Woman details life in WOFF

The Digital Courier, Dec. 22, 2002
By JAMES LEWIS Daily Courier Staff Writer

FOREST CITY — As Shana Muse has fought a battle for custody of her four children for the past 10 days, one local woman has been steadfastly by her side.

Muse, whose children are in the care of a minister from the Word of Faith Fellowship, is like many others who are or have been associated with the church and came from elsewhere to join the church.

But the young woman by her side, Holly Hamrick, grew up in this community.

Hamrick, now 22, graduated from a local high school.

She has friends who live here who have never been associated with the WOFF.

In spring 2001, Hamrick began a journey into the church headed by Sam and Jane Whaley, an experience which ended in her questioning of their beliefs and her hopes for redemption — redemption in the eyes of God, not the Whaleys.

She, like many others who have left the congregation over the past decade or so, recounts an experience that began with a promise of unconditional love but which ended in utter despair.

Her time as part of the church congregation was relatively short compared to many — about nine months. But her memories of the church are ones of confusion, control, manipulation and coercion.

She said the church soon became tied to every facet of her life. Behavior at home and work could lead to correction at church — and vice versa.

Hamrick said she joined The Word of Faith Fellowship to build a closer relationship with God. She had recently experienced a spiritual conversion and wanted to address some areas in her life.

“I wanted a deeper relationship with God and I didn’t think I was getting it where I was at,” she said.

She said she read the accounts and heard the rumors in the community of the church’s activities and practices — practices which a judge said two years ago could be harmful to children.

She said she knew WOFF was different.

“That’s what attracted me,” she said. “Everything about them is different.”

Hamrick said she approached her decision to go there somewhat skeptically.

She first approached someone she knew who was a member and asked them about the church, its services and the church-run Bible school.

“She didn’t say I could come,” Hamrick said. “She didn’t say the service times.”

Instead, Hamrick said, the woman took her phone number and over the course of the next several weeks members called her and talked with her.

Eventually, a church member called to say senior pastor Jane Whaley wanted to meet with her.

The meeting was held in Whaley’s offices at the church campus off Old Flynn Road in Spindale.

Whaley along with her husband, Sam Whaley, founded the church in the late 1970s. Over the years, Mrs. Whaley has become, according to former members, the ultimate leader of the approximately 400 members who are part of the organization.

Hamrick said Whaley steadfastly maintained that the church congregation was the subject of lies and persecution.

Hamrick said the minister told her, “We all have to lay down our lives to attend this church.”

The meeting included several other women and Hamrick said she was overwhelmed by the affection — hugs from everyone, often more than once.

Hamrick said Whaley turned the conversation to questions about her life.

Her family. Whether she had been born again. Her relationship with God. Even her sexual history.

The pastor then asked the young woman why she was there.

Hamrick explained everyone she had met from the church so far had been friendly and she had heard about the church Bible school.

Whaley, Hamrick said, explained WOFF was a place of rehabilitation.

Hamrick recalled, “She said, ‘God in me controls the church. We are controlled by the spirit. I know everything about everyone in the church so I can keep ahold of them in the spirit.'”

Hamrick said she asked about the rumors and reports about tying up children and harsh corporal punishment.

“(Whaley) said the children were much too full of the spirit of Jesus to be abused,” Hamrick said.

Looking back on her interview with Whaley, Hamrick said she thinks the minister didn’t give her a full answer.

“She changed the subject much too quickly.”

Then Hamrick asked about the blasting, a loud prayer which has become a trademark of the church.

Whaley and the other women offered a demonstration.

Hamrick said she was told, “The devils hate our prayer.”

Hamrick had also heard about the communal living arrangements and asked if she would have to move.

The minister told her the living arrangements would change when God said so, Hamrick said.

Hamrick started attending WOFF services on Sundays and Wednesdays.

She said she was greeted with open arms and lots of hugs.

“I instantly felt welcome,” she said.

But, soon it was more than just church services.

“A little at a time, they began to take control of my life,” she said.

One Sunday morning, Hamrick said she called the church to say she was ill and would not be coming to the service.

A church member recommended she come to the church anyway, to receive prayer, which the official said would make her feel better.

Hamrick opted to stay home.

And that, Hamrick said, was her first real transgression.

She was contacted later and told she needed to repent for missing services.

When she decided to stay home, church leaders said, “You did not hear from Jesus.”

So, she was told to come early to the night service to receive some prayer.

“I got out of my car (in the church parking lot) and I heard the loudest, most eerie … I can’t even describe the sound … I can’t put the sound into words,” she said.

A church member led her into the sanctuary where 15 to 20 chairs were put in a circle, around one chair where Hamrick was supposed to sit. Those in the chairs were close enough to touch Hamrick.

They told her they would pray “by the spirit of God” and as God led them.

“I sat on the edge of my chair, I was shaking,” she said.

Those in the circles grabbed hold of her and began the quiet moaning which leads up to the louder, shrill blasting meant to drive out devils and deliver a person’s soul.

“Tears just started flowing out of me,” Hamrick said.

Hamrick said she begged them to stop.

She said she told them, “I don’t want people screaming at me.”

She put her hands to her ears.

“I had to do this because it was so loud,” she said. “I just sat there and I started crying.”

Her actions prompted a conference in Whaley’s office where Hamrick said she was told she needed “serious deliverance.”

Church leaders asked personal questions about her life, and “I found myself telling them everything.”

Whaley told her, “I feel you are going to get a breakthrough.”

And then Hamrick said she was plunged back into a prayer session which lasted for at least an hour.

Her ears were ringing. She was covered in sweat and was exhausted, but Hamrick said she had what she believed was her “breakthrough.”

But Hamrick said she found there were never enough “breakthroughs.”

She said she began changing her behavior, what she wore, how she looked, because of the church.

She said she once wore a certain pair of black pants and a church member asked, “Did you inquire of Jesus today on what you are wearing?”

Hamrick said her lessons came in other ways, too.

She was given videos to watch. She learned that birthdays should not be celebrated. She watched a documentary on Christmas and was told she should not celebrate it.

“I was turning into a clone more or less of them,” she said. “We weren’t allowed to watch television, or listen to the radio or music of any kind.”

Hamrick was still living at home with her mother and stepfather, but the relationship became awkward as Hamrick said she brought back many of the church teachings to her family.

“I found myself lying,” she said. “They had me believing that Mom was operating out of the will of God. I was becoming afraid of my own mother.”

Her mother was becoming increasingly aggravated with the situation.

The phone would ring constantly. Hamrick went nowhere without a church member present. She learned to “lock-in” with church authorities and they told her to find an edge, a way to pull her family into the will of God.

Her family had attended church services somewhere other than WOFF, but Hamrick said that wasn’t good enough for her church leaders.

Whaley, Hamrick said, often noted that “the majority of churches in Rutherford County are operating out of a false religion” and many pastors wrongly believe they have been “born again.”

The situation at home reached a boiling point two months after she started attending WOFF.

Hamrick and her mother had a heated argument and her mother told her to call her church friends and move in with them.

“We had no peace,” said her mother. “We had no peace in our own home. Everything was being judged. Holly was doing things like not paying her bills but sneaking (out to buy expensive clothing required by the church).”

Hamrick’s mother said she couldn’t deal with it anymore and believed her daughter was living a double standard, half in and half out of the church.

As an outsider looking in, Hamrick’s mother said she believed her daughter was being drawn into the church’s closed society. The woman said she hoped that by forcing her daughter to immerse herself in the church, “it would make her see what’s really going on. She couldn’t see the manipulation.”

Hamrick moved in with church member Kim Waites, but continued her job at a local chiropractor’s offices.

She said she began to feel unprotected when she was not at church or surrounded by church members.

Within a few months, her occupation was questioned and she was told to ask Jesus whether that was the job for her.

Hamrick said church officials eventually prompted her to resign.

She spent the next month or so unemployed, instead watching videos at the church — as much as nine hours a day.

“All kinds of videos,” she said. “Sometimes I was sent home with videos.”

She was quizzed on what she watched.

“If you didn’t answer to their liking you would have to watch it again,” she said.

She said she was rebuffed for all manner of perceived sin. She could only talk to certain people within the church. Certain subjects were not to be discussed. She was supposed to “lock-in” with a church leader to let them know where she was and what she was doing at all times. And everyone spied on everyone else, she said.

“You never knew if what you were doing or what you were saying was going to get you in trouble,” she said. “I walked on eggshells all the time.”

The prayer sessions increased, and were conducted not only at the church but at home, at all times of day.

It was not uncommon, she said, to be awakened in the middle of the night for prayer.

And Hamrick said everyone had to be doing something constantly.

Eventually, Hamrick said, it was decided that she should get a job at a retail store in the community, also where Waites worked.

Waites, she said, brought home an application for her.

Hamrick said she filled it out, putting down the telephone number at the residence.

That upset Waites, who had a new number and a special ring installed just for Hamrick.

Other problems were found with the application, too, she said, including when she wrote down that she knew other employees of the store, who were also members of the church.

She said falsifying the application was conveyed not as lying, but “God told us to do it.”

“I must have redid that application five times,” she said.

Hamrick said Waites picked out which department she should work in at the store, a place in the store centrally located where she could be watched.

Any time she had a question, she was to ask Waites.

When she once asked another employee a question, Hamrick said she was told to report to a stockroom where Waites told her, “Do not come in here and ruin it with your witchcraft.”

Hamrick said the next few months at the store were better. She continued to have prayer and instances where she was “rebuked” for her transgressions.

To be “rebuked” was one form of correction within the church, she said, explaining that a “rebuke” involved a church leader standing almost nose-to-nose with the person in trouble and forcefully shouting something such as “YOU STOP IT!”

“You never knew when it was coming,” she said. “You weren’t allowed to do anything. You just had to stand there and take it.”

Hamrick said her contact with the outside world was diminished considerably and she had no contact with her mother which was not “guarded,” meaning another church member was on the line listening in for any signs of transgression.

The woman said friends and family would sometimes stop by the retail store when they knew she was working to talk.

And, eventually, Hamrick said, she began to sneak in private phone conversations with her mother from work.

“I began to call Mom at work without them knowing,” she said. “Finally, I got to be real with my own mother.”

Hamrick explained she went through a series of escape attempts.

The young woman said she would make escape plans and flee to the outside. Then, overwrought with fear that she had rejected her only chance at salvation, she would return to the fold.

Whaley, Hamrick said, would often say, “God will send you a messenger to deal with your sins. If you cut off that messenger, He will send a second messenger. If you cut off that messenger, He will send me. If you cut me off, then He will cut you off.”

Hamrick said Whaley had a strong hold.

“Jane Whaley says she is an apostle — appointed by God,” Hamrick said.

In all, she left three times before leaving for good last February.

By then, she had left her job and spent much of her time in blasting sessions, watching videotaped church sermons, crying or begging to leave, she said.

At one point, Hamrick’s family had gone to authorities for help — and just to find out where she was staying.

Hamrick said she was called into Whaley’s office and informed that Jesus said the church should contact her mother to let her know she was OK.

“I didn’t want to talk to my mother on the phone because I didn’t want to tell her those things,” Hamrick said.

Hamrick said she was summoned again and told by Whaley that the church had a “buddy” with the police “who just loves our church.”

She was instructed to talk to the officer and tell him she was doing OK, loved her church, had a new family and wanted nothing to do with her mother.

“I wasn’t going to say no,” Hamrick said. “I was standing in a room full of leadership.”

The phone call was made, and Hamrick said she was coached by those in the room.

“Jane was telling me everything to say,” she said. “I told (the officer) everything they told me to say. I didn’t want to, but I didn’t have a choice.”

After the phone conversation, Hamrick said she was grilled about what she had said to the officer about the church.

“I got in trouble because I didn’t bring him so-called truth,” she said.

The following day, Hamrick said church leader Jayne Caulder told her she was going on a “field trip” and asked church member Kimberly Sutulov to “fix” her face because she had been crying.

Hamrick said she was taken to the police station because the officer wanted to physically see her to determine if she was OK.

She said she was “very guarded” in the office, and was accompanied by Caulder, Sutulov and church member Ray Farmer.

“They wouldn’t let me talk to (the officer) alone,” she said. “I got in like two words and they said everything else. If I had been alone in that office, I would have said, ‘These people are crazy, get me out of here.'”

During a four-hour interview, Hamrick recounted literally dozens of instances of being rebuked, blasted, or otherwise corrected for her sins and devils. In one instance, she recalls being forced to participate in her prayer session as her hair was pulled.

And she also notes multiple instances of others who were punished.

For instance, according to Hamrick:

n A young man in his 20s from Holland who “just disappeared.” She said he was supposedly removed from the church for “rebellion” and one day reappeared and shared with the congregation about his months living in a makeshift room created by clothes racks at a business where he was given a bed, Bible, monitor, clothes and food and water.

n A young man who came to one of the church’s “seminars” in November 2001 and was held down after he refused to be touched by Whaley. At one point, the man lifted a chair over his head and warned the church members to keep away. The congregation was told to get out while church leaders “physically pushed him into a chair” for a prayer session which lasted two hours. Hamrick said Whaley later showed her the bruises left on her feet when the man stomped her. “He said, ‘Please just let me go, and I won’t hurt anybody’,” Hamrick said.

n On Sept. 11, 2001, Hamrick learned about the terrorist attacks from a co-worker at the store. She approached a church leader about the news and was told not to discuss the event until church leaders could “take hold” of it. Later, the congregation was shown edited clips of the news coverage in the sanctuary and told, “Anybody who gives to fear or perversion about what happened needed to get (deliverance).” Hamrick said perversion meant to feel sadness dor those who were in the World Trade Center towers.

n The elderly mother of a church member was brought from a nursing home to the church service where her “born again” status was questioned by Whaley in front of the congregation. When Whaley said the woman, who was sitting in a wheelchair, had not been born again, the woman asked how she knew. Whaley replied, “God told me you weren’t born again.” Hamrick said that her son and grandchildren were asked whether the woman was born again. They said no. “You might be born again one week and not the next,” Hamrick said.

In early February, Hamrick left the church behind and fled for good to the outside. She said she spent several worrisome weeks, wondering whether she had made the right decision and troubled by the church’s teachings regarding salvation of the soul.

Hamrick said she even attempted suicide.

She said she eventually decided, “If (WOFF) is God, I don’t want to serve Him.”

Hamrick went for treatment at Wellspring Retreat in Ohio for two weeks. After a stint on her own, she returned again for additional treatment where she said she “received so much healing” and now is making plans for her future.

She said she’s thinking about returning to school to study music therapy or seeking training as a counselor to help former members of abusive groups.

Now, on the outside of WOFF looking in, Hamrick said she believes she was duped.

“I am a good example about how people in this town can be deceived,” she said.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday December 22, 2002.
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