A 22-year-old North Carolina man says his church held him for months against his will while abusing him physically and emotionally because he’s gay.
Michael Lowry filed a complaint in February against Word of Faith Fellowship Church, a nondenominational Christian congregation in Spindale, N.C., reports the Charolotte Observer. This is not the first time that the church has made national headlines over its controversial practices.
Lowry told the Rutherford County sheriff’s office last week that he was held in a church building from Aug. 1 to Nov. 19, 2011.
Lowry said he was subjected to years of harassment and abuse after he told his family and church leaders about his sexual orientation when he was 15 or 16. He said church members sought drastic measures to expel the demon they believed caused his same-sex attraction.
A Hickory, N.C., advocacy group has called for a federal investigation.
Brent Childers, executive director of Faith in America, said in a statement to the Observer that Lowry’s case is “the most disturbing I’ve encountered” in the six years he’s worked with the group. His group addresses the harm done to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people by religious groups.
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 members of Word of Faith’s security team after a confrontation near the church. The four were charged with false imprisonment and misdemeanor stalking.
Lowry’s former pastor, Jane Whaley, said that all of his allegations are “lies” and that the church didn’t even know he was gay until he filed charges.
Rutherford County District Attorney Brad Greenway said the case is being investigated but critics say it is moving ahead too slowly.
According to the Observer, Sam and Jane Whaley started Word of Faith in 1979. It now has 750 members and operates from a 35-acre complex, 65 miles west of Charlotte. Church leaders also run several businesses and the church is politically active in the Republican Party.
Former church 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.
According to Lowry’s statements, Word of Faith practices “blasting,” a form of hands-on, high-pitched, screaming prayer. The ritual has been a topic on “Inside Edition” and YouTube.
Word of Faith was investigated twice in the late 1990s for its treatment of children but was exonerated of allegations.
Lowry was born into Word of Faith, and his parents and two brothers remain members.
Lowry said in August 2011 church members took him to the Word of Faith complex and placed him 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.”
According to court records, Lowry said he was accused of masturbating while taking a shower. He told investigators that he was roughed up and eventually knocked unconscious.
After Lowry left the church, 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.”