The video seems normal at first glance: a blonde woman, driving a car with her phone in one hand, recording a video using her front-facing camera to post on her Instagram page as she travels down a rural road just outside of a major city. As she speaks to the camera, a question seems to suddenly pop into her mind, so she blurts it out: “Why do you have the Pride logo up if you’re a baking company?”
The ask is part of her intro to an instructional video on how to address people, businesses and corporations when they display the “Pride logo” — meaning a rainbow flag or pride flag representing the LGBTQ social movement — publicly to their customers.
“That should not be shoved down everyone’s throats, and so all you need to do, every single time you see it … simply let people know, go into the store … say, ‘Hey, I would like to know why it is important for you to display who has sex with who,” she instructs her followers, still driving as she speaks into the camera.
Her disdain for the LGBTQ community goes much further than that one Instagram video, and when she posts, her 23.7K followers listen. After all, she’s a lead pastor at one of Charlotte’s most influential evangelical institutions.
So that raises the question: Who the hell is Penny Maxwell?
Penny, and her husband Troy Maxwell are the lead pastors and co-founders at Freedom House Church, based in the Charlotte area with thousands of weekly parishioners spread out across locations in South End, northeast Charlotte and Lake Norman.
The Maxwells founded Freedom House in 2002. At the time, they held satellite church services at schools in north Charlotte after moving from Richmond, Virginia, to begin a church in “a city they’d never even visited,” according to an old WordPress site.
The church purchased property on Salome Church Road in north Charlotte in 2006 and opened their flagship location at the site in 2011.
Six years later, they opened a second location on Griffith Street in South End at a former Pick-It Furniture warehouse in April, 2017 – after a $2.8 million renovation to the facility. Their third location was opened in October 2019 under a lease agreement before purchasing the property in November 2021.
On a part of their website in which they ask for “Liberty donations” from “Kingdom Builders,” or people who “commit to give above and beyond their normal tithes,” church leaders say they are looking at south Charlotte locations for a potential fourth campus, but they must first raise $1.6 million for a deposit.
One former church member recalled being pulled aside and told they weren’t tithing enough of their salary to the church by an executive at the church who told them, “as leaders, we need to lead by example.”
The team also opened Freedom House Lodge, a mountain campus retreat for the church’s “Strong Men” movement, in May 2022. Church leaders don shirts with the slogan “Make Men Men Again,” and believe the lodge will be “a place of life change for the men of our church.”
And finally, what started as a way for children to get virtual education during the pandemic became Freedom Academy in 2022 where they offer a private “biblically-based environment,” one rooted in right-wing political ideology.
“It’s integral that our children are able to get an education without the nonsense of woke ideaologies [sic] that directly go against Biblical principles — and Freedom Academy is our solution,” reads a Facebook post from the church in June 2022.
Freedom House Church courts controversy in Charlotte
“There is no reason a baking company, a clothing company, a shoe company, a baby food company, a makeup store, needs to promote who has sex with who – being inclusive, or let’s just say that you want to show support to somebody, then do it in your private time,” Penny continues in her post from the driver’s seat — one of hundreds of similar videos she’s posted to her Instagram account.
In June 2023, Penny, along with a group called Protect North Carolina Kids and a local woman named Lisa Metzger spent a day attacking, harassing, slandering and defaming a local small-business owner during a drag brunch at Free Will Craft + Vine.
Drag brunches and drag story hours have become increasingly popular around the country and, in Charlotte, Free Will Craft + Vine had hosted more than 30 before the June incident. They have now become a target of right-wing evangelical extremists.
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When Joel Cox, owner of Free Will Craft + Vine, was preparing for the monthly drag event at his NoDa bar, he checked with staff to make sure they were comfortable continuing the event after a week of harassing phone calls to staff in the lead up. He wasn’t totally prepared for the fallout that came after.
Cox mentioned there had never been any pushback on these events except for one Queen City Concerts performance of Kinky Boots.
“We’ve never had anyone physically show up. Leading up to this one, they were calling and harassing the staff, which blew my mind,” he recalled.
Free Will recently closed its doors to customers after three years in business due to setbacks faced from the COVID-19 shutdowns, the closure of Craighead Road, and delayed development in the NoDa area surrounding the business. Penny celebrated the closure in a July 25 post, even taking credit for shutting the business down.
Prior to the closure, Cox confirmed with Queen City Nerve that it had been in the works for months, long before Maxwell set her sights on the business.
“We would have folded a lot faster without [the drag brunches], for sure,” he said. They were some of our biggest days. We were doing them once a month … It’s just a hard corner. Right? All the development that was supposed to happen there got halted. So things that were supposed to open in 2019, 2020 are just now opening. It was just terrible timing for all of it. So we’ve been doing the drag brunches very consistently for two and a half years.”
On Saturday, June 24 Free Will opened their doors for a Pride Month drag brunch where a group of about six protesters showed up holding signs and urging people not to enter the business due to the “sexualization of children.” The event took place from noon to 2 p.m. with protesters there from 11 a.m. to around 12:30 p.m.
A call to protest the event and the business was first posted on the @protect_nckids Instagram account, an organization started by two white women who were “disgusted with the Marxist agenda being shoved down the throats of children,” and “decided to be a voice of reason in the Greater Charlotte area,” according to their website.
Penny Maxwell shared the post in the lead-up to the event, calling for her supporters to show up and speak out against the business. A video from the protest and multiple videos taken from the Instagram Stories of the Drag Queens who performed, plus location tags, were posted by Lisa Metzger on her Instagram account, which were then also shared by Penny Maxwell.
Maxwell took it a step further by posting a picture of Cox, his LinkedIn profile, and his wife’s Instagram page. She also posted photos of two mothers who were in attendance with their children and asked her followers to call Child Protective Services against them. Her post was then shared by David Harris Jr., a right-wing extremist whose account has over 1 million followers.
“These parents needs [sic] to have DSS come in and investigate them. The sexualization of children is absolutely wrong. If you mess with innocent children, you should be held accountable. This is horrific! Maybe if we start calling out these woke parents, these children will have a chance! This is absolutely the parents fault just as well as establishments for hosting half-naked, gyrating, drag queens and having their babies hand dollar bills to them. This is disgusting behavior. (Account handle removed) (Account handle removed) (Account Handle removed) need a visit from DSS!,” the post read.
She included the number to the Department of Social Services in her Instagram Stories. The three mothers she tagged in the post were harassed for days following the post, eventually deactivating their accounts.
Threats and harassment, in-person and online
Cox wasn’t wrong in his thinking to protect his staff.
“Speaking with them, speaking with the staff, everybody was like, ‘No, we’re not doing anything wrong. This is just ridiculous.’ I was like, ‘If you feel unsafe, we’ll pull the plug,’” he recalled.
Free Will hosted the Pride drag brunch just weeks after members of the Proud Boys — a male far-right neo-fascist group that promotes and engages in political violence — showed up to Free Range Brewing in nearby Villa Heights to protest a drag story hour, one of whom showed up with a gun, after Maxwell posted the protest details on her page.
Escorts there for protective purposes reportedly confronted the Proud Boy, who told them, “I have the gun in case the transvestite came at the protesters,” a scenario that drag king Marty McGuy, who read at the story hour, called “laughable.”
McGuy, an expert in early childhood development with a passion for theatre, performs regularly in a network of supportive spaces in Columbia, South Carolina, especially at his preferred LGBTQ-affirming church, Reformation Lutheran.
“So when I got into drag, I loved theatre, I loved makeup, and that just seemed like a fun expression,” he told Queen City Nerve. “And as much as I like performing in your standard drag bar, I knew that there was a huge interest for drag story time … I knew I had that skill set, and I loved doing it, and I was really good at it, so I started doing it on my own during the pandemic,” McGuy says.
After assisting the Harriet Hancock LGBT Center in Columbia with providing in-person and digital story hours during the pandemic, McGuy had only come across one person upset about their performances — someone who came off as your everyday internet troll. The real hate didn’t come until McGuy performed in Charlotte, which is how he came into the crosshairs of Maxwell and friends.
As a majority kid-friendly performer, McGuy saw no reason for anyone to attack his performances online. Then he connected with Joshua Jernigan, co-founder of the local Drag Story Hour chapter, to perform at the Charlotte International Arts Festival in September 2022. McGuy had booked an event at a bar that began at midnight and decided to take the kid-friendly act to a new level for the late-night bar patrons.
“It still was, like, risque for me, but it definitely was different than my normal content. I normally wouldn’t post it, but I was really proud of it. And again, it’s on my adult only page … So I posted like 15 seconds of it. Very nothing. Then one day I was at work and I got a DM from someone I didn’t know. And they were like, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you know Penny Maxwell. She has taken a video of you and basically called you Satan,’” McGuy recalls.
“So I freaked out because again, the one time I do something like remotely PG-13, I freaked out. I had no idea who Penny Maxwell was, why she was sharing my content, why it was getting shared so many times. I freaked out and I contacted Josh and I was like, ‘Look, if you don’t want me to come, I understand,’” he continued.
Drag Story Hour is a national organization with chapters around the country and Jernigan’s nonprofit is the fiscal sponsor of the local chapter. He is no stranger to the threats that come when social media warriors hit the streets.
During a drag story hour event in Union County, one protester threatened Jernigan, stating, “I’m going to gut you like a fish.” Jernigan says he is repeatedly harassed by Penny Maxwell and others.
Jernigan operates mainly in Union County. He also partners with Comedy Arts Theater of Charlotte and Free Range Brewing for events. He organized the event at which a Proud Boy showed up with a gun, and his highest attended story hour at the Charlotte International Arts Festival in September 2022 saw more than 90 people show up in support.
His chapter has formed a group of escorts who act as private security, peacekeepers and intelligence agents against the protesters. In the past, protesting parents have tried to send their teenage kids into adult-only drag performances and have been turned away by these peacekeepers.
Jernigan says he can walk away easily from a face-to-face threat and tries not to show any fear or outward reaction, but that the words and tone still shake him each time.
Most comments from Maxwell followers toe the line of a threat without crossing the line into illegal territory; statements like “This disgusting pedophile should just be wiped out,” are commonplace. McGuy remembers one person asking, ‘Where’s the Pulse shooter when you need him?” — a reference to the 2016 mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Florida.
“So they won’t be like, ‘I want this person to die … I want to kill you or I’m going to kill you,’ but like, ‘Gosh, it would be great if you were dead,’” he explained.
In one of the dozens of harassing messages that Cox received, one person said, “I’m going to slit yours and your family’s throats and burn down all of your businesses.”
He remembers the toll the harassment took on him personally, and the questions it raised for him.
“So it’s like, do I have to change my behavior, my day-to-day? Do I have to not be who I am naturally to make sure that nobody is buying into this? I’m still terrified to turn my Instagram back on just in case. I don’t want to invite any more of that into my life. The hardest part is like, I just felt like there was nothing I could do other than ride it out. So then I didn’t sleep at all.”
The harassment took a similar toll on McGuy. “I shut down for like, a full three days after her post because it was just a weird attack on my character that I guess I should have expected, but I didn’t expect in that scale,” he recalled.
While McGuy doesn’t experience this harassment in his hometown of Columbia, he says that the hesitation to perform in Charlotte is eased by the support system he has in Jernigan and the Charlotte community. “If they didn’t have that, I probably wouldn’t do it,” he exclaims.
While Penny Maxwell calls for the harassment of these people and businesses, she herself has filed at least one police report for someone allegedly “cyberstalking” her. One CMPD incident report from 2017 states that, between Oct. 25 and Nov. 11 of that year, “the listed suspect cyberstalked [Maxwell] on Instagram. The victim reported that she has received at least thirty electronic messages from the listed suspect. The suspect is sending the electronic message in the attempt to annoying [sic] and harass the victim.”
In 2022, she filed charges against Roberta McNair, owner of Good Life at Enderly Park, stemming from comments made on Instagram during a debate about parking in which Maxwell rushed to the defense of local restaurateur and known evangelical Jim Noble. McNair was arrested and later shut down her business.
The arrest followed a comment by McNair reading, “Do you want to have a shoot-out at church this coming Sunday,” which she told Queen City Nerve was a facetious response to Maxwell’s post warning McNair that she could be located through geotagging. All charges against McNair were eventually dropped.
Guns have had a known presence at Freedom House Church over the years. Maxwell and other lead pastors have hired teams of armed guards to follow them around in the church, according to one person familiar with the church’s workings, and certain members of the church are allowed to carry concealed weapons on the premises. A gun and knife raffle is scheduled for a Strong Men’s conference coming up in September.
The incident involving McNair, a Black woman, was far from the only racially charged incident involving Freedom House Church. Multiple Black former church members told Queen City Nerve they were made uncomfortable by the church’s public statements and posts about social justice issues including the Charleston church shooting in 2015, Keith Lamont Scott in 2016, and Colin Kaepernick in 2016.
In 2013, it was widely reported that an email circulated inside the church asking for “only white people” to be at the door greeting newcomers to the church.
It was reported that Pastor Makeda Pennycooke, a Black woman, sent the email, though a source familiar with the incident said she was used as a scapegoat, sending the email after a meeting with leadership on the topic of diversity.
Pennycooke allegedly resigned in 2014 with much fanfare that reportedly included dancers and confetti cannons. Pennycooke had moved from Richmond, Virginia to Charlotte along with the Maxwell family to help them found the church before her decision to resign after the incident, and while she was exploring the definition of her spirituality, according to her in an interview with The Cha Show.
Freedom House Church’s political stances and inner workings toe a line
While Penny Maxwell’s personal Instagram page does not double as a platform for the church itself, she is a public figure of the church and the church often hosts political candidates for discussions during services. Some notable guests have included Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, former N.C. Congressional District 12 Rep. candidate Tyler Lee, and former Vice President Mike Pence.
Candace Owens has made more than one appearance along with Kayleigh McEnany, Charlie Kirk, John Amanchukwu and Ben Carson. Penny and her husband Troy were at Donald Trump’s home in Bedminster, New Jersey on Aug. 4 with other pastors from across the country discussing policy before Trump had to leave for Washington, D.C. to be arrested on his third felony indictment, according to a post by Maxwell.
A former staff member of the church says they have knowledge of at least some of these candidates being paid for their appearances.
[UPDATE 8/11/23: The below section has been reworked to remove the use of the words “endorse,” “endorsed,” and “endorsing,” to be more precise about the general support of Republican candidates by executive leaders of the church. No information has been removed or altered. A quote from a referenced Facebook post has been added, a link to a video stream of a church service from May 2022, as well as information on a private fundraising dinner hosted by the Maxwells.]
Since Jan. 1, 2023, Maxwell has made 69 posts either pushing a political candidate to her followers or bashing other ones. Multiple posts have been made by the Freedom House Church account voicing support for certain Republican candidates — like in 2022, when the church platformed Tyler Lee who ran against Alma Adams in 2022 and lost. Lee also showed up to protest the Charlotte International Arts Festival Drag Story Hour in 2022.
“God called Tyler to Congress … And if you want to help Tyler make a difference, go out and vote on November 8th!” the post read.
The church has platformed Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson multiple times over the last two years, with all of the senior pastors from the church supporting and sharing his extremist ideologies on their personal pages. He spoke at FHC in May 2022, where Maxwell introduced him as “the next Governor of North Carolina,” and met with the executive team in June 2023. In 2021, the Maxwells hosted Robinson at their home for a private fundraising dinner where members and leaders from the church were invited, according to an invitation viewed by Queen City Nerve.
[UPDATE 8/12/23: The following paragraph has been included to add more context to allegations of publicly supporting certain political candidates]
In October 2022, Penny posed for a photo with Republican N.C. State Rep. John Bradford of District 98 with a caption that reads: “Early voting has begun! @johnraybradford is my choice! Check my other post for conservative candidates that are running. I am not going to vote for anybody that doesn’t know the difference between a penis and a vagina. The insanity has to stop! Let’s take back our country from this evil agenda attacking the very fabric of who we are!”
It is against U.S. tax code for churches carrying a tax-exempt status to endorse political candidates when they are running for office. Under Title 26 of the Internal Revenue Code a tax-exempt entity may not “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
A FOIA request to the IRS on how many complaints have been made against the Freedom House Church charitable status has not been fulfilled as of the publication of this article.
A source familiar with the inner workings of the church says that, while racial undertones have always been an issue at FHC, the anti-equity squawking ramped up after the election of Donald Trump.
Since Jan. 1, 2023, Queen City Nerve tracked 130 anti-queer posts on Maxwell’s account, along with a number of COVID, abortion and education misinformation posts, including 43 posts about Target’s Pride section between May 3-28 alone.
Maxwell regularly posts headlines from DailyMail, which The Factual rates the second-lowest reliable news source in their entire database.
On Aug. 6, 2023, she posted a misleading headline that reads, “California Legislature Passes Bill Reducing Penalties for Oral, Anal Sex with Willing Children.”
In the caption, Maxwell wrote, “Senator Wiener feels that because the LGBTQ community has a vast and varied appetite, the rules should be relaxed. I say no. I say you touch our children and we will come after you Lorena Bobbitt style. If you don’t know who she is, just Google her. This sickness and mental health crisis needs to be addressed. We don’t placate sickos.”
Lorena Bobbitt was a reference to an infamous case in the 1990s in which a woman castrated her husband while he slept.
As it turns out, the headline came from 2020 and was debunked by the Associated Press as false information in 2022 after it continued to spread among conspiracy-minded groups online.
In 2020, Freedom House Church was widely known for going against COVID protocols and was adamantly against mask ordinances, at a time when the church also paid off $2 million worth of medical debts to Charlotte-area people.
When Triple C Brewing owner, Chris Harker saw a statement about the church ignoring the mask mandate in 2020, he publicly said in a Facebook post that he would no longer allow them to use the brewery’s parking lot for overflow parking on Sundays. Parishioners were upset and threatened to stop coming to the business, though the idea seemed somewhat mutual.
Maxwell makes hateful posts about the queer community almost daily and her executive team members even echo her resentment toward LGBTQ folks in Charlotte.
Rolling Stone magazine cited Maxwell’s hate speech in an article from 2022 after she harassed a pole-dancing fitness instructor who was entertaining a crowd with a child, showing them how to dance on the pole during a Charlotte Pride performance.
“The Bible very clearly teaches that homosexuality is a sin which is exactly why truth must be shared,” says Stephanie Blanton, Executive Director of Ministries in an Instagram comment.
Multiple former members of the church discussed with Queen City Nerve the manipulation in the “word of God” used to secure authority over them in the space. One former member has been in therapy trying to reconcile with how they were manipulated into pushing these extreme ideas on others.
For some, FHC was their introduction to church during a time of hardship. For others, they were looking for a new place with a congregation that looked like them. For all, the guilt left over from feelings that they manifested this hatred and the demonization of others weighs heavy.
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