Former members of a Georgia-based religious organization, with churches reaching coast to coast and seemingly targeting the military, accuse its faith leaders of spiritually and financially manipulating them.
Following FBI raids on Thursday at House of Prayer Christian Churches in Georgia, Washington, North Carolina and Texas, former members recently spoke about the emotional and monetary toll they say they experienced.
“We were all obedient to the pastors because we were taught and trained to obey ‘them that have the rule 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 otherwise you were considered ‘stealing from God.’”
The church required military members to tithe their reenlistment bonuses, she said. Biles herself said she gave the church her entire $400,000 life insurance plan from the military.
“Ultimately in our death, our families would have gotten nothing and the church legally would have gotten everything,” said Biles, who was a member of House of Prayer churches in Washington and Georgia.
How it Operates
The church headquartered in Hinesville, Georgia, operates bible seminaries outside of military bases in Hinesville; Augusta, Georgia; Tacoma, Washington; Killeen, Texas; Fayetteville, North Carolina; and, San Diego, California, according to incorporation papers from the secretary of state offices in those states.
FBI agents executed federal search warrants at numerous seminaries affiliated with House of Prayer, according to authorities. An FBI spokesperson declined to disclose the reason for the searches, but confirmed no arrests followed the raids last week. Someone identifying himself as Rev. Jeff Derby with the House of Prayer responded to an interview request with an email noting the churches' missionary works, but didn't address the recent raids.
The churches don't advertise their relationship with one another, but business registration documents reveal their connection, which begins with the church's founder.
The HOPCC, as its current and former members refer to it, began in 2003 when Rony Denis, who served as a minister at another church, recruited approximately 15 fellow ministers from across the country to leave that church and join him, said 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, soon after, according to Louisiana and Georgia Secretary of State documents.
Influential and captivating founder
Many former members describe Denis as influential and capable of easily captivating an audience.
“We all kind of gathered around him like he had the most wisdom,” Biles said. “We were just so hungry and thirsty for righteousness, and he had such a way of teaching the wisdom of God. We would just sit down and listen to him for hours and hours because we thought he was so holy.”
Denis drew large crowds, said Bradeen, who co-authored "House of Prayer / Den of Thieves: A Memoir of My Escape from a Cult."
“The churches were fairly small, 50 to 100 members … but when he would travel to other churches around the country," said Bradeen, who now lives in Washington state, but formerly lived in Georgia, "the attendance of the church would double. It would just boom."
Julia Ellis, a military veteran, said House of Prayer members tried to recruit her.
While on a bike ride with her 17-year-old son and 9-year-old nephew one evening about two years ago in Hinesville, Ellis said a van with black and white stripes pulled up next to them.
Ellis said someone stepped out of the van and invited her to attend a service at Hinesville's House of Prayer church. After Ellis declined their invite, they turned to her nephew and asked him if he would like to attend.
“I said I did not want to go, and then they tried to talk to my nephew,” said Ellis. “They said, ‘Hey do you want to go to church?’ And I did not understand why they were trying to talk to him, especially after I said I was not interested in talking to them. He is a child.”
Bradeen said Denis initially promised the parishes independence, but instead kept tight control over all of them using a polycom system.
“Using it like a conference call, it could connect all of the churches at the same time,” he said. “Someone could be preaching or singing a song and when the polycom rang, you heard it through the PA system, and everybody had to sit and listen to Denis.”
Biles, who formerly served with the National Guard, said the church recruited her at the the Joint Base Lewis–McChord library in Tacoma, Washington.
“We were commanded to do that. We could not disobey,” Biles said, indicating that Denis targeted military members far from family and feeling vulnerable.
"It’s almost like a predator/prey type scenario," she said. "He also targets them because they have a steady income and they’re always paid the same amount. Once they became a church member, they would be obedient. If they weren’t, they would be openly rebuked and humiliated.”
Soldiers at Fort Stewart near Hinesville alleged that the church was targeting military service members there. One soldier said a meeting was held recently in their barracks to inform them there was a church trying to recruit soldiers for their congregation.
Lenesha Cunningham, who is married to a soldier stationed at Fort Stewart, said members of the church approached her.
“I felt pressured,” said Cunningham. “They just tried to pressure you to come to their church, even if you say no.”
'Soul-winning' soldiers on base
In August 2020, Veterans Education Success, an advocacy organization based in Washington D.C., asked the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Georgia Veterans Service to investigate alleged abuses of the GI Bill program by House of Prayer. They alleged the church preyed on enlisted soldiers by sending out members and "soul-winning."
"Soul-winning is an organized event coordinated by HOPCC’s clergy. Five days a week, individuals are paired up and sent out to recruit new members on or around military bases. ... Students would recruit at Post Exchanges, barracks, and on-base housing. ... HOPCC dispatched students who were still active duty to go on base in uniform to recruit. Higher ranking HOPCC members would often coerce lower ranking individuals to attend church," the report noted.
Spending the VA's money
Soldiers were also encouraged to spend their GI Bill on an unaccredited seminary program with graduation requirements that frequently changed, delaying graduation, according to the report.
Veterans also alleged House of Prayer "deceives 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 Georgia State Approving Agency.
“Since our report came out, we estimate about $7 million dollars, if not more, of taxpayer money has gone out the door thanks to this school in the form of the housing allowance and also the tuition fees,” said William Hubbard, vice president for veterans and military policy for Veterans Education Success.
Hubbard said about half of that total amount, $3.5 million, has gone directly to the school.
“It is embarrassing [for the VA],” he said.
USA Today network reporter Latrice Williams contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: After FBI raids, former House of Prayer Church members speak out