaders, to complain loud and long that Word of Faith Fellowship was being persecuted for their religious beliefs. Christianity was under attack by the legions of secularism. The congregation was called together for a videotaped rebroadcast of the Inside Edition report.

Whaley explained that a television show had broadcast a negative story about the church—and she wanted them to hear it from her.

Rick and Suzanne Cooper sat and watched while Whaley controlled the start and stop of the videotape. She derided the segment as “nothing but media lies and persecution of God’s children.”

Like many congregants that day, the Coopers were outraged. Not at the church or Whaley, but at Pete Evans and Inside Edition.

After the service the Coopers drove to a nearby lake. While the children fed the ducks, Rick and Suzanne talked about what they’d seen. The church encouraged corporal punishment. They’d seen children tied to the chairs in the nursery. But was that really abuse? Were things at the church as bad as Inside Edition said?

No, Rick said. They weren’t. People just didn’t understand their practices. Yes, to outsiders they may seem strange. But so what? The outside world was godless. Outsiders didn’t know Jane. The outsiders were wrong. The church was right.

So that day in the park the Coopers decided to stay. They’d build their house. They’d continue living Christian lives. Jane would continue to be their spiritual leader.

__________________________________

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 and Holbrook Mohr
Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr
Mitch Weiss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist for the Associated Press and the coauthor of numerous books, most recently The Heart of Hell: The Untold Story of Courage and Sacrifice in the Shadow of Iwo Jima. He lives in South Carolina.

Holbrook Mohr is an award-winning investigative journalist for the Associated Press. Over a fifteen-year career, he has covered devastating natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the wasteful government spending that followed, judicial bribery schemes, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and mass shootings. He lives in Mississippi.





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