Pastor denies INS charge 13 aliens in her care weren't forced to do labor, woman says

'We love our kids'

She asserts Estonians were treated, fed well and being schooled

December 21, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF lTC Sun news researcher Andrea Wilson contributed to this article.

Sitting in her Woodbine home yesterday, a church pastor denied allegations that she smuggled aliens into the United States on student and religious visas and then forced them to labor at menial jobs.

The pastor, Joyce Perdue, and two leaders of her Word of Faith World Outreach Organization were indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury in Baltimore on charges of alien smuggling and visa fraud.

Prosecutors say church leaders brought Estonians into the country ostensibly to study religion, but instead made them clean bookstores and office buildings and install furniture.

"It is hard to connect what the kids were doing with the intent and spirit of the visas," said a federal official familiar with the investigation.

Perdue denied that she, Elizabeth Brown, 40, and Robert Hendricks, 37, induced the Estonians to apply for visas to work for her ministry.

Perdue's nondenominational charismatic church operates from a three-story, 10,000-square-foot house at the end of a cul-de-sac in western Howard County.

"The government accuses us of making them slaves," said Perdue, who was joined by six church leaders in the pink living room where Word of Faith holds its services.

"We love our kids," she said. "We'll always take care of them."

The aliens -- native Russians who lived in Estonia -- slept in large bunk beds in well-appointed rooms full of books and stuffed animals.

The lives of the 13 Estonians were dramatically changed again in August when U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents raided the home and took them into custody.

Some were sent to foster homes, others are in INS facilities and some were deported to Estonia, officials said.

Perdue and church leaders say they did not spend five years in Estonia preaching the Gospel and helping the sick to compel 13 aliens to move sofas for a Word of Faith business.

"They say we were using the ministry as a front," Brown said. "The government says we went over there to gather laborers to make them slaves here. That's not true. They don't believe we're a church."

Perdue and her husband, Donald, founded Word of Faith 20 years ago in Columbia, where it struggled before moving to Glen Burnie and, eventually, Hanover.

By 1990, the former hairdresser and her husband were looking for challenges and found one -- becoming missionaries to the former Soviet-bloc country of Estonia.

Perdue and her workers took Bibles, clothes, food and medicine on five trips before finding their calling, dropping their full-time jobs and deciding to live in the Estonian city of Tallinn.

There, they preached and held Bible study classes. Some Estonians were orphans and many needed expensive dental work and better nutrition, Perdue said.

When church leaders decided to return to the United States in early 1997, they brought the Estonians with them.

Last month, Perdue's parents bought the large white Woodbine home to serve as the church's home-base and ministry.

Seven church members live in the home, including Perdue's son, Donald, 20; his Estonian fiancee and church translator, Regina Rusetski, 31; her 10-year-old daughter; Hendricks, an assistant pastor, and his wife.

"We wanted to live in a communal setting," Hendricks said.

To make money, Hendricks said, church leaders founded a commercial cleaning and furniture installation company.

While the older Estonians worked for the company -- Vision Ventures Inc. -- and studied the Bible, the younger ones attended a religious school, said Perdue, who wouldn't elaborate.

Officials question how much education the Estonians were getting. "Only one or two spoke words in English," the federal officials said.

Perdue said trouble with the INS started after her 33-year-old daughter, who was upset because Perdue supported her son-in-law during a custody battle, called authorities.

Perdue said that her daughter told authorities that church officials were mistreating the Estonian students.

That's not true, said Perdue, who added that the Estonians were well-fed and enjoyed a large outdoor swiming pool.

Neighbors said church members were quiet and hard-working -- painting the house, chopping wood and doing chores.

A neighbor said that a young girl, who called herself a "server," feared she would get in trouble for letting a cat escape from the house.

When the church moved in, young Estonian men unloaded five moving trucks until 11: 30 p.m, said neighbor Judy Terry.

But Terry's husband, Bob, said it never appeared the Estonians were overworked or abused.

"If we had 15 kids, there would be all kinds of work to do," Bob Terry said.

Pub Date: 12/21/98

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