The Lord's Own Safety Net

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

Once admitted, students typically get up at 6 a.m., spend the morning in Bible study, then work for four hours in the afternoon; in between there's counseling and "relational guidance" as well as recreation. Lights out is at 10:30, and there are "no relationships with the opposite sex other than your spouse." The work ranges from fixing up Teen Challenge buildings and vehicles to volunteering at a nearby nursing home. Scherber says the idea is to get clients started on habits that will help them in the workplace. "The first sin that man committed is disobedience. We learn that every day. If a staff member asks you to do something and you're gonna buck, you're not gonna last in this program. You just surrendered your rights to God. You're gonna fight God, you're not gonna make it."

"Those are the things employers are telling us," echoes Keylon, at the national office. "We need someone to show up on time, with the right attitude and the willingness to work and to learn. One of our philosophies is no work, no eat."

Teen Challenge claims a staggering success rate, and there is some evidence to bear that out. In 1975, a U.S. Department of Health-commissioned study indicated that of 67 mostly Puerto Rican men who gave a urine sample seven years after graduating from Teen Challenge, 70 percent tested clean for heroin, marijuana, and alcohol. And last year, a survey at the University of Tennessee surveyed 25 graduates of the Chattanooga center; 72 percent said they were drug-free.

No similar studies have been done on Minnesota Teen Challenge, but that doesn't keep officials from singing its praises. Wes Skoglund, a DFL state representative from Minneapolis who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, says Scherber and a group of his students came to testify at his committee this spring, and he went to tour the facilities afterwards. "They do for about $20 a day what the state does for $70 a day," he says reverently. And Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson, who visited the Minneapolis center last month, says he's interested in having cops and courts refer clients to it.

But not everyone who's dealt with Teen Challenge is as sanguine. Julie Borlaug first heard about the program in a Bible study class at her church in Eagan; the instructor suggested that church members "go down and touch" the urban destitute. But when she called and mentioned her 16-year AA background, she says she was told she should get on her knees and repent. What followed was a series of phone conversations in which Borlaug says she merely demanded her due--a meeting, a tour, financial accountability from an organization her church donations were supporting. What she found, she says, made her concerned that she'd run into "some sort of a cult" that dealt with vulnerable people without public oversight. Scherber, for his part, has slapped a restraining order on Borlaug and her husband, claiming that their phone calls harassed him and his employees. "We have all the licenses we need," he insists. "I don't know where this woman is coming from."

As it turns out, both were partially right. Teen Challenge isn't licensed by the state or the city, and it's possible it doesn't need to be. Under Minnesota law, you can operate all sorts of "group residential facilities" without regulation, as long as you're not claiming to be providing health care services such as professional drug treatment. And while state law requires nonprofits to give the public financial information including tax returns, religious organizations are exempt.

Teen Challenge's only vulnerable point may be the fact that it recently began working with adolescents. Scherber says officials have told him he doesn't need a license for that. But following Borlaug's inquiries, the state Department of Human Services has begun looking into the matter: "We will probably want to talk to them," says Julie Reger, manager of the department's licensing division.

This is not a trivial point. In September, officials from the Teen Challenge center in San Antonio, Texas, told the U.S. Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee that they would have to become licensed or stop operating as a treatment center; under Texas rules, treatment programs must employ licensed counselors and social workers. But those people's methods, the group's director told Congress, "would be fundamentally at odds with our faith-based approach [which views] drug and alcohol abuse as a sin symptomatic of a life lived out-of-touch with the teachings of Jesus Christ." San Antonio Teen Challenge is now taking the state to court with representation from the conservative legal defense fund Institute for Justice.

No matter what the outcome of that lawsuit, the movement behind Teen Challenge is not about to slow down. Christian rehab programs of all descriptions have been proliferating in the past few years; they even have their own 12-step program, called Turning Point. And they're getting good PR, serving as backdrop for up-with-values-down-with-welfare press conferences. Earlier this year, House Speaker Newt Gingrich held a press conference with a group called Victory Fellowship in San Antonio. George Bush praised Teen Challenge while he was President. And U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) agreed last year to serve as co-chairman of Teen Challenge National's capital campaign to build a $3 million national training center in Springfield, Missouri.

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