Word of Faith Fellowship Church, a decades old controversial evangelical sect in Spindale, North Carolina, was accused on Monday of enticing young members of the Brazilian branch of their church to come to America on tourist and student visas, then coercing them to illegally work "like slaves" without pay.
"Everybody knew these trips were not about tourism," Paulo Henrique Barbosa, 23, who now works in information technology in Sao Paolo, told The Associated Press. "I didn't want to go, but I had no choice."
Members of the church in Brazil, he said, had heard shocking reports from others who were lured to the U.S. under the guise of attending school or sightseeing. So when he was invited to travel to Spindale at the age of 17 in 2011, Barbosa told the AP, he wanted no part of it.
Unable to overrule the influence of his pastors who told him he would displease God by not going as well as his parents who supported their authority, Barbosa traveled to the U.S. for six months in 2011. And things turned out to be worse than he had imagined.
After his travel documents and money were allegedly put away for "safekeeping" by the church, he was put to work in the church's school during the day and worked in construction in the afternoons and evenings, sometimes until 1 a.m. the following day.
"There was never time to sit down. We were worked like slaves," Luiz Pires, another Brazilian who told the AP that he was 18 in 2006 when he was encouraged by ministers in Brazil to travel to North Carolina church for his spiritual development.
When he arrived, however, Pires said he was forced to live in the basement of a church leader's house with seven others and work long hours on church-related businesses, the AP said. Anything they supposedly earned went toward their living expenses.
Barbosa explained that he was also forced to sleep in a church member's basement, with about 15 other young males who were warned against speaking Portuguese. They were also limited to five minutes of bathroom time lest they were accused of masturbation and be punished by sect leader Jane Whaley.
During his time in North Carolina, Barbosa said he begged to return to Brazil many times "but they always told me no, that it was God's will for me to stay."
He was only allowed to leave when his tourist visa was about to expire.
The Christian Post reached out to Word of Faith Fellowship on Monday and a woman who identified herself only as Mary said there was no one at the church available to respond to the AP's investigation and said a statement may be released.
The AP noted that in 2014, three ex-congregants told an assistant U.S. attorney that the Brazilians were being forced to work for no pay. When Jill Rose, the official who is now the U.S. attorney in Charlotte, was questioned about the allegations by the AP, she said she could not comment on an ongoing investigation.