Behind the Walls: The Teen Challenge You Won't See
"This way lies madness." -Shakespeare
Teen Challenge is an organization that claims to be "the proven cure for the drug epidemic." They claim to have an 86% student "cure" rate after five years under their tutelage, and have absurdly claimed this very same "cure" rate every single year for over thirty years. This claim stems from a 1975 National Institute on Drug Abuse Report where 86% of the Teen Challenge graduates in the study indicated on a questionnaire that they were drug-free, but a subsequent urinalysis showed that only 67% were drug-free at that particular time. Yet Teen Challenge has continued to claim an 86% "cure" rate in spite of what the urinalysis showed.
In a 1992-94 University of Tennessee study, 67% of the respondents indicated that they were abstaining from illegal drugs and alcohol. It's done by questionnaire - an honor system! Are we really
supposed to accept that an alcoholic or drug addict is going to tell the truth about whether or not they have drank or used drugs? Teen Challenge is described on one web site as "A 'faith-based'
drug rehab program owned by the Assemblies of God denomination and well known for years for fudging its success rate figures." In the February 14, 2005 issue of Dissident Voice, journalist
Amy Sullivan wrote in "Faith, Fabrications, and Fantasy" that "Teen Challenge's much ballyhooed 86 percent rehabilitation rate falls apart under examination -- the number doesn't include those
who dropped out of Teen Challenge and relies on a disturbingly small sample of those graduates who self-reported whether they had remained sober, significantly tilting the results."
This is a business whose number one purpose is to increase its assets. Teen Challenge gets the vast majority of its residents either directly from the jails, or from courts who sentence them to a
live-in program in lieu of jail. They promote themselves as a "Christian Life School," but at Teen Challenge, Almighty God runs a distant second to the almighty dollar. Teen Challenge students are
forced to sign up for food stamps and turn the card over to the staff. Anyone who refuses is immediately dismissed from the program.
Many of those who represent Teen Challenge have the IQ of a pencil eraser. They have placed boundaries on their minds, and they attempt to place these same boundaries on the minds of those
they come across. Their beliefs are two-dimensional, simplistic, and pathological.
"There are no bars on the windows, no locks on the doors," was the pseudosermon of Teen Challenge instructor/advisor Ahmed Morris, "you can leave any time you want." Of course, if you
chose to leave, you were "going against what God wanted." The barriers they tried to erect in each individual’s mind were far greater than any outside one. They wanted you to submit to the
assumption that Teen Challenge and its representatives truly spoke for God, and that you would be a fool not to accept every single thing they told you. To disobey them was to disobey God! To
question them was to question God! Any type of rational criticism or disbelief was condemned as being "of the flesh," or "of the devil." At a recent Sunday worship service, the minister told the
students that if they voted for anyone who was pro-choice, they were going against God. Aren't non-profit ministries required keep silent on political affairs?
The only thing Ahmed Morris possessed that was bigger than his mouth was his opinion of himself. He told our class a tale one day about "how he’d been offered the chance to run a rehab in San
Diego for $150,000 a year," but turned it down because "God wants me here." Get real. The reason Morris took up space at Teen Challenge is because no other place wanted him there. As I write
this in March, 2007, Morris - thank goodness - is no longer at Teen Challenge; he's taking up space in the Sacramento area. This certainly is a "blessing" for the current students at Riverside.
Staff members in places like Teen Challenge are forbidden to use alcohol or drugs, naturally. Yet on no less than four occasions, I observed Ahmed Morris (photo, right) with watery, bloodshot eyes and heavily slurred speech, the last being when Morris visited our class is May 2003 and giggled and slurred his way through an account on squirrels, who were causing problems on the grounds and had a date with the exterminator. It was difficult to keep a straight face, as Morris was totally oblivious to how loaded he was. Could this have been a manifestation of the Holy Spirit? I doubt it.
Assistant Director Marty Coleman told our class that sciences like physics and chemistry were “junk,” and they “should all be tossed in the trash.” A Boeing 757 weighing over 100 tons can take
off in New York and land in London due to a little something known as aerodynamics, which is a branch of physics. I guess Coleman figures they lay hands on the thing and pray it into the air.
There were some individuals at Teen Challenge who weren't at the back of the line when the brains were being passed out. Or the kind hearts. I had been at Benedict Castle for about a week
when I saw one of the students directing traffic for an event. He was talking to a pretty, fair-skinned brunette in a white Honda, someone who had an extremely pleasant personality. "Who was
that?" I asked him after she drove away. "Mrs. Sullivan" he replied. I had never met Mr. Sullivan, but I knew he had to be an all right guy if he was married to this nice lady. I was right; Kerry Sullivan
was one of the most reasonable staff members that I met at any of the Teen Challenge locations. Neither he nor his wife were the overly pious types that rub people the wrong way; they were just
a very nice couple that were also Christians.
Zak Sutton was another normal human being who lived at the Castle. I figured he was a regular guy from day one; anybody who drives a Camaro and rides a motorcycle more than likely has his
head in the right place. Like Kerry Sullivan, Zak guided us along without being all preachy. He wasn't some lop like Ahmed Morris who had nowhere else to go and made us suffer for it; Zak even
bought a big bag of Meow Mix for the resident cat (a calico that I pampered the entire time I was there), and would only accept three or four dollars from me when I offered to share the cost.
The only thing Mike De La Vega had in common with Ahmed Morris is they were both second phase instructors; all similarities ended there. Mike was the anti-Ahmed, a guy who led by example.
He earned a bachelor's degree in Pastoral Ministry while I was there, and was headed to Fuller Theological Seminary, a place with many well-known alumni. Mike was a normal, non-pretentious
human being who always gave us good answers to tough questions, and without being the constant irritant that Morris chose to be.
Stan Williams was my advisor. Stan was a reasonable man; when it came to the subject of abortion he allowed me to be "on the fence," as he put it (neither pro nor con). I know I let Stan down
when I began drinking before I could graduate; as I write this I have been sober for 32 months by adhering to the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. Stan tried to help students, not browbeat them
into submission every waking moment like Morris or the dreaded Paul Montoya. Montoya was the kind of guy who always had his rear end handed to him when he was younger, and now he was
getting even with the world. This sixtysomething bully actually got angry at my roommate Ed Mimms for developing walking pneumonia after washing cars in sub-freezing temperatures! 2007 has
arrived and Montoya is still there, and my sources tell me that he is still at his acid-tongued best, with one recent student describing him as "a psycho." This young man was granted a program
change after his mother read this site and contacted an attorney. Upon hearing that an attorney had called about the program change, Montoya told this student, "Pack your bags, I'm sending you
to prison!" The young man was able to leave the castle and is now in a secular program which uses 12-step principles, and is doing quite well.
Teen Challenge interns are no different than staff members; some are good, some are not. An intern is someone who has completed the one-year program and is now undertaking a four-month
residency, which will allow him to graduate and go on to TCMI, the Teen Challenge Ministry Institute, which is located in a dump known as South Gate, CA. One intern, a bully named Ryan
Simmons, had an interesting occurrence while at TCMI; he was shot by someone trying to "rob him on his way to the store." It turned out that Ryan was buying drugs and the deal went bad.
Trying to cure (or even control) addiction through prayer is like trying to eat soup with a fork; after a while, you begin to realize that it's not happening! Something is wrong here, your common
sense tells you. "Don't listen! Common sense and logic are tools of the devil. They'll keep you from getting into heaven," is what we were taught at Teen Challenge. Participating in intercessory
prayer is a colossal waste of time also; the 2005 Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) concluded that intercessory prayer has no effect on a person's recovery - from
substance abuse, disease, or infirmity - whatsoever. The very last thing anyone needs in medicine is some cult ministry getting in the way of sound medical practices. Despite this, Teen
Challenge continues to solicit prayer requests via email.
Programs like Teen Challenge that claim to "take authority over you in the name of Jesus" do so as a deception; the survival of their "ministry," and most importantly, their income, are dependent
solely on concealing the fact that it does not work. Anyone who begins to see through their scheme is immediately threatened with Jesus. That's right! Jesus is not a caring and forgiving savior to
them; Jesus is a pit bull on a leash. Sociologist Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona said in May 2001, "There has not yet been any research that gives clear evidence that faith-based
partnerships are more effective than current models."
There are two weekly worship services at the castle; Sunday mornings, which are fairly normal, because that's when parents and other prospective "contributors" (see money) generally attend,
and Thursday evenings. "Thursday Night Madness" is what we called it, with its con artists, pretenders, and plain old sinful liars, it was the Pentecostal equivalent of a circus sideshow. We saw all kinds at those services: The pear-shaped woman with the hideous blonde bleach job who was losing her hair, but claimed she had the power to heal others! And there was Penguin, a short,
stocky, tattooed ex-convict who took stories from the Gospels, fast-forwarded them to contemporary times, inserted himself into the hero's role and expected us to believe him. Then there was a
joker named Bobby, a Teen Challenge graduate who "warned" us about "the evils of masturbation." Ooh, heavy stuff, huh? Obviously an expert on the subject, Bobby accused us of masturbating
in the house of God. "I know you're jackin' off in there," he ranted. Some of us could barely contain our laughter, and many others just shook their heads in amazement.
Things get kind of weird when someone insists that you're doing something of this nature without having any type of reasonable or logical proof that such an act is taking place. To this very day
staff and interns get in students' faces about masturbating, asking them if they're doing it, or - gasp! - thinking about it. Strange.
Do Teen Challenge staff and interns actually believe that through threats and intimidation they can terrorize someone into sobriety, if not salvation? Do they also believe that they can harass and
abuse people and simply walk away unscathed? Believe me, once they read this they'll realize they haven't gotten away with anything.
Sunday, November 19, 2006 was another graduation day. The speaker told the graduates who didn't sign up for TCMI that to show their appreciation for what Teen Challenge "had done for them,"
they were to sign over their very first paychecks to Teen Challenge. Students were told that once they enter Teen Challenge, they should not even consider leaving, because seven times the
demons of addiction would come back and get them, and after they do their prison time - if they live - God will call them back to Teen Challenge. They were left with the caveat that one "can never
run from Teen Challenge." There is a simple solution: Don't ever go there in the first place. Please.