SPINDALE, N.C. – Jamey Anderson vividly recalls being a skinny kid trembling on the floor of a dank, windowless storage room, waiting in terror for the next adult to open the door.
He was bruised and exhausted after being held down while a group of Word of Faith Fellowship congregants — including his mother and future stepfather — beat him with a wooden paddle, he said. As with most punishments at the secretive Christian church, Anderson said, it was prompted by some vague accusation: He had sin in his heart, or he had given in to the “unclean.” The attacks could last for hours until he confessed to something, anything, and cried out to Jesus, he said.
Sometimes even that wasn’t enough for redemption. Then, Anderson said, he would be locked in a dark place he called the “green room,” where he would bang his head against the brick wall, wanting to die.
“I just wanted it to end,” he recalled to The Associated Press. “Of course, they told us that killing yourself is the unforgivable sin.”
Today, Anderson is a 29-year-old handsome, articulate attorney with a quick wit and a sarcastic side. At first glance, he seems well-adjusted. But he finds it hard to trust anyone.
He fled Word of Faith when he was 18, but he is not free. More than a decade later, night terrors jolt him awake and he struggles to find his footing in a world that he doesn’t understand, having been raised, as he puts it, in a “cult.”
As part of an ongoing investigation into Word of Faith Fellowship, dozens of former congregants have told the AP that church members were regularly beaten in an effort to “purify” sinners — even children. But despite allegations of abuse spanning two decades, authorities have done little to intervene.
Anderson describes his childhood as nothing short of hell.
Throughout his adolescence, he was singled out as a rebel and suffered some of the most brutal treatment in the church, nearly two dozen former congregants told the AP. Among his transgressions: making a funny face at a classmate.
Anderson said some of his earliest memories are of a church practice called “blasting,” in which a congregant is shrieked at, sometimes for hours, to drive out devils. The sessions often graduate to punching and choking, according to more than 40 former members interviewed by the AP.
But his most traumatizing memories stem from the “green room,” a storage area named for the colour of its outdoor carpeting in a house his family shared with more than a dozen church members.
Anderson recounted a particularly brutal attack when he was about 9, when he said a female church member pinned his arms down while his mother sat on his legs and beat him with a paddle.
“It hit me in many other places than where it was supposed to. But they didn’t stop, because I needed a ‘breakthrough.’ The demons were ‘taking me over,’ as a kid. I was going to go to hell. And so they kept swinging the paddle, swinging the paddle,” he said.
Anderson’s mother, Patricia Dolan, did not respond to phone and text messages from the AP.
Noell Tin, an attorney for church leader Jane Whaley, denied Anderson had been mistreated. “Mr. Anderson’s claims are disputed not only by Ms. Whaley, but also by members of the church,” he said.
When Anderson fled Word of Faith, he left behind the only life he had ever known and lost all contact with his mother and brother.
He eventually graduated from law school and was hired by a respected firm in Charlotte, and his future — for a change — seemed bright. Then one night last year, the police knocked on his door and arrested him for trespassing on his brother’s property.
Nick Anderson had sworn to a magistrate judge that another church member spotted Jamey on his property. When presented with overwhelming evidence that Jamey was nowhere near his brother’s home that night, District Attorney Ted Bell dismissed the case.
Reached by phone, Nick Anderson declined to comment.
Bell said he considered charging Nick Anderson and the second church member with intimidating a witness, but instead would “send them a strongly worded letter to not do it again.”
That provides little solace to Jamey. Like the skinny kid locked away in the storage room anticipating the next beating, he still can’t escape the fear of what the church might do next.
He does not want any other child in Word of Faith to suffer like he says he suffered, so he tells his story to “be the light that I used to see as a small child, that got extinguished when nobody saved us. . I don’t want to watch and see as other kids grow up and they start to leave and say, ‘Why didn’t someone come and help us? Why was our childhood destroyed, when you knew better?'”
AP researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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