I grew up in the foothills of western North Carolina, a place that’s long been a haven for people craving space to be on their own. It’s where F. Scott Fitzgerald periodically retreated to battle his demons and where the writer Carl Sandburg moved in 1952 to work on his memoirs while his wife raised champion dairy goats. In recent years, the area has become home to a Mennonite community, a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation, and a New Age community dedicated to spiritual healing. And it’s where the Word of Faith Fellowship, the hyper-conservative Christian church that was recently the focus of an explosive Associated Press investigation, was founded back in 1979.
According to the Associated Press, Word of Faith Fellowship members are constantly under the thumb of church founder Jane Whaley. If a member of any age is accused of being possessed by “devils”––a charge that can be levied against someone celebrating their birthday or being suspected of having impure sexual thoughts—they might be subject to bouts of verbal and physical abuse that last hours. Relationships between congregants are heavily regulated by the church, as are the sexual practices of married couples. Children are routinely separated from their families, the AP investigation states, while instances of sexual abuse within the church go unreported to authorities, and victims are warned not to seek help or speak out. Men are specifically singled out for punishment, and at any time can be sent to an ad hoc prison located on church grounds, where they could be held for months. More bizarrely, members are prohibited from wearing Nike apparel, growing beards, swimming without shirts on, or playing board games.
Despite the fact that they were in my backyard growing up, I never knew much about the Word of Faith Fellowship before reading the AP’s package of stories on the church, dubbed “Broken Faith.” There were rumors around town that they were a cult, and every few years someone would leave the congregation amid whisperings of violence or imprisonment. But in the South, it’s easy to not think about unpleasant things, and despite the occasional local news report with dark headlines and even darker details, the church became seen as a local oddity, one insular community among many in the area.
It helped that the church flew relatively under the radar. None of the members’ children went to school with us, and members were discouraged from having too much contact with the outside world. It wasn’t like they wore name tags, and since they dressed normally it was hard to recognize one of them even if they passed you on the street. In truth, the only time that you could be sure you were interacting with a member of the church, really, was if you were eating at 10 North Trade Café and Bakery, the Word of Faith-affiliated restaurant in Tryon, North Carolina.
10 North Trade is located in the middle of downtown Tryon and is open for breakfast and lunch. They offer a variety of pastries, baked goods, and sandwiches at reasonable prices. The summer before I went off to college, I worked at my dad’s office, which was just down the street, and I would occasionally pop in for coffee and a croissant. I distinctly recall purchasing an egg sandwich on a croissant there on at least one occasion—though given that their website is mysteriously offline at the moment, I can’t confirm that they still serve them.
As the rumors about the Word of Faith Fellowship piled up over the years, it became understood that there was a certain moral ambiguity associated with eating at 10 North Trade. Yes, it was run by a shadowy and potentially abusive religious sect, but people ate there regardless. It hit the sweet spot of cheap, fast, and good, and in a small town like ours, there wasn’t much else to choose from. There were a number of restaurants serving breakfast and lunch in downtown Tryon, but few managed to retain the foothold that 10 North Trade enjoyed. Over the years, as other spots opened and closed, 10 North Trade remained steadfast. The AP report highlights that many congregants were made to work in businesses that the church owned, often without pay, raising the ugly possibility that 10 North Trade’s longevity can be at least partially credited to a reliance upon unpaid labor.
When it comes to food, people tend to disassociate what they eat from its potentially unsavory origins. We look past the horrifying conditions of factory farms, the unnatural hormones pumped into our meats, the pesticides sprayed onto our crops, and the substandard conditions in plants that process peanuts and dairy products. As long as our access to cheap, tasty food goes uninterrupted, we’re willing to put up with a lot. When these hazards are highlighted, as they were in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, we might momentarily recoil, only to eventually slip back into old habits. It’s only when the outrages become too flagrant to ignore that we change our ways.
If I had to guess, the Associated Press investigation might mark such a moment for 10 North Trade. My Facebook feed is already full of people from back home posting the story, pledging never to eat there again. Given that the place is just one of a number of businesses throughout the area with rumored connections to the Word of Faith Fellowship, it’s unlikely that a sudden downturn in customers at 10 North Trade would cause the church to go under. But word travels fast in small towns, and I’d like to hope that the outrages resulting from the AP stories would put all of the church’s businesses in dire financial straits. And if their revenue streams dry up, it’s hard to imagine how they could sustain their insular and damaging ecosystem for much longer.