SAO JOAQUIM DE BICAS, Brazil (AP) — At the Word of Faith Fellowship churches in the Brazilian cities of Sao Joaquim de Bicas and Franco da Rocha, the signs of broken families are everywhere: parents separated from their children, siblings who no longer speak, grandparents who wonder if they will ever know their grandchildren.
Over the course of two decades, the U.S.-based mother church took command of both congregations in Brazil, applying a strict interpretation of the Bible and enforcing it through rigorous controls and physical punishment, The Associated Press has found.
Many of the more than three dozen former members interviewed by the AP in Brazil said they live in perpetual fear of retribution. Some have sought psychological help. Others ask themselves how they put up with the abuse for so long.
Former member Juliana Oliveira remembers when life was normal in the Sao Joaquim de Bicas church, but that was years ago, before the Americans came from Spindale, North Carolina. Before the Brazilian traditions were stripped away, she said, and the screaming and beatings began.
“When you are in a cult, you don’t know you are in a cult because little by little it all becomes ‘normal,'” said Oliveira, 34. “It’s like a frog in a pot of water. By the time it’s boiling, he can’t jump out.”
The examination of Word of Faith Fellowship’s spread into Latin America’s largest country is part of the AP’s lengthy ongoing investigation into the evangelical church, founded in 1979 by Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam.
Based on exclusive interviews with dozens of former members, the AP reported in February that congregants in the U.S. were regularly beaten, punched and choked to “purify” sinners by expelling devils.
The AP also has detailed how Word of Faith Fellowship funneled a steady flow of young Brazilian members to the United States on tourist and student visas and forced them to work both at the church and companies owned by sect leaders.
Neither Whaley nor the pastors at both Word of Faith Fellowship branches in Brazil responded to requests for comment.
The church has nearly 2,000 members in Brazil and Ghana and its affiliations in Sweden, Scotland and other countries, in addition to 750 congregants in Spindale.
In Brazil, the takeover of the two churches was a slow evolution that culminated in drastic rules dictating almost every aspect of congregants’ lives, former members said.
Many of the edicts echoed Whaley’s mandates in North Carolina, such…