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UNC junior says members of his church attacked him for being gay

UNC junior Matthew Fenner says he was beaten and choked by members of his church in January 2013 after they found out he was gay. The trial for the case will reconvene this week in Rutherford County.

UNC junior Matthew Fenner says he was beaten and choked by members of his church in January 2013 after they found out he was gay. The trial for the case will reconvene this week in Rutherford County.

Fenner, a junior anthropology major at UNC, said his homosexuality is what spurred the January 2013 attack inside the Word of Faith Fellowship church in Spindale, N.C.

“I don’t like to be defined just as the gay kid,” he said. “I’ve told everyone that I don’t want to make it about me being gay. This is the only thing I can do to stand up and say, ‘I know what’s going on there.’”

Word of Faith Fellowship, a Protestant church just three hours from Chapel Hill in Rutherford County, has built a following since it was established in 1979. It has been the subject of lawsuits and investigations by local authorities and the State Bureau of Investigation for its unusual practices, though the church has been cleared in each instance.

Fenner had lived in Rutherford County all his life but joined Word of Faith with his mom and brother at 16.

Fenner gave The Daily Tar Heel the following account of what occurred on Jan. 27, 2013, when he was 20 years old.

He was in the sanctuary after a service at Word of Faith when Brooke Covington, a high-ranking minister; her adopted daughter Sarah Anderson; and Anderson’s husband approached him and led him to a corner of the large room, where they all sat down.

Fenner, who had been living in Covington’s home, knew they loved him even though he’s gay. He didn’t know what they wanted, but he wasn’t afraid. Not yet.

Anderson told Fenner the spirit of God came to her and said he had done something — “some big sin, or whatever,” he recalled thinking.

“I didn’t know what she wanted me to say,” he recalled. “I mean, I obviously knew it was something to do with the whole gay thing because that’s what they were constantly on me about.”

He looked around, his slim, 5-foot-9-inch frame sinking further into his seat. He looked down. He locked eyes with all three. He didn’t know what to tell them.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t think of anything,” he replied, seeing rage fill Anderson’s eyes as he spoke. She wasn’t much older than he was, and Fenner thought of her as a sister.

“You’re a liar!” she screamed as she slapped him across the face. “You’re disgusting!”

Fenner realized then that things were out of hand. He plied them with made-up explanations — he’d had a dream about a man, unclean thoughts, an inappropriate hug. Anything to make it stop.

Then they began to “blast” him. Blasting, high-pitched screaming, is the form of prayer the Word of Faith employs to drive out devils. The practice was the subject of a 1995 investigation by “Inside Edition” and has been associated with the church ever since.

About 15 members of the congregation gathered to help blast the “homosexual demons” away, and with the screaming came blows.

Fenner remembers being pushed out of his chair and dragged around by his arm. He remembers Covington driving one of her rings into his chest and calling him a pervert. He remembers losing his vision as Anderson choked him. He remembers the betrayal he felt as he was struck in the chest, neck, arms and stomach by at least five people he’d gone to church with for more than two years.

“Matthew, I’m tired of this homosexual stuff. You’re either going to get it out of you, or I’m going to beat it out of you,” Covington told him. “You’re going to sit here for the next two days if you have to.”

He remembers fearing for his life.

“In the middle of all this, I’m sitting there thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to die. I’m going to die. I’m going to die,’” Fenner recalled.

The attack continued for two hours before his attackers tired and he was taken home.

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“People always ask me, ‘Why didn’t you just get up and leave?’ You can’t do that,” he said. “I’m fast. I’m a fast runner. I could’ve gotten up and tried to run, but there’s people standing outside of the door, and there’s like a quarter-mile driveway. I would’ve gotten caught then.

“But also, where am I going to go from there?”

Fenner had spent the last three years alienated from his friends and extended family who weren’t part of the church. But two days after the attack, at 2 a.m., he ran away from Word of Faith for good, moving in with his aunt and grandmother in Rutherfordton.

Joshua Farmer, the lawyer representing the five defendants from Word of Faith, said they are innocent of the charges. A statement on Word of Faith’s website said they consider Fenner’s allegations part of a plot to destroy the church.

“The church is not a cult, and we love everyone,” said Farmer, a member of Word of Faith, in an email.

The other members of the church involved in the incident deferred all comment to Farmer.

Fenner’s allegations are just one example of more than 2,000 incidents of anti-LGBTQ violence reported in 2013, according to a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. The report stated 32 percent of survivors reported experiencing hostile attitudes from police that year.

The day after the attack, Fenner said he told a police officer what happened but said he held off on filing an official report because he was so overwhelmed.

When he decided to press charges, he said he was told by the sheriff and district attorney that the crimes were misdemeanors and he should go to the magistrate. But he said the magistrate, who deals with minor offenses and holds preliminary hearings for more serious ones, told him they were felonies and he must go through law enforcement.

“I tried doing something for a year and a half, and I kept getting the runaround,” he said. “I kept pushing and pushing, and they were finally like, ‘You know what, we’ll let you go before a grand jury, and we’ll see what they want to do, misdemeanors or felonies.’”

He said after he gave his account in November, seven members of the church — including his mother and brother — testified against him at a special session called by Judge Thomas Davis in December, where five people were indicted for both felonies and misdemeanors.

Adam Bartley, Brooke Covington, Justin Covington, Robert Walker Jr. and Anderson are all charged with felony second-degree kidnapping and misdemeanor simple assault. Anderson was charged with a second felony for strangulation.

In January, newly elected district attorney Ted Bell chose to re-indict all five on the same charges due to questions he had about December’s special session.

“We were especially concerned about the judge and others making inquiries as to what was discussed, and we were afraid that would cause some problems,” Bell told the Forest City Daily Courier. “We wanted clean indictments.”

It is unknown whether the judge will be the same, though Davis is the only superior court judge in Rutherford County.

Fenner said Bell told him the defendants’ attorney had filed a motion to change the location in which the case will be heard and that the motion would be heard in July. No one from the district’s attorney office would comment on the case.

When Fenner’s family joined Word of Faith Fellowship, he said his mom wanted the church to help “cure” his homosexuality.

“She was at a low place in her life,” Fenner’s aunt, Melanie Lynn Rape, said of her sister’s decision to join Word of Faith. “There’s not very many people that actually live in this county and were raised here that go to that church.”

A majority of the church’s members come from the prison system where Word of Faith has a ministry, said Nancy Burnette, who advocates for victims who have left the church. She said they give them lives they might not be able to have otherwise — with steady jobs, nice cars and security — which assures their loyalty.

UNC student Bronwyn Fadem, a friend of Fenner’s who also grew up in Rutherford County, said most people in the area think Word of Faith is a crazy cult.

“They’re not Christians. They’re not practicing Jesus’s love,” she said.

Upon joining, Fenner surrendered all his possessions, as was required, and adapted to a new lifestyle. Listening to music, dancing, watching TV, reading anything but the Bible and nonfiction, spending time with people outside the church — Fenner said none of these were allowed.

Fenner said they were very accepting in the beginning, but when they began to attend regularly, church members criticized how he dressed and talked and carried himself.

“Ninety percent of the people I’ve spoken with are male and at some point have been accused of being gay and punished because of that,” Burnette said. “Because of the way they wore their hair — oh, that’s a homosexual demon. Because of the way they rolled their pants up — oh, that’s a homosexual demon. Anything can be a homosexual demon. Homosexuality is a fixation that they have there.”

Fenner, who wants to go to medical school, said his experience makes him want to fight for justice — not for him but for the people still in the church, including his mother and brother.

“This has nothing to do with me. I’m a very forgiving person, but I also realize that these people have gone a very long time without having to face repercussions for their actions,” he said, alluding to others he said he witnessed being mistreated or heard stories about. “They’ve got to stop. You can’t use religion to permit abusing someone.”

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