The FBI joined with local law enforcement agencies last week to raid at least five churches near Army installations associated with an alleged cult that critics say preys on service members and veterans.
The agency executed warrants across the United States on Thursday, though no arrests were made and the FBI has been tightlipped about what, if anything, they found.
FBI spokesperson Tina Jagerson confirmed that local field offices had performed “court authorized law enforcement activity,” a term that frequently refers to executing a search warrant, near five House of Prayer Christian Church locations.
- Hephzibah, Georgia, near Fort Gordon
- Hinesville, Georgia, near Fort Stewart
- Fayetteville, North Carolina, near Fort Bragg
- Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood
- Tacoma, Washington, near Joint Base Lewis-McChord
Jagerson said the agency had “no further comment or information” at this time, and did not respond to a follow-up question about whether the raids were linked. It’s not clear whether the five targets represent all of the church’s locations or if there are active locations near other bases.
‘Allegedly operates like a cult’
It’s also not clear why authorities are investigating the organization, though non-profit Veterans Education Success wrote a letter to federal and Georgia authorities in 2020 that accused the church of operating “like a cult” and running a sham seminary program to siphon millions of dollars of G.I. Bill benefits from soldiers and veterans. The letter also said the FBI may have been investigating potential mortgage fraud by the organization.
The letter and Augusta Chronicle interviews with former members reveal a cult of personality around preacher Rony Denis, who founded the first House of Prayer church in 2004.
In the letter, anonymous former members of the church and seminary students recounted how their classes — when they weren’t cancelled in favor of recruiting trips or cleaning work — were taught in run-down buildings where Denis would listen in via conference call and force students to break into prayer whenever he interrupted.
A former member told the Augusta Chronicle that Denis used that teleconference system “to connect all of the churches at the same time. ... 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.”
No seminary students ever received academic records or a completion certificate either, according to the letter from Veterans Education Success. One former member cited in the letter said they attended one of the church’s seminaries for 12 years and exhausted their education benefits.
Program requirements, tuition rates and the course designs would reportedly change in order to keep students enrolled — and the federal money flowing. Church parishioners were also encouraged to seek out 100% disability ratings for false conditions to give more VA money to the church, the letter alleged.
Women are strong-armed into living in group homes, the letter claimed, with active duty female members being harangued about the perceived danger of living in the barracks.
The church also allegedly intimidates those who try to leave, with one former member telling Veterans Education Success that a fellow parishioner tried to abduct their child after discovering they planned to leave House of Prayer.
The letter also alleged that most of the church’s money was flowing into Denis’ pocket.
Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.