Remember the Christian Alamo

Remember the Christian Alamo November 28, 2013

I think I’ve already played the “if you only read one story about Christian reform homes, it should be this” card, so I won’t say it again. But, if you only read two stories about Christian reform homes, this should be the other one. Pamela Coloff’s 2001 article captures the history of the Roloff homes, as well as the contemporary situation. You’ll need to read this as background for the post I have planned for this Monday, which I think will shock even longtime readers of this blog.

It’s long, so here are some excerpts (though I do think the whole thing is worth reading). Be warned, it features descriptions of extreme punishments used on children. For space reasons I’ve edited out the stuff about how George W. Bush aided and abetted the Roloff homes on their mission, but those of you who already love Bush for the great legacy left by his presidency will find more to appreciate here. In short, Bush passed a law that allowed places like the Roloff homes to operate in Texas without state accreditation.

The Rebekah Home for Girls sits on a lonely stretch of south Texas farmland, a solitary spot where, amid the switchgrass and sagebrush and fields of cotton, young sinners are sent to get right with God. On a warm Saturday in May 1999, a sixteen-year-old named DeAnne Dawsey unexpectedly found herself at its doors. Her mother had said only that their family trip to Corpus Christi would last the day, and DeAnne had no reason to doubt her. Summer felt within reach, and DeAnne was relieved that her sophomore year of high school, which she was in danger of failing, was about to end. She was a slight girl with blue-gray eyes and dark brown hair who always wore a diamond-studded heart necklace. An inveterate flirt—”All she thought about was boys,” her mother would later lament—DeAnne never ignored an admiring glance. Normally she was too restless to stay still for long, but that morning she was in a dark mood: She and her boyfriend had quarreled the night before, and she sat brooding in the back seat of her mother’s car, lost in thought.

She was so preoccupied that she shrugged off a telling remark that her grandfather, who was traveling with them, had made after leaving Houston. Like DeAnne’s mother, he did not know much about the Rebekah Home for Girls or its history: that it was the most famous, and infamous, of the homes for troubled teenagers founded by the late evangelist Lester Roloff; or that punitive “Bible discipline” was the method used to chasten girls who had fallen from grace; or that the home had been the center of an epic, twelve-year battle between church and state—culminating in a standoff that Roloff called the Christian Alamo—in which the maverick preacher and his successors fought to avoid regulation by the State of Texas. But DeAnne’s grandfather felt guilty enough for lying to her about the purpose of the day’s trip that he turned in his seat to face her. “I’m sorry we’re doing this to you,” he said softly. “I’m so sorry.”

At the heart of Lester Roloff’s battle with the state of texas were his homes for troubled teenagers: reformatories where “parent-hating, Satan-worshiping, dope-taking immoral boys and girls,” as Roloff described his charges, were turned into “faithful servants of the Lord.” Roloff’s method of Bible discipline, which he said was rooted in Scripture, meant kneeling for hours on hardwood floors, licks meted out with a pine paddle or a leather strap, and the dreaded “lockup,” an isolation room where Roloff’s sermons were played for days on end. The state spent much of the seventies and early eighties fighting Roloff in court, insisting that he obtain a license for his youth homes and submit to state oversight. The preacher countered that he answered to a higher power and that his homes were licensed by God.

Discipline at [Roloff’s] Rebekah Home was rooted in a verse from Proverbs: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.” The dictum was liberally applied. Local authorities first investigated possible abuse at the Rebekah Home in 1973, when parents who were visiting their daughter reported seeing a girl being whipped. When welfare workers attempted to inspect the home, Roloff refused them entry on the grounds that it would infringe on the separation between church and state. Attorney General John Hill promptly filed suit against Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises, introducing affidavits from sixteen Rebekah girls who said they had been whipped with leather straps, beaten with paddles, handcuffed to drainpipes, and locked in isolation cells—sometimes for such minor infractions as failing to memorize a Bible passage or forgetting to make a bed. Roloff defended these methods as good old-fashioned discipline, solidly supported by Scripture, and denied that any treatment at Rebekah constituted abuse. During an evidentiary hearing, he made his position clear by declaring, “Better a pink bottom than a black soul.” Attorney General Hill bluntly replied that it wasn’t pink bottoms he objected to, but ones that were blue, black, and bloody.

In 1974 a state district judge found Roloff in contempt of court, sentencing the preacher to five days behind bars. Roloff headed off to jail—as he would two more times during the state’s long-running case against him—wearing a smile, his well-worn Bible tucked under his arm.

DEANNE REALIZED SOMETHING WAS AMISS that spring day in 1999 when, outside Corpus Christi, they turned off the empty two-lane highway and stopped abruptly at a guardhouse. Their family day trip was not, to DeAnne’s knowledge, supposed to include this detour. Stark farmland stretched in all directions, and beyond the guardhouse stood a large, white brick church—”Christ is the Answer” its sign proclaimed—that dominated the landscape. Off to the right, DeAnne could see a vast two-story dormitory that looked incongruous against the wide-open sky, its facade bearing the words “Rebekah Home for Girls” in black script. In that moment, DeAnne knew she had been lied to. For months her mother had been threatening to send her away to boarding school: DeAnne had been running wild, in her mother’s eyes, skipping school and spending too much time with her boyfriend, who her mother felt certain was using drugs. High-spirited and restless, DeAnne resented her mother’s scrutiny. She had run away from home once, and she wanted nothing more than to escape the seemingly repressive rules that her mother had laid out at home. But in that moment, as DeAnne went pale in the back seat of the car, she knew she was trapped. “Don’t do this to me,” she pleaded with her mother as two guards approached the car. “Please don’t leave me here.”

In 1973 the Texas Legislature held hearings on the practices of the Rebekah Home and other unlicensed homes for youth. One Rebekah girl recounted how a whipping she had received for smoking a cigarette left welts on her body that were an inch high. The revelations led the Legislature to pass the Child Care Licensing Act, which required all child-care facilities to be licensed by the state. Roloff refused to abide by it on the grounds that it conflicted with his free exercise of religion. “I have no right to go by the Welfare Department’s little brown book,” he quipped, “so long as I have the big black Book.”

In need of a political ally, Roloff found one in Governor Bill Clements, whom he affectionately called Brother Bill. … With the governor on his side, the preacher continued to flagrantly flout the law—most memorably when he explained why he had not reported an attempted murder at the Rebekah Home to local authorities. “We had a prayer meeting the night it happened,” he explained. “We reported it to Him.”

A series of defeats in the courtroom would soon set the stage for the Christian Alamo. Roloff had kept his homes open by appealing a state district court’s order to close them—but an appellate court upheld this order in 1977, describing Roloff’s claim that state regulation would conflict with his free exercise of religion as “nothing more than a bald conclusion entirely unsupported by any factual evidence.” The Supreme Court of Texas agreed, and in 1979 another state district judge ordered Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises to obtain licenses for its homes or close them. Still Roloff did not yield. “They’ll hang black crepe on Heaven’s gate if they close these homes,” fumed Roloff. Hundreds of his supporters massed around the Rebekah Home, on Roloff’s 557-acre compound south of Corpus Christi, linking arms and forming a human barricade to prevent state officials from moving in.

LONG BEFORE DEANNE DAWSEY CAME to the Rebekah Home, a succession of girls had stared out of its dormitory windows at a world that lay just beyond reach and dreamed of running. Only a few got away, tearing through the tall grass to Farm Road 665 and thumbing rides to Corpus Christi. So many girls tried to run from the home over the years that its caretakers took precautions—putting up a six-foot fence, rigging the windows with alarms, and wiring the girls’ bedrooms with intercoms so they could listen for any plans of escape. Punishment for even talking about running was so severe that most girls learned to accept their lot, turning away from the windows that looked out onto Farm Road 665 and allowing only their thoughts to roam.

Jo Ann Edwards was brought to the Rebekah Home in 1982, after running away from home at the age of thirteen. “I was an acolyte at my church before I went there, and God was very close to me in my heart,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Victoria, where she is the mother of five children. “But that place turned me against Him for a while and made me very hard. I thought that even He had left me.” As a new girl, she was scrutinized by “helpers,” the saved girls who handed out demerits for misbehavior. Demerits were given for an endless host of wrongdoings: talking about “worldly” things, singing songs other than gospel songs, speaking too loudly, doodling, nail biting, looking at boys in church, failing to snitch on other sinners. Each demerit earned her a lick, which the Rebekah Home’s housemother administered with a wood paddle. The beatings left her black and blue. “I got twenty licks my first time, and I was hit hard—so hard that I couldn’t sit for days,” Jo Ann said. “I begged [the housemother] to stop. When she was done, she hugged me and said, ‘God loves you.’ She told me to go back to the living room and read Scripture and sing ‘Amazing Grace’ with the other girls.”

Only Rebekah girls who had proven their devotion by repeatedly testifying to God’s grace could avoid Bible discipline. Some girls were genuinely troubled teenagers who had gotten mixed up with drugs or prostitution; others had been caught having sex; many were guilty of nothing more than growing up in abusive homes. Tara Cummings, now 31 and a mortgage consultant in Chicago, was sent there by her father, a preacher, whose beatings had left her badly bruised. Even she was not immune to judgment. “I was told that I was a reprobate, that I was beyond help and was going to hell,” she said. She was treated to the full range of the Rebekah Home’s punishments, which were not limited to lickings. “Confinement” meant spending weeks hanging her head without speaking. “Sitting on the wall” required sitting with her back against a wall and without the support of a chair, even as her legs buckled beneath her. But kneeling was what she most dreaded. Kneeling could last for as long as five hours at a time; she might have to kneel while holding a Bible on each outstretched palm or with pencils wedged beneath her knees. Only girls seen as inveterate sinners received the full brunt of the home’s crueler punishments. “You had to be saved,” Tara said. “It didn’t matter if you didn’t feel moved to do that—you did it to survive.”

The worst form of punishment, the lockup, was reserved for girls who had not yet been saved—who had talked of running away or who had proven to be particularly intractable. The lockup was a dorm room devoid of furniture or natural light where girls spent days, or weeks, alone. Taped Roloff sermons were piped into the room, and the near-constant sound of his voice was the girls’ only companionship. Former Rebekah resident Tamra Sipes, now 34 and working in advertising for a newspaper in Oak Harbor, Washington, remembers one girl who was relegated to the lockup for an entire month. “The smell had become so bad from her not being able to shower or bathe that it reeked in the hallway,” she said. “We could do nothing to help her. I remember standing in roll call one day waiting for my name to be called off, and I was directly across from the door. She was singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to herself in such a pitiful voice that I couldn’t help but cry for her.”

Lester Roloff never attempted to hide that he used Bible discipline and all that it entailed; “We whip ’em with love and we weep with ’em and they love us for it,” he once said. But he also knew what the State of Texas would have to say about his methods, so when he reopened his homes in the fall of 1979 under the auspices of the People’s Baptist Church, he again refused to apply for a state license. “I’ll never sacrifice my girls on the altar of an unrighteous decree,” Roloff vowed. Attorney General Mark White responded by filing suit and prosecuting the preacher anew, contending that his youth homes were still subject to state licensure. Roloff enjoyed an early victory in 1981, when a district court judge ruled in his favor, but the decision was overturned on appeal. In 1984 the Supreme Court of Texas sided with the state, holding that the licensing of church-run child-care facilities violated no First Amendment religious freedoms. The following year, the United States Supreme Court let that decision stand. The Rebekah Home would have to be licensed or shut down.

DEANNE DAWSEY REFUSED TO MEET HER MOTHER’S GLANCE as she was escorted inside the Rebekah Home by two guards who walked on either side of her to prevent her from running. Once inside, she was plunged into a monastic existence that left her cut off from the outside world. “It didn’t take long to figure out that this was not an ordinary boarding school,” said DeAnne. She was ordered to strip down and told to put on the home’s required clothing: a long skirt that covered her legs—no pants were allowed—and a loose-fitting shirt. Then she was taken to the living quarters, where she met many of the 25 or so residents. Some of the girls had been sent there for being in gangs or on drugs, and as they greeted her, they gave her the rundown of how things worked at the Rebekah Home: there were no televisions, no radios, no magazines. Speaking of anything worldly was forbidden, as was singing worldly songs. Meeting eyes with boys in church was barred. Letters going both in and out of the home were read first by the staff and censored. Phone calls, which could be placed only to family members, were monitored. No conversations were private, since staff listened in on the intercoms that were installed in each bedroom. “Just give in and do whatever they want,” her roommate told her.

DeAnne looked out the dormitory windows, which were still wired with alarms to prevent escape, and tried to picture spending the next year of her life at the Rebekah Home. Her mind reeled. “I cried all night long,” she said. “I don’t think I fell asleep until about an hour before I had to wake up. I was freaked out.” Her anxiety only grew in the days to come. Each morning, she and the other girls were required to listen to a taped Lester Roloff sermon while they did their chores. Each afternoon, they were required to attend a Bible memorization session, where they had to read Bible verses out loud, in unison, in what sounded like a chant. What troubled her was not the sentiment behind these exercises, for she considered herself to be deeply faithful: Raised in an Assembly of God church, she had stepped forward at a revival when she was twelve years old to be baptized and to accept Jesus Christ as her personal savior. What disturbed her was her growing suspicion that this was “a cult,” whose methods had left some of the girls in her midst brainwashed. “Everyone talked about Roloff like he was God,” she said. “The majority of every sermon was talking about how Roloff did this and Roloff did that, instead of testifying to how God did this and God did that. It was just totally mixed up. People were really worshiping him instead of God.”

DeAnne hated many things about life at the Rebekah Home—the isolation, the constant surveillance, the joyless view of faith. She took pity on a dim-witted girl whom, she says, Fay Cameron slapped for not doing her homework; DeAnne would have her own run-in with Mrs. Cameron as well. DeAnne had written a letter to her boyfriend, whom she had not been able to communicate with since leaving Houston. As was the custom, Mrs. Cameron read the letter to see if it needed any alterations before being mailed. She soon handed it back to DeAnne and told her that she would have to rewrite it entirely because it painted too negative a portrait of the Rebekah Home. When DeAnne refused, Mrs. Cameron told her the letter would not be sent. “I lost my temper, and I called her a nasty word—I called her a bitch,” DeAnne said. “I was furious because everything in that letter was true, but I wasn’t allowed to write it.” In return, she says, Mrs. Cameron delivered a stinging slap to DeAnne’s face.

The two would have another confrontation several weeks later: DeAnne had been caught talking in class, and when she was told to write “I will not talk in class” one hundred times, she refused. (“I was tired of playing by their rules,” she said.) Mrs. Cameron grabbed her by the arm and marched her to the lockup. “You’ll stay here until you write your sentences,” she said, bolting the door behind her.

Inside the lockup, Lester Roloff’s voice began to play over the intercom, his rich baritone echoing off the walls—sermonizing, singing gospel songs, and exhorting all who listened to come to Jesus. His voice droned on as morning turned into afternoon and afternoon into evening. DeAnne stuck her fingers in her ears, but his voice seemed to have lodged in her brain. She began yelling rap songs at the top of her lungs—anything to drown out the sound—but Roloff’s voice was only turned up louder. “You people are crazy!” she screamed at one point, beating her fists against the wall. “Get me the hell out of here!” She began kicking the wall that night, and by morning a hole had formed in the Sheetrock. (“I felt like I was losing my mind,” she said.) Mrs. Cameron warned her that if she did not stop, she would be restrained. When DeAnne persisted, she was wrestled to the ground by three male guards, who pinned her arms behind her back while Mrs. Cameron bound her wrists with duct tape. Her ankles were then bound as well, and once she was immobilized, someone—DeAnne is unsure who—gave her a hard kick to the ribs. She was left alone to writhe on the floor, gasping for air. Having worked herself into a sweat trying to fight off the guards, she was able to squirm out of the tape within a few minutes. She has no idea how long she would have been left restrained.

After 32 hours in the lockup, DeAnne finally relented and wrote her sentences. The following day, when she complained that her ribs were hurting, Wiley Cameron called her mother to say that he was sending DeAnne home. “The only reason they put me on that plane is because they knew that if they called a doctor, they were going to have to answer a lot of questions,” DeAnne said. She had lasted only three weeks at the Rebekah Home. As soon as she returned to Houston, she called Child Protective Services, which launched an investigation into the Rebekah Home. Since Texas law forbids child-care facilities to seclude their residents in locked rooms or bind them with restraints like duct tape, the agency issued the home one finding each of physical abuse, medical neglect, and neglectful supervision—and ultimately banned Fay Cameron from working with children in the state of Texas ever again. The home was not given so much as a warning by the TACCCA [Texas Association of Christian Child-Care Agencies], even though it had violated state law; in fact, it was reaccredited the following year.

Read the rest at Texas Monthly.

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