The Red Center: Not a Figment of the Imagination

In the most recent episode of Hulu’s the Handmaid’s Tale, we get perhaps the most disturbing glimpse yet of the Red Center. In it, one of the Marthas uses an electric shock prod on Offred as she berates the assembled women to humble themselves before God. As I watched, I wondered for the umpteenth time how anyone could believe engaging in such violence and humiliation could be right or good—or godly. And then it occurred to me. This already happens, right here in the U.S.

I know these stories—I’ve not only read about them, I’ve also heard about them first hand from individuals who experienced them. I’m speaking, of course, of Christian homes for wayward teens. Beatings, humiliation, forced labor, isolation, intimidation, guards—and all in the name of Jesus.

The girls sent to the the Hepzibah House, which opened in 1971 and is still in operation, have typically been “fallen” girls who have engaged in sexual activity, drug abuse, or other behavior considered rebellious or ungodly. The pain and punishment residents experience at Hepzibah House and in similar programs is designed to bring these teens to a recognition of their need for God. This is combined, of course, with a strong belief in submission and authority. The result can be horrific.

Here’s an excerpt from a Newsweek article about one of these homes in Alabama:

A veteran of more than two decades of police work, Barber began recounting the scenes of horror inside—the isolation cells, the shackles, the frightened children—the same awful conditions Kennedy had been warning officials about for years.

Barber’s department had learned of these horrors from a mother who lived out of state and had picked up her daughter from the facility’s girl’s program in Mobile. Horrified about what she saw there, she took photos of the isolation rooms on her cell, then called the police in Mobile.

Other stories are similarly horrific, peppered with Christian justifications:

New Beginnings and numerous other Christian reform schools trace their lineages to Texas radio evangelist Lester Roloff, who founded the Rebekah Home for Girls in Corpus Christi back in 1967, employing disciplinary tactics that were adopted by dozens of imitators. He also pioneered girls’ singing groups as a way to promote Rebekah Home—the “Honeybee Quartet” was featured in his daily revivalist radio broadcasts. But back at the hive, Roloff’s wards were often subjected to days in locked isolation rooms where his sermons played in an endless loop. They also endured exhaustive corporal punishment. “Better a pink bottom than a black soul,” Roloff famously declared at a 1973 court hearing after he was prosecuted by the state of Texas on behalf of 16 Rebekah girls. (The attorney general responded that he was more concerned with bottoms “that were blue, black, and bloody.”) Later that year, a former student testified that a whipping at Rebekah Home left inch-high welts on her body.

Whether these programs attract sadists, or whether those running them honestly believe that the pain they are inflicting is necessary to bring these young people to salvation through Christ and to right living, the trauma experienced by residents is no less real. It turns out that the Red Center is not so far fetched after all. It already exists.

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