One Tin Soldier

Heroes come in all shapes, sizes, species, and colors. Heroes aren’t necessarily braver than we are, but when the chips are down they still take appropriate action. While some may be reluctant or thrust into the role, other heroes may pick their battles carefully.

We have our everyday heroes such as our law enforcement, firefighters, soldiers, doctors, nurses, clergy and emergency responders. Please remember to thank them in your heart and in your prayers as they go about their duties this holiday. Heroes sometimes choose roles that allow them to act everyday with humility.

However, today, as I write this, I have a hero in mind. This hero is the reason I committed to continue write in this community. In the autumn of 2014, I got a call asking me if I wanted to meet Matthew Fenner and his grandfather Bobby Rape in their attempt to meet with then district attorney Brad Greenway. They had been rebuffed for at least two weeks by Greenway to get an appointment for Matthew Fenner to be heard. Fenner claims to have been assaulted, kidnapped, and strangled at the Word of Faith Fellowship sanctuary in an attempt to remove his gay demons in January 2013.

As someone who had studied the mystery religions and religious cults in graduate school, I had closely followed the story of  Michael Lowry, who attended Word of Faith Fellowship Church in Spindale, N.C., as a child. Lowry had filed a complaint with police a few years before claiming that he was kept in a church dormitory for months in 2011 after telling church members he was gay, according to the Charlotte Observer.

“The pastor said to find out what my darkest secret was, and I was like, ‘I’m never telling,’ Lowry told ABC news affiliate WLOS. “They hit my head with fists and I was out on the floor, they held my hands and feet down and were pushing on my chest and I could barely breathe.”

Ultimately Lowry recanted his story and returned to the Word of Faith Fellowship.

Fenner now alleged a very similar story, but with one huge difference. He could not get anyone to take his report of the incidents of January 2013. The magistrate sent him to the sheriff’s department stating that they do not handle felony charges. The sheriff’s department would not take his report and would send him to the magistrate.

I attended Fenner’s meeting with the then district attorney. Several ex-members and supporters were in that small room as well. I noted the insistence and determination of “Grandpa” Bobby Rape to allow Matthew to be heard. His authenticity, conviction, and compassion rang true for me. After a long wait, D.A. Brad Greenway arrived. As a last resort, Greenway agreed to bring the matter before the Grand Jury as a presentment.

Whether or not the case went to trial and whether or not the accused WoFF members were innocent or guilty, Fenner deserved the same rights as everyone else in filing a report. While I seldom make promises or commitments, I vowed to follow the story until Fenner got a verdict. That very day in one last effort to make an incident report, sheriff deputy Wayne Guffey willingly took Matthew’s report.

True to his word, Greenway convened a special meeting of the Grand Jury in December before he left the office of district attorney. Fenner was there to tell his story. However, so were others to testify against him, including his own mother. The usually closed and secretive grand jury process had been leaked. There were problems with those indictments as a Word of Faith Fellowship member on that jury interacted with the participants according to an anonymous lawyer familiar with the case. When newly elected Ted Bell took the office of district attorney, he re-indicted the WoFF defendants to have clean bills. Matthew Fenner took a stand.

Little did I know that four years later there have been no verdicts and only one trial. Yet through that time, Fenner has stood firm. As a young man who went away to college, he stood by his story and his convictions. National, local and international publicity blew up his story and his relationship with WoFF. Rather than abandon the trials after a year or more of defense delays to get on with his life, Matthew Fenner stood firm. Even after the trial of Brooke Covington, a pastor of WoFF, ended in a mistrial, Fenner remained committed.

Now there is a change in prosecutors, venue, and defense lawyers. The trial scheduled for January 2018 has been put off until the federal and state investigations into the WoFF are completed. Even as the public and media wondered if a verdict would ever be found in any of the cases, young Matthew Fenner stood firm.

While the man I knew as “Grandpa”,  Matthew Fenner’s grandfather Bobby Rape who sat in the courtroom for every appearance, is no longer with us, his faith and conviction still flow in the blood of Matthew Fenner. A salute here to a young hero sticking to his convictions, and fighting for a resolution despite the odds.

As many celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ this week , remember one of the greatest teachings of  all time – “love ye one another.”

Gayle Clayton