Permission to Hate

Rutherford: Church told woman she had sinned by marrying another woman – and should repent

A year after Kelly Toney and her wife married, she got a letter from the pastor and deacons of her childhood church calling their relationship a sin and asking her to “display repentance and abandonment of this area of open immorality.”

“I was absolutely just dumbfounded and shocked,” she said. “I was so close to a lot of these people. I had so many emotions. I was mad. I was hurt. I was in disbelief.”

Toney, 40, grew up at First Baptist Church in Bostic. She was there most Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. She taught Bible school.

She said she struggled over being a lesbian. “I knew it was wrong according to the Bible and by how my parents were raising me .... I felt so alone and had nobody to turn to. I was also getting older and realizing how people like me were hated.”

She said she has been to the church only once in the past 15 years – when her father remarried – but felt a kinship with many members.

She and Lori Toney married on Jan. 17, 2015, a small outdoor ceremony.

Fifteen months later, in April 2016, the letter arrived:

The purpose is to address to you our concern regarding our understanding of your entering into a homosexual marital relationship and to communicate to you the position of the Church and the Scriptures on this subject.

After several paragraphs addressing her “immorality,” the letter concluded by saying that it was sent “in the outreach of Christian love and genuine spiritual concern.”

Despite repeated requests for comment, the Observer was unable to reach anyone from the church.

Toney responded:

To the pastor and deacons of First Baptist Church of Bostic,

I have received your letter concerning my marriage. I have read it very carefully and have decided if it was truly meant in love, then no thank you! I will stick with the unconditional love I have. There are members of the church that have helped raise me and some I still have very strong friendships with. I love all of you and I thank you for loving me as I am! I hope and pray that when any of you are with sin or do wrong, you are shown more love than I have been! With this being said, I will gladly remove my membership from your church! I will also have the backbone to actually sign my name to this letter. Also, I will not be enclosing a policy with the requirements any of you have to meet for me to love you!

Hurt and disappointed,

Kelly Toney

‘I thought I was ... going to die’

Growing up in Rutherford County, Matthew Fenner thought he was one of only a few gay people.

“I’ve known since I was young,” Fenner, a recent graduate of UNC Chapel Hill, told the Observer. “As a kid, thinking about growing up and getting married, I always pictured myself being married to a man.”

Several times, he said, his parents tried “to get the problem fixed.” Eventually, he said, his church intervened.

A leader and four members of the Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale have been indicted on charges that they kidnapped, beat and strangled Fenner to cleanse him of “homosexual demons.”

The allegations mark the second time in three years that members of Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale have been accused of beating someone over the victim’s sexual orientation. An attorney for the church has denied the allegations.

On the advice of an attorney, Fenner wouldn’t talk about the upcoming criminal case. In an affidavit, he alleged that in January 2013, a church leader, her adult children and some 20 other Word of Faith members repeatedly punched, shook and knocked him down. He said he also was strangled.

In the affidavit, Fenner said he was a church member for five years when the attacks “to break me free of the homosexual demons they so viciously despise” took place. Before the two-hour incident ended, as many as 25 church members had taken part, Fenner said.

“I really didn’t think I was going to get out of there,” he recalled. “I thought I was most likely going to die.”

He said he escaped from the church the next night.