The reach of the House of Prayer extends from coast to coast
Former members of a Georgia-based religious organization, whose churches span coast to coast and apparently target the military, accuse its religious leaders of spiritually and financially manipulating them.
Following Thursday’s FBI raids on House of Prayer Christian churches in Georgia, Washington, North Carolina and Texas, former members have recently spoken of the emotional and monetary toll they say they have suffered.
“We were all obedient to pastors because we were taught and trained to obey ‘those who have power over us,'” former House of Prayer member Elizabeth Biles said. “Pastors have complete control over every aspect of our lives – even our finances. They asked for everyone’s income, and they had to tithe 10% of everything or else you were considered “robbing God”.
The church asked servicemen to tithe their re-enlistment bonuses, she said. Biles herself said she gave the church her entire $400,000 life insurance plan from the Army.
“At the end of the day, when we died, our families would have gotten nothing and the church would have gotten everything legally,” said Biles, who was a member of House of Prayer churches in Washington and Georgia.
How it works
The church headquartered in Hinesville, Georgia, operates Bible seminaries outside Hinesville military bases; Augusta, Georgia; Tacoma, Washington; Killeen, Texas; Fayetteville, North Carolina; and, San Diego, California, according to incorporation documents from the Secretary of State’s offices for those states.
FBI agents executed federal search warrants at numerous House of Prayer-affiliated seminaries, authorities say. An FBI spokesman declined to divulge the reason for the searches, but confirmed that no arrests followed the raids last week. Someone identifying themselves as the Reverend Jeff Derby with the House of Prayer responded to an interview request with an email noting the churches’ missionary works, but did not address recent raids.
The churches do not advertise their relationship to each other, but business registration documents reveal their connection, which begins with the founder of the church.
The HOPCC, as its current and former members call it, began in 2003 when Rony Denis, who served as a minister in another church, recruited about 15 fellow ministers from across the country to leave that church and join him. said the former church member. and Pastor Arlen Bradeen.
Denis founded the House of Prayer Christian Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 2004 and moved the organization’s headquarters to Hinesville, Georgia, shortly thereafter, according to documents from the Louisiana secretary of state and from Georgia.
Influential and captivating founder
Many former members describe Denis as influential and able to easily captivate an audience.
“We all rallied around him like he had the most wisdom,” Biles said. “We were so hungry and thirsty for righteousness, and he had such a way of teaching the wisdom of God. We just sat and listened to him for hours and hours because we thought he was so holy.
Denis drew large crowds, said Bradeen, co-author of “House of Prayer/Den of Thieves: A Memoir of My Escape from a Cult.”
“The churches were quite small, 50 to 100 members…but when he traveled to other churches across the country,” said Bradeen, who now lives in Washington state but previously lived in Georgia, “Church attendance was doubling. It would just explode.”
Julia Ellis, a former serviceman, said House of Prayer members tried to recruit her.
While riding a bike with his 17-year-old son and 9-year-old nephew one evening about two years ago in Hinesville, Ellis said a black-and-white-striped van pulled up next to him. them.
Ellis said someone got out of the van and invited her to attend a service at the House of Prayer church in Hinesville. After Ellis declined their invitation, they turned to his nephew and asked if he wanted to attend.
“I said I didn’t want to go and then they tried to talk to my nephew,” Ellis said. “They said, ‘Hey, do you want to go to church?’ And I couldn’t understand why they were trying to talk to him, especially after I said I wasn’t interested in talking to them. He is a child.”
Bradeen said Denis originally promised independence for the parishes, but instead kept tight control over each using a polycom system.
“Using it as a conference call, it could connect all the churches at once,” he said. “Someone could preach or sing a song and when the polycom rang, you would hear it through the PA system, and everyone had to sit down and listen to Denis.”
Biles, who previously served in the National Guard, said the church recruited her from the library at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Washington.
“We have been ordered to do so. We couldn’t disobey,” Biles said, indicating that Denis was targeting service members who were estranged from their families and felt vulnerable.
“It’s almost like a predator/prey type scenario,” she said. “He also targets them because they have a stable income and they are always paid the same amount. Once they become members of the church, they would be obedient. If they were not, they would be openly reprimanded and humiliated.”
Soldiers at Fort Stewart near Hinesville alleged that the church was targeting military service members there. A soldier said a meeting was held recently at their barracks to inform them that a church was trying to recruit soldiers for their congregation.
Lenesha Cunningham, who is married to a soldier stationed at Fort Stewart, said church members approached her.
“I felt pressured,” Cunningham said. “They just tried to pressure you to come to their church, even though you said no.”
“Soul-winning” soldiers on the base
In August 2020, Veterans Education Success, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization, asked the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Georgia Veterans Service to investigate alleged abuse of the GI Bill program by House of Prayer. They alleged that the church preys on conscripted soldiers by sending members and “winning souls”.
“Soul Winning is an organized event coordinated by the HOPCC clergy. Five days a week, individuals are paired up and sent out to recruit new members on or around military bases. … Students would recruit through postal exchanges, barracks and base over-housing…. The HOPCC sent students who were still on active duty to go to the base in uniform to recruit.High-ranking members of the HOPCC often coerced lower-ranking individuals to go to the church,” the report noted.
Spending VA money
According to the report, soldiers were also encouraged to spend their GI bill on an unaccredited seminary program with graduation requirements that changed frequently, delaying graduation.
The veterans also alleged that House of Prayer “misleads the VA during inspections and targets veterans in order to access GI Bill funding, VA disability compensation, and VA home loans,” according to the organization’s 11-page letter to the VA and the Georgia State Endorsing Agency.
“Since the publication of our report, we estimate that approximately $7 million, if not more, of taxpayers’ money has been spent through this school in the form of housing allowance and also tuition,” said William Hubbard, Vice President. for veterans and military policy for the success of veterans education.
Hubbard said about half of that total amount, $3.5 million, went directly to the school.
“It’s embarassing [for the VA],” he said.
USA Today Network reporter Latrice Williams contributed to this report.