SPINDALE, N.C. (AP) — When Andre Oliveira answered the call to leave his Word of Faith Fellowship congregation in Brazil to move to the mother church in North Carolina at the age of 18, his passport and money were confiscated by church leaders — for safekeeping, he said he was told.
Trapped in a foreign land, he said he was forced to work 15 hours a day, usually for no pay, first cleaning warehouses for the secretive evangelical church and later toiling at businesses owned by senior ministers. Any deviation from the rules risked the wrath of church leaders, he said, ranging from beatings to shaming from the pulpit.
"They trafficked us up here. They knew what they were doing. They needed labor and we were cheap labor — hell, free labor," Oliveira said.[ad number="1"]
An Associated Press investigation has found that Word of Faith Fellowship used its two church branches in Latin America's largest nation to siphon a steady flow of young laborers who came on tourist and student visas to its 35-acre compound in rural Spindale.
Under U.S. law, visitors on tourist visas are prohibited from performing work for which people normally would be compensated. Those on student visas are allowed some work, under circumstances that were not met at Word of Faith Fellowship, the AP found.
On at least one occasion, former members alerted authorities. In 2014, three ex-congregants told an assistant U.S. attorney that the Brazilians were being forced to work for no pay, according to a recording obtained by the AP.
"And do they beat up the Brazilians?" Jill Rose, now the U.S. attorney in Charlotte, asked.
"Most definitely," one of the former congregants responded. Ministers "mostly bring them up here for free work," another said.
Though Rose could be heard promising to look into it, the former members said she never responded when they repeatedly tried to contact her in the months after the meeting.
Rose declined to comment to the AP, citing an ongoing investigation.
Oliveira, who fled the church last year, is one of 16 Brazilian former members who told the AP they were forced to work, often for no pay, and physically or verbally assaulted.
The AP also reviewed scores of police reports and formal complaints lodged in Brazil about the church's harsh conditions.
"They kept us as slaves," Oliveira said, pausing at times to wipe away tears. "We were expendable. We meant nothing to them. Nothing. How can you do that to people — claim you love them and then beat them in the name of God?"
The Brazilians often spoke little English when they arrived, and many had their passports seized.
Many males worked in construction; many females worked as baby sitters and in the church's K-12 school, the former members said. One ex-congregant from Brazil told AP she was only 12 the first time she was put to work.
Although immigration officials in both countries said it was impossible to calculate the volume of the human pipeline, at least several hundred young Brazilians have migrated to North Carolina over the past two decades, based on interviews with former members.
The revelations of forced labor are the latest in an ongoing AP investigation exposing years of abuse at Word of Faith Fellowship. Based on exclusive interviews with 43 former members, documents and secretly made recordings, the AP reported in February that congregants were regularly punched, smacked and choked in an effort to "purify" sinners by beating out devils.
The church has rarely been sanctioned since it was founded in 1979 by sect leader Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam. Another previous AP report outlined how congregants were ordered by church leaders to lie to authorities investigating reports of abuse.
The AP made repeated attempts to obtain comments for this story from church leaders in both countries, but they did not respond.
In a statement released late Wednesday (July 26), pastors of the Ministerio Evangelico Comunidade Rhema church in Franco da Rocha, Brazil, called the former members' accusations "many lies and distorted facts."
The statement, published in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, said the church had maintained a strong relationship with pastors at the Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, N.C., for 30 years. "They are good people, they live God's love and in trying to help people they have been slandered," it read.
The statement also said the church in Brazil did "not tolerate or permit any form of abuse in our ministry."
Under Jane Whaley's leadership, Word of Faith Fellowship grew from a handful of followers to about 750 congregants in North Carolina and a total of nearly 2,000 members in its churches in Brazil and Ghana and its affiliations in Sweden, Scotland and other countries.
Members visit the Spindale compound from around the world, but Brazil is the biggest source of foreign labor and Whaley and her top lieutenants visit the Brazilian outposts several times a year, the AP found.
Former member Thiago Silva said he was excited when he boarded a plane in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte to fly to a Word of Faith youth seminar in North Carolina in 2001. He was 18 and expecting to use his tourist visa to meet new people and visit the U.S.
He soon learned, he said, that there would be "no happiness."
"Brazilians came here for labor. I'm telling you, that's it," Silva said. He called the treatment "a violation of human rights."
Silva, now 34, recounted being among a group of Brazilians working alongside Americans — the locals were paid, the Brazilians were not, he said.
Silva and others also said Whaley took complete control of congregants' lives on both continents, mandating such daily staples of life as where they lived and when they could eat — and even forcing some into arranged marriages to Americans so they could stay in the country.
The lack of freedom was pervasive, they said: Silva, for example, said he could phone his parents from the U.S only if someone who spoke Portuguese monitored the call.
"There's no free will," he said. "There's Jane's will."[ad number="1"]
'I suffered so much there'
Over the course of two decades, Word of Faith Fellowship absorbed two churches in Brazil, in the southeastern cities of Sao Joaquim de Bicas and Franco da Rocha.
During her frequent visits, Whaley would tell the Brazilian members of her flock that they could improve both their lives and their relationships with God with a pilgrimage to the mother church, according to several of those interviewed. The Brazilians' brand of worship was inferior, she often would say.
In addition to being promised a higher standing in the church, some said they also were enticed with the chance to attend college, to learn English, to see a bit of the U.S.
Others said they felt they simply had no choice.
All the while, the strict rules in place in Spindale were being imposed in Brazil, leading to complaints to police reviewed by the AP and a legislative hearing in 2009. But Word of Faith never faced any official censure — many of the allegations came down to the word of ex-members against the church — and the human pipeline continued to flow, even as Brazilian parents said they were being completely cut off from their children in North Carolina.
Labeled a "rebel" because she talked back to pastors as a child, Elizabeth Oliveira, who is no relation to Andre, told the AP that she was frequently kept in isolation for days at a time in various ministers' homes in Sao Joaquim de Bicas.
Being sent to the U.S. was a way to "correct" her bad behavior. She said she was 12 when she made her first extended trip to Spindale and was immediately put to work. She helped out in the school during the day, then sewed clothes and baby-sat in the evenings, sometimes well past midnight, Oliveira said. She was never paid, she said.
Now 21 and studying medicine in Belo Horizonte, Oliveira said she broke with the church after her eighth trip to Spindale.
"I suffered so much there," she said. "When I turned 18, I left and was told, once again, that I would die on my own in the world and go to hell."
Ana Albuquerque traveled to Spindale from Brazil 11 times over the course of more than a decade, starting at age 5 with her parents. Over time, she said she witnessed so much screaming and shoving to "expunge devils" that she began to see the behavior as normal.
In her final three trips, she joined a group of two dozen other Brazilian teens staying up to six months under tourist visas.
"They come to you and say, 'You will get to know the United States of America. You will get to go to the malls,'" she said. "But when you get there, everything is controlled."
Albuquerque, now 25, said she worked full time without pay — as a teacher's aide at the school during the day and then baby-sitting congregants' children at night.
Her reckoning came during her final trip, when she was 16. Albuquerque said Whaley and another minister repeatedly spanked her with a flat piece of wood while screaming that she was "unclean" and possessed by the devil.
"Pray for it to come out of you!" Albuquerque recalled being exhorted during a session lasting 40 minutes.
During her final two weeks in Spindale, Albuquerque said she endured days of forced isolation, Bible reading, threats of being placed in a psychiatric ward and refusals by Whaley to let her call her parents. She finally was allowed to return to Brazil, where she left the church.
Luiz Pires said he was 18 in 2006 when he was encouraged by ministers in the Sao Joaquim de Bicas church to travel to North Carolina for his spiritual betterment.
Upon arrival, he said he found "horrific" living conditions, with eight people crammed in the basement of a church leader's house, forced to work long hours at church-related businesses. Any payment went to living expenses, Pires said, despite the fact that he and others cleaned and did yard work at the member's house where they lived.
"There was never time to sit down. We were worked like slaves," he said.
Former congregant Jay Plummer supervised remodeling projects for a church leader's business and confirmed that his fellow American workers were paid while the Brazilians who labored alongside them were not.
"Room and board is what they worked for, and they did not have a choice," Plummer told the AP. "And when they would not want to work and vocalize that, they would just get in trouble."
Paulo Henrique Barbosa had heard the horror stories about life in Spindale. But the sect's influence was so great that he said he felt he must comply when church leaders in Franco da Rocha — supported by his parents — told him to travel to Spindale in 2011, when he was 17.
Pastors told him he would violate God's will if he refused.
"Everybody knew these trips were not about tourism," said Barbosa, now 23 and working in information technology in Sao Paolo. "I didn't want to go, but I had no choice."
Once in Spindale, conditions were worse than he feared, he said: For six months, he helped in the school in the mornings and worked in construction in the afternoons and evenings, sometimes until 1 a.m. He was never paid, he said.
The church controlled everything he did, Barbosa said, even prohibiting snacks between meals. Television, music and certain brand-name products all were off-limits.
Barbosa said he also slept in a church member's basement, with about 15 other young males. Speaking Portuguese was forbidden.
Anyone in the bathroom for more than the mandated five minutes was suspected of committing the "sin" of masturbation, and Whaley would be called to the house to decree the punishment.
If any of the males appeared to be having an "impure dream," Barbosa said, everybody would be awakened, ordered to surround him and repeatedly shake him and shriek into his ears to "expulse the devils," a Word of Faith practice called "blasting."
Barbosa said he asked to return to Brazil many times "but they always told me no, that it was God's will for me to stay."
Leaving on his own seemed insurmountable, Barbosa said. He had flown into Charlotte, more than an hour from Spindale, and had no car and little money. He knew no one outside the church and did not speak English. He was allowed to return to Brazil only when his six-month tourist visa was set to expire.
"From the time you are a kid, you are trained to believe that leaving the church will mean you go to hell, get cancer or get AIDS," he said.[ad number="2"]
The AP investigation documented repeated abuses of the tourist and student visas obtained for Brazilian church members.
Brazilians most often first arrived in North Carolina on six-month tourist visas for church functions, sometimes 20 or 30 at a time. Some Brazilians would leave after a few weeks; others would stay the duration.
Perhaps to circumvent the rules against employment, church leaders sometimes referred to the forced labor projects as "volunteer work," according to Brazilians interviewed in both countries.
Such work included ripping out walls and installing drywall in apartments owned and rented out by a senior church minister and family members, they said.
Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank focusing on labor issues, said rental properties are "for-profit businesses for which the immigrants cannot volunteer" under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Some of those interviewed said they'd been lured to the U.S. in part by promises of obtaining a college education but were unable to study or attend classes because of their punishing work schedules.
"There were times I would get done at 4 in the morning and I knew I had to get up by 8 to go to work. I would sit there, staring at my books. But how can you concentrate? You're just too tired," Andre Oliveira said.
Former congregants said far more Brazilians came on tourist visas, with several hundred teenagers staying for extended periods.
The experience of Andre Oliveira, now 24, is illustrative.
After first traveling to Spindale in 2009, he said it took him months to obtain permission to return to Brazil. Back home, he said he and others were forced to move into a minister's house, where he worked as a cleaner for months until he was told "it was the will of God to visit Spindale — this time, on a student visa."
When he arrived back in North Carolina, ministers again took his passport and put him to work in companies owned by church ministers, he said. He took a few college classes, but didn't have time to study.
"A typical day would start like this: I'd start work at 9 in the morning and it would end 15 or 16 hours later — sometimes longer," he said. "We didn't stop." 'Oliveira and others said they had little choice but to follow orders.
"We knew what would happen: We would be screamed at, blasted, hit. And what are you going to do? You have nowhere to go. You don't know the language. You have no documentation. So you work," Oliveira said.
"It was slave labor," added Rebeca Melo, 29, who grew up in the church in Brazil and visited the U.S. about 10 times for religious functions and trips with her family.
Those visits included shopping excursions, but she said things were far different when she moved to Spindale on a student visa in 2009.
"I did not want to move here. Jane said it was the will of God," she told the AP.
Melo said her passport was taken and she was quickly put to work. Despite her student visa, church officials were clear that school was not to be her focus, she said.
Student visas were just a "means for us to be here legally," she said.[ad number="3"]
Whaley's brand of "love" also played a key role in enticing Brazilian males to Spindale — and keeping them there once their visas expired, according to 10 former members of the church.
Some of those interviewed spoke of male Brazilians — as well as church members from various other countries — obtaining green cards for permanent residency and being able to legally work by being "married off" to female American congregants.
It is illegal to enter a sham marriage for the purpose of avoiding U.S. immigration laws.
The arranged marriages also addressed the fact that the Spindale congregation has more unmarried females than males, the ex-members said. Under Whaley's rules, congregants aren't allowed to date outside the church, much less marry.
"I can count at least five or six Brazilian guys that moved here to marry an American girl," Melo said. "They would never, ever, ever consider letting you date somebody outside of the church."
Silva said that Whaley often told people that she heard from God who they should marry or used her iron grip over members' lives to arrange relationships.
Silva recalled a young Brazilian couple in love who would be unable to stay in the U.S. past their visas if they married. Whaley wanted to keep the man in Spindale so she told him it was the "will of God" for him to marry an American, Silva said.
With his visa time running down, Andre Oliveira said church leaders found him a bride.
It wasn't long after former member Kim Rooper joined the Spindale church that she said she was asked to marry a man from Ecuador whose visa was expiring.
Rooper, an American who now lives in Tampa, Fla., said she was coached on how to make the marriage look legitimate to immigration authorities, like keeping a photo album of the couple.
"Long story short, it came time to consummate the marriage and I struggled with that," she said. "I had a hard time because I didn't love him, and nor did I have an attraction to him."
Church leaders told her it was the "will of God" to submit to her husband, Rooper said.
"And that's when I knew I had to escape," she said.
(Weiss reported from Spindale and Charlotte, N.C.; Mohr from Marlborough, Mass., and Jackson, Miss.; Prengaman from Sao Joaquim de Bicas and Franco da Rocha, Brazil. AP writer Tamara Lush contributed from Tampa, Fla.)