The Lord's Own Safety Net

As social programs fall away, fundamentalist groups like Teen Challenge are rushing to take their place.

Rich Scherber has seen miracles. People walk into a nondescript apartment building in south Minneapolis, he says, with drug habits, violent pasts, all sorts of "life control problems." After a year of hard work and five hours of Bible study a day they come out sober, praising the Lord, and burning to take the word to the streets. It's a vision with a future of its own--the sort of hard-ass, "values-oriented" program that, if government continues its retreat from the poor and desperate at the current pace, is likely to be the only option for many of them.

Scherber is the head of Minnesota Teen Challenge, one branch of a sprawling national organization affiliated with the Assemblies of God church. Its officials have been star witnesses at Congressional hearings; they have met with Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. They've also had some run-ins with the law, being accused in some states of operating treatment centers without a license. But in Minnesota, Scherber says he's had nothing but glowing reviews: Politicians and city officials who've stopped by Teen Challenge are "thrilled to death with what we're doing."

Blow-dried and dressed in a grey suit that matches the color of his mustache, Scherber looks to have little in common with the people who walk into his centers, five of them altogether in a few-square-block area of south-central Minneapolis. But he's been there, he tells a suburban church audience, working up to rapid-fire delivery. "I was a flunky out of grade school, I was a flunky out of high school... I was a drug addict, I was on 15-minute intervals, I went through drug treatment as well. But there was no fire there, there was no hunger." One day, someone from the Jesus People church approached him on the street, and that night he got a machete and cut down his patch of home-grown pot plants.

He went on to graduate from North Central Bible College, then took his ministry to the Iron Range, where jobs were drying up and those who didn't leave needed a place to hope. Eventually he found his way to Minneapolis and Teen Challenge. "Don't think you've got to go to Argentina to win souls for God," he exhorts his audience amid a reluctant chorus of amens. "I tell you, we're in a hellhole right here in America." Big amens now.

The first thing to know about Teen Challenge is that it doesn't actually deal with many teens; most of its clients are men and women over 18. The average age is 24. But it was founded in 1958 by the Rev. David Wilkerson, a young Pennsylvania preacher who felt a calling to go to New York City and minister to teenage gang members. His book, The Cross and the Switchblade, became a best-seller, and from it evolved an organization that has grown to 147 centers with 2,500 beds nationwide, plus another 50 centers abroad. This year they're opening one in Mongolia and working on a "structured regional plan" for the expected growth after a few years' stagnation. "The need is getting bigger," explains Teen Challenge National President Wayne Keylon. "And the federal government is talking about cutbacks, welfare reform; it would put it back on the local communities to create programs and to deal with those problems."

"Those problems" include drug use, violence, and despair. Teen Challenge's literature says chemical dependency is "our main treatment focus," but clients also need help to break from "gangs, prostitution, cults, or satanism"; the program also takes in HIV-positive clients, and there's a full-fledged AIDS ministry under development.

All of these problems, explains Keylon, stem from a "profound unhappiness" caused by bad relationships including the one with God; once clients find religion, they drop "self-sinning and other-sinning" behavior. The idea bears more than superficial kinship to the Alcoholics Anonymous model with its emphasis on a higher power. But if AA is essentially a gentle, do-it-your-way approach, Teen Challenge makes serious demands on body and soul.

Though the Minnesota branch's literature promises that "tours of the facilities are available by appointment," Scherber backed out of a scheduled visit from City Pages twice. He did, however, discuss the program on the phone, alternating between suspicion ("We don't need any turdy publicity") and enthusiasm. "We believe that there is a sin problem with humanity," he explains. "That your problem has a spiritual origin. There is a heavy emphasis on Bible memorization."

There are currently 50 students in Minnesota Teen Challenge, Scherber says: "29 adult males, 14 ladies, and seven teenagers," the latter in a Christian school run out of a nearby church. A list of things to bring for the minimum one-year stay begins with "dress clothes" for church. Would-be residents pay a $100 application fee (the rest of the program is free, though the literature asks residents to turn over 75 percent of any public-assistance payments) and fill out a sheet with questions such as "Have you ever been involved in a homosexual relationship or associated activities? If yes, please explain." Entrants sign a form allowing staff to search their person, their room, and their mail, promising to have communication "with immediate family members only," and to withdraw from drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and coffee beyond a cup a day "cold turkey, aided only by prayer." Finally, they vouch that "I Am Committing Myself To This (1) Year, Deeply Christian Based Program, Without Any Form Of Coercion."

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