The Word of Faith Fellowship used its two church branches in Brazil to send a steady flow of laborers who came on tourist and student visas to its compound in North Carolina. Former members told the AP they were forced to work, often for no pay, and physically or verbally assaulted.
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.
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.
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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,…