James VossBy James Voss

My experience at Teen Challenge began in Aug of 2007. At the age of twenty-four, I found myself facing the county prosecutor on a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol after leaving a gay bar near Troy, Michigan. This was my first time getting a ticket for anything.

I had spent most of the past three years dealing with the pressure of coming out to my friends and family while attending a private four-year bible college. North Central University is a self-proclaimed “Christ-centered Pentecostal school with a commitment to academic excellence that prepares students to fulfill biblical models of leadership and ministry throughout the world .”

I left for North Central University right after high school to become a youth pastor. The one obstacle of graduation was my sexual orientation. According to the university, homosexuals suffer a life controlling disorder that can be overcome through self-discipline, prayer, and by living a life centered in Christ and obeying the N.C.U Way.  At a certain point I decided that I needed to love myself enough, and admit that I was gay and leave NCU.

At this point I admit that I had little direction in my life and started looking for what gay community I could find at the bar. As I began to come out to my family I found myself in total isolation and the support system that comes with it. You see, my family shared the same world view on homosexuality that North Central University and the Assembly of God did as whole.

My family chose to accept the official teachings of the church that include such anti-gay opinions:

“In the face of a militant homosexual movement that is pressing for legal and social acceptance of homosexuality, the church must keep its focus. First, homosexuals are sinners like everyone and need God’s grace, love, and forgiveness. Second, homosexuals can through the miracle of the new birth be set free from the power of sin and live changed moral lives. The church must reach out to all sinners with the love of Christ, no matter what the sin. And we must never let the declining moral climate of our nation pressure us into condoning what God condemns. ”

Coming out was a hard process when your family and culture is against you, so as I left the gay bar in 2007, I had very little in the way of family or friends to rescue me from the prison cell I found myself in. I sat in jail for ten days unable to reach anyone in my family to post bail.

As it ended up, I was able to obtain a lawyer and all terms of my probation would be met if I completed a court assigned program at Western Michigan Teen Challenge.

Teen Challenge by its own definition is an Assemblies of God USA evangelical Christian recovery program and a network of Christian social and evangelizing work centers. It is a 12-18 month program that serves drug addicts, alcoholics gang members, prostitutes, and people dealing with the life controlling problem of same sex attraction and addiction. Think of the program as a sanctification quick stop to redeem one in the eyes of the Assembly of God Church. I was told that once I spoke in tongues that god would work in my life and remove the gay feelings.

In the four months I lived at the teen challenge center in Muskegon Michigan, all personal decisions were left to the director of the center who was guided by a stern handbook that consisted of 111 individual rules and guidelines. A majority of these rules were designed to put program participants in submission to the program’s leaders who supposedly were anointed by God and spoke with the power and authority of the Holy Spirit. The physical evidence of their holiness the ability to speak in speak in tongues.

In the program, we were not ever allowed to look at females directly. Men and women had to sit on separate sides of the chapel and if a woman was singing or giving a testimony she did so behind an office cubical wall so that only her eyes were visible.

People that entered the center with psychological problems were often not allowed to take medications prescribed by doctors since there was a ban on any medication that had any affect on the brain. If you took medications you were told you weren’t showing enough faith and that Jesus could heal you.

Daily life consisted of chapel, bible classes, work duty, and two hours of praying on your knees. You physically had to kneel or you got in to trouble. Students were not allowed to talk about addiction or in my case homosexuality. Instead, you were only to think and talk about God and the scriptures that they had you memorize and meditate on.

One of the stated program goals was to reprogram or recondition the mind, because as they taught, human nature was evil and your mind was naturally wrong. We were all born sinners, they claimed. So, for a gay man to bring up that he was born gay was stating the obvious, because the program directors believed that we are all born into sin. “All man has fallen short of the Glory of God”, they preached, while they taught that all Christians are at war with their own flesh and blood. (I have included a link to the daily schedule so you can get an ideal of how regimented it was.)

By looking at the curriculum we can get a quick glance at what was covered in the three daily bible classes. In the first 14 weeks I was exposed to classes on attitude, growing through failure, temptation, anger and personal rights. We were told that we signed all our personal rights over to God and the pastors at the center when we entered the program.?Learning at the center was mostly done through rote memorization. Workbooks for classes had places where critical thinking could potentially take place, but students were expected to just memorize the correct answer and fill it in.

While living at the center, all conversations are monitored for ungodliness, all mail is read, and phone conversations are limited to five minutes every two weeks. No mail or phone conversations are allowed in the first four weeks that a student is attending the program. This is done largely because by the fourth week in the program, students are broken down enough that they no longer think for themselves and respond in a programmed way. Parents probably do perceive a change in their child, but is it real or simply a programmed, conditioned reaction to subverting and suppressing all individuality and critical thinking skills?

Program leaders believe the “gay problem”, as they call it, is a sin because “homosexual acts are unnatural because of their high correlation with major illnesses and terminal disease.”

In viewing Romans 1:27 we must ask what is the “due penalty” mentioned “for their perversion”, they preach. They go on to say that, “Though AIDS is not necessarily a direct judgment from God, as innocents are sometimes the victims of the sin of others, it remains a disastrous overarching consequence of sin through the fall of man.” (See Genesis 3).

They also preach:

“Contrary to the claims by homosexual public relations campaigns that claim gays and lesbians are normal, healthy, average people, the opposite is true. Former homosexuals describe a disgusting lifestyle of perversion and sexual obsession. In a study of the median age of death for heterosexuals and homosexuals, less than 2 per cent of homosexuals survived to age 65 while married and single heterosexual men and women living past 65 ranged from 57 to 80 percent.

Clearly on every front whether it is moral, spiritual, physical, or psychological, the practice of homosexuality has proven itself devoid of any individual good or social benefit. Furthermore, the historical record shows homosexuality as detrimental to the well-being of the individual participant, the extended family, and society at large.”

Is it healthy to teach a gay person and churchgoers that homosexuals are a detriment to the society at large? Is breaking a person down the best way to offer genuine help?

From my experience with Teen Challenge, I would have to say no.

In an environment where you are taught that all your personal rights belong to God and program leaders speak with the voice of god, gay students are given little choice but to believe and think how they are taught. At Teen Challenge, people do “change” because they are heavily conditioned how to respond.?Some of these adjustments were positive. For example, having every minute of the day programmed does bring order to one’s life. However, the overall program is quite harmful to those who participate, particularly LGBT people.

The LGBT Community needs to watch out for programs like Teen Challenge and remember that it a massive organization with over 223 centers in North America with the capacity to sleep over 7,536 people, according to its website.

Programs like this negatively impact a high number of gay youth. I can state from firsthand experience that Teen Challenge did some long-term damage to my self esteem.