Don’t know about anyone else but one of the biggest regrets I have is that I raised my kids in the madness that was my old cult church. They didn’t ask to be part of that. We, Jim and I, drug them into it with all the best intentions. My two kids ended up being hostages to fortune during our years at Possum Creek Christian Fellowship. We started attending when Laura was 4 years old and Andy was 7 and left when they were 15 and 18 years old. A long stretch of young impressionable years.
Since it’s been about five years since we left Andy and Laura have finally felt safe enough, distant enough from the dysfunction to share with me what happened to them, how they feel about religion and our old church and how it impacts them today. All of which leaves me tearful and guilty, because, you know, as their mom I’m supposed to protect them from the bad stuff out there. Who knew a great deal of the bad stuff was going to be wrapped up in religion and the Bible?
I’ve apologized profusely to each of them, more than once and I’ve done my fair share of worrying about what the future holds for them. I worry for Andy, now 23 and doing his film project to finish up his degree in film making. His subject is an evil zombie minister. You cannot tell me this is not due to the years at PCCF and the hurt. He’s working out his issues in his art.
Laura makes me worry but she’s a much stronger individual than her brother in terms of emotion life. She has had to be because of her illnesses. But this morning she dropped a bomb on me. As I was busy brewing up a pot of coffee so we could start our day she opened up about her years with the missions organization Teen Mania. It was bad, it was ugly. She’d stayed awake most of the night looking at a website named My Teen Mania Experience, chronicling the experiences that Teen Mania doesn’t want you know to know about including the Honor Academy’s ESOAL Training.
It was all she could talk about this morning. She’d been on two Teen Mania mission trips and we’d known tons of kids from PCCF that had spent a couple of years as an Intern with Teen Mania living and studying at the Spring Valley, Texas campus. But I’d not known what they put these kids through. She showed me the news reports of the kids slogging through the mud, rolling through mounds of their classmates vomit and other questionable activities all the while Teen Mania defended it as ‘Boot Camp’ We’re a military family and I can guarentee you that Boot Camp does not make you eat a can of cat food, roll through vomit or suffer unnecessary sleep deprivation in a soaking wet sleeping bag.
My big question about this all was this. How does suffering a 90 hour torture session bring you closer to the Lord and deepen your faith? It can’t.
It can emotionally beat you into submission, take away your desire to do anything beyond survive the ordeal. You will say and do anything to get past that type of abuse, to feel like part of the group, to feel like a winner. That’s the other thing they do, heap verbal abuse on the interns during ESOAL, including calling the ones struggling ‘losers’ and ‘failures’ Some Christian love huh.
After we looked at the website and the video of ESOAL Laura and I sat down and she opened up about her Teen Mania mission experiences, good and a lot of bad.
Our church got involved with Teen Mania the usual route, by taking a group of teens over to a nearby “Acquire The Fire” event. It’s a concert with popular Christian rock bands run by the interns of Teen Mania. The emphasis is on buying their products and making a commitment to go on a Teen Mania trip as well as the usual “Rah Rah 4 Jesus” I read recently that Teen Mania clears about a cool million from each one of these events, something I was unaware at the time.
After attending an ATF event Laura felt called to go on a mission trip to Romania. We checked into it, talked to the Teen Mania people and she signed up. We had to raise what seemed like an astronomical sum of six thousand dollars for the trip. But we did it.
We put Laura on a flight to Dallas Texas to start her 6 week Romanian adventure and that’s where everything started to go haywire. She called me in tears from the Teen Mania campus a few days later. At the time her complaints seemed petty to me, complaints about housing, the heat of the place with no air conditioning, no privacy, you name it, she complained about it. I wasn’t surprised, this was the first time she’d left the cushy nest of our solidly middle class existence and I thought it would do her a world of good to spend a large chunk of her summer in a very poor country.
That summer she called every few days in tears, once she wanted to come home, complaining it was ‘too hard’ Each time I tried to sooth over her complaints and tell her to hang in there, it wasn’t for forever.
Now she’s telling me in detail things I was unaware of. While I knew they weren’t living in the Hilton I did expect safety and basic comforts. Silly me.
The campus description Laura gave me this morning sounds more like something you’d put people in to punish them. Dirty and decrepit campus. They were housed in a huge un air conditioned Quonset hut under the blazing sun of a Texas summer. There were only 6 shower stalls and toilets for hundreds of girls. One night they were woken up by a thunderstorm and told to pile all their luggage up onto of makeshift benches before going back to sleep because the hut was flooding. Flooding and they sent the kids back to sleep? But they only had a stay at the campus a few days so it could have been worse.
But this is how the interns live while they are at Teen Mania, paying to intern at this place that isn’t accredited by any school system in the US. What you can tolerate for a day or so seems abusive to put someone in for a year or more.
Once they got to Romania they were housed in an old school that had bullet holes in the walls. Again, not surprising it wasn’t the Hilton. That doesn’t bother me, what does is Laura’s descriptions of the ineptitude of the leaders, things said and done in those weeks. She said they accomplished exactly nothing on that trip. Most of the trip they sang or did a dramatic skit in a nearby park. What was so horrible for Laura on this trip she says was the unrelenting pressure to conform, that they were constantly hectored, lectured, pushed and pressured by the leadership. It was non stop and there was no down time. She said it was like cult indoctrination.
But the two biggest incidents that stand out to her and frightened me were how sickness was handled. Laura has the same inherited immune system disorders as I do and we made sure to let Teen Mania know that if Laura had a flare up she had medication with her and she would need to take the medicine and rest until the flareup passed, a day or two perhaps. Laura had a flare up, went to her intern team leader to say she needed to stay back and rest. Her team leader refused, telling her to ‘adjust your attitude’, accusing her of trying to shirk her responsibilities with a lame excuse. Laura took her meds and soldiered on and told me nothing about this until now.
The second scary incident took place when the rented bus they were traveling in had a breakdown and started putting out thick black smoke. The smoke poured into the bus over the course of about a block and a half. Kids fainted, people coughed and the asthmatics in the group reached for their inhalers. They finally got off the bus and the Teen Mania leaders took 6 of the kids to a nearby hospital. One of the girls that fainted and had not recovered they refused to take to the hospital, citing the reason as “She’s an anorexic”. Interns had to literally carry her to her room and lay her on her bed.
Two months later Laura became extremely ill. The doctors could not figure out why she was having lung troubles and respiratory infections that didn’t respond to the medication. In retrospect of what happen with the bus I have to say that it must have been damage from the smoke exposure. I cannot tell you how sick inside and guilty I feel over this. Again, I feel like I failed to protect my precious child.
The next year Laura went back to Teen Mania and over to Germany and Poland. It was a great experience with none of what happened in Romania. I asked her why she thought this was. Turns out on that trip they partnered with Jesus Revolution and it sounds like Teen Mania packed away all of their abusive corrosive behaviors. Sort of like those folks that are holier than thou at church yet morph into something quite different behind closed doors.
For Laura it seems that finding the My Teen Mania Experience website is a part of her healing and that can only be good. I hope her healing is swift.
I wish I had checked out Teen Mania with an unbiased eye back then.
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