Joint Base Lewis-McChord Community
What Is the House of Prayer Church and Why Did the FBI Just Raid It?
In June 2022, the FBI raided five churches allegedly tied to GI Bill Fraud. A place of worship called House of Prayer Church hosted Bible seminaries and targeted Veterans with GI Bill benefits to pay for these classes. Unfortunately, no formal education was received in exchange for that money. This is only the tip of the iceberg on the House of Prayer Church (HOPC) Investigation.
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The House of Prayer Church: Where It Began
The House of Prayer Church is a Georgia-based religious organization with multiple locations placed near military bases and posts. The FBI raiding happened near Fort Gordon and Fort Stewart-Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia, as well as Fort Hood, Texas, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
Their tagline is “House of Prayer Christian Church is On Fire,” which they use to promote their “On Fire Missions.” They emphasize the value of missionary work and claim to unite all people, regardless of race, gender, and creed, in love.
A deeper look into the church’s history and actions, however, seem to paint a different picture.
Rony Denis, the organization’s leader, was said to deliver questionable sermons and often inspire fear in his members. He evidently didn’t want his authority to be questioned. A former member, Brother Irwin, claimed that Rony likened himself to God, making many members afraid to ever speak out.
Gladys Jordan, in an interview with KCEN News, said, “They controlled everything. You couldn’t watch TV, go on the internet, [and] even ankle socks were not allowed.” This control extended into the pockets of their members, especially those of Veterans.
The House of Hope Churches had been targeting service members for decades. Rony Denis is a U.S. Army Veteran, himself, and recruited several ex-military members to help him shepherd his flock. They reached out to the Veteran community and would even show up to bases unannounced as part of their mission.
The House of Hope Church scandal runs deep. A group of former members went so far as to create a website to expose the church and collect testimonies of their alleged abuse. One of the unconfirmed testimonies by Brother J.M. Rodriguez (also a Veteran) stated:
“I found myself doing less and less Church work, and slowly Rony Denis was having me do real estate types of jobs. This would have been fine had it been legitimate Church real estate, but it was more crooked than one could imagine. Ten years of working in the ‘ministry’ and all I was doing was generating over $100,000.00 of real estate income every month and giving it all to Denis.”
$7 Million GI Bill Fraud
The GI Bill has been helping Veterans and service members pay for college, graduate school, and training programs since 1944. Sadly, there are some businesses and organizations that prey on individuals who receive these benefits.
The House of Prayer Church established an illegitimate educational program to siphon GI Bill funds. The Veterans Education Success started to receive concerning reports about the program and later wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs detailing the defrauding of Soldiers and Veterans back in 2020.
Veterans were being charged higher rates than their civilian counterparts, lied to about the use of their GI benefits, and forced to recruit other service members. House of Hope Church had gotten away with misrepresenting themselves as a legitimate teaching organization to the VA for years.
Soldiers were not only exploited for their GI Bill benefits but also to pay for tens of thousands of dollars in real estate. Former members claimed that Denis made service members apply for VA home loans so that the church could take advantage of their lower rates. They were promised blessings from God in return. It was made to look like their “donations” were for the betterment of the community and part of their spiritual journey.
The June 2022 FBI Church Raid
After the many allegations of fraud and cult-like activities, a federal investigation was started. Finally, an FBI raid on the five major locations of the House of Hope Church was launched on June 23rd. They didn’t confirm any arrests, but they did confiscate computers, cash, and financial records.
The House of Prayer Churches continued to collect GI Bill payments for years after complaints were filed. Fort Gordon even banned service members from associating with a number of businesses tied to the church long before the government took action. The fact that five different fraudulent HOPC schools became GI-Bill approved points to the fact that better regulations and verification processes need to take place.
How To Protect Yourself and Your Money
Veterans are twice as likely to unknowingly participate in a scam and be the target of fraud or identity theft. It is important that you stay vigilant in protecting your money and military benefits that others may seek to take advantage of.
In the case of GI Bill Fraud, like the House of Hope Church Scandal, please seek assistance from Veterans Education Success, as their sole purpose is to help Veterans and service members protect the integrity of the GI Bill. An advocacy group from the organization has already appealed to a House panel on new legislation to protect Veterans and their livelihood.
While groups like Veterans Education Success advocate for this change, remember that you are in control of your finances. Be sure to confirm the educational benefits that you will receive in exchange for your money. If the history of an educational program is unclear or nonexistent, the organization is consistently unorganized, classes have constant price fluctuations, or your funds seem to be going directly to a specific person, this may be a sign to hold off on your enrollment.
The GI Bill program is one of the most successful and impactful government programs out there, helping millions of military members, Veterans, and their families. The FBI raid of House of Hope Church should be a wake-up call to better safeguard these benefits and our Veterans.
Image: Lewis Levine for The Savannah Morning News