Monday, November 7, 2011

My Teen Mania Experience

Last night MSNBC aired “Mind Over Mania,” an expose about Teen Mania Ministries, a Christian youth organization headquartered near Dallas, Texas. This recent wave of critique and skepticism of the organization was sparked by an alumni blog, which is frequented by hundreds of former Teen Mania interns. 

After high school, I spent two years working for this organization. My first year was spent in the Honor Academy, during which I lived in a dormitory on campus and worked a full-time job in the organization’s office and took classes on subjects like religion and leadership. I spent my second year as the Assistant Merchandising Manager for the organization’s nationally touring youth event, Acquire the Fire. After watching the expose, I debated trying to fly under the radar and not in any way implicate myself as having been a part of Teen Mania. I decided that I needed to speak up about my experience, not just in support of other alumni who are hurting as a result of their experiences, but also to shed some light on portions of the expose that I felt misrepresented my own experience.

Mind Over Mania used images from ESOAL throughout the expose, making it appear to be a larger part of the Honor Academy than it actually is. ESOAL is a three-day optional retreat designed by a former Navy Seal to push willing participants beyond their physical and emotional limits. There certainly is a strong pressure to participate, and not participating is viewed as weakness and an unwillingness to grow, however it is entirely optional. What is not optional, and was only briefly addressed, is the Lost People Groups retreat. The retreat is held in a forested part of the compound, and imitates a missionary/ unreached tribe situation. As a part of a “missionary” team, I was literally kidnapped by fellow interns from a "tribe" team, and was forced to spend countless hours in “jail” where the only light was a red strobe and the only food was a pack of strawberry Poptarts. While I knew it was all a game, an adult version of playing war with childhood friends, the experience was upsetting and disturbing. Another mandatory retreat is a three-day fast during which interns abstain from food and many from speaking as well, and alternate between group teaching sessions and personal “quiet time.” For those not raised in Christian culture, "quiet time" is time spent one-on-one with God through Bible reading, prayer and journaling. The retreat is intended to create an experience in which interns are freed of distractions by sacrificing their comfort for the opportunity to hear God’s voice.

I was 16 years old when I joined the Honor Academy. I’ve been told that in recent years Teen Mania has enforced a minimum age requirement to prevent this, but during my year there were three of us who had graduated high school early, thus making us exceptionally young interns. During the first few days of Honor Academy, interns are interviewed by staff members who determine what on-campus job interns will receive. I was given an administrative role managing "debit cards." An integral part of the Honor Academy is accountability, which means having an accountability partner on campus from whom you seek advice and prayer, and filling out weekly “debit cards.” On these cards interns indicate if they’ve had daily quiet times and attended church, and if they’ve skipped any classes or work days. Each intern is responsible for truthfully answering these questions and allowing the organization to hold them accountable. Receiving points on your debit cards resulted in things like loss of off-campus privileges. Again, it is self-reported, so the organization maintains that interns are in essence inviting them to provide accountability. I spent the first several months as the "debit queen" and absolutely hated it. When I found out that the nurse’s aide had been dismissed for engaging in a romantic relationship, which is strictly forbidden, I requested to be transferred into her position. I held that job for the remainder of the Honor Academy.

There are several other factors of the internship worth noting, some of which were addressed in the expose. Interns pay to participate in the Honor Academy. They live in one of four dormitories on campus. These dormitories are gender segregated. Each dorm room has two three-high bunk beds down one wall and six small open faced closets down the other. There is a community bathroom and one community phone in each wing of the dormitory. Unless an intern owns a cell phone, this is the only phone that can be used to call off campus for non-work related purposes. The phone sits on the floor of the hallway, can only be used for 15 minutes at a time, and requires a calling card for long distance calls. Every morning interns are required to participate in one hour of corporate exercise before dawn, and one hour of quiet time. All interns eat in the campus cafeteria, where meal options are usually cheap, processed foods. Texas is extremely cold in winter and extremely hot in the summer, and the lack of climate control in the offices and dorms is a regular complaint. There is a very strict dress code for women, specifying the length of shorts and dresses, and how tightly clothing should fit. Women aren't allowed to show any midriff or cleavage even when bending or sitting. Dating and flirting of any kind is prohibited, and should anyone perceive you to be flirting with someone of the opposite gender, it is up to the staff’s discretion whether you should be allowed to interact with that person going forward.

By the end of my first year I certainly had concerns and reservations about the experience, but decided to stay a second year with the Ministry Team, a graduate program for interns touring with Acquire the Fire. Graduate interns pay to work during this year as well, and are either on the production side of the event as actors, musicians, or technical staff, or are on the administrative side of the event in logistics or merchandise. I was assigned the job of Assistant Merchandising Manager, a role that is now a paid position within the organization.

During my Ministry Team year, I lived on a tour bus with two dozen people. Because there were only a handful of beds on the bus, we shared bunks and took turns sleeping. We weren’t allowed to use the bathroom on the bus, so we had to wait and use public restrooms every four hours when we’d pull off the highway. On several occasions, usually for weeks at a time, our bus broke down so we lived in an old school bus, the yellow kind with hard brown seats and no climate control. Each weekend we pulled into a new city and worked dawn till dusk setting up and running the event, and then packing it back up. These were no small events. We’re talking about huge athletic stadiums with thousands of attendees. Big name Christian bands and speakers flew in to participate. We stayed with host families in each city. Sometimes I had great host families who spoiled us with home cooked meals, a nice change from our mid-week fast food diet with a $7 daily food allowance. Sometimes I had terrible host families, like when slept on the floor of a woman's house in the Atlanta projects next to her two small children. She told us stories about her abusive husband who was in jail for molesting their daughter. I witnessed a drive-by down the street my first night there. Host churches are responsible for the interns’ meals at the venue during the event. Sometimes that responsibility got lost in translation and we’d wind up living off of snack platters.

In hindsight, what they did with our team was quite incredible. We were two dozen young people with no advanced education or developed skill sets, and yet they trained us in less than two months to build professional quality stages, sound and lighting, to put on elaborate dramas and concerts with pyrotechnics. As a 17-year-old, I was training hundreds of volunteers each week to run merchandising tables, overseeing sales and inventory, and functioning as a personal assistant to my boss, the event manager. I also took on an additional role of giving the on stage push for Compassion International, a partnering organization that matches sponsors with needy children in developing countries. There I was on stage in front of thousands of people telling them about my little Zubeda in Tanzania, who I continue to support today. These are some of the positives that came from the experience. At a fundamental level, the whole thing was wrong; so, so wrong. But the silver lining was the hands on education and experience, and the opportunity to travel all over the country.

At the end of my graduate year, Ron Luce rounded up the team and gave us a pep talk about how he knew we’d had an exceptionally hard tour that year, that he knew many of us were frustrated and angry, but reminded us that we’d done something good and worthy. He warned us that when we left Teen Mania people wouldn’t understand what we’d done with the last two years of our lives, but assured us that if we maintained the standards instilled in us by Teen Mania, we’d continue to progress in our spiritual lives. I hated him. I hated every word that was coming out of his mouth. I was so angry. I felt so used up and empty.

My mom flew out for the graduation ceremony and we traveled back to California together. I remember sitting in the car with her on the way to the airport and staring at her from the passenger seat feeling like I was having a deja vu from some former life. I repeated in my head, “This is my mom. I have a mom. I’m going home. That’s where I am from.” I realize that sounds incredibly bizarre and there will be people who shared my experience at Teen Mania who sharply contest this. During those two years I’d been home to visit twice, I spoke on the phone with my mother on a weekly basis, and I hadn’t necessarily felt isolated at the time. After two years of intensity, overstimulation, and constant oversight and critique, nothing outside of Teen Mania felt real.

All of that being said, I am still unsure whether to take a strong stance in opposition of Teen Mania. In my mind, doing two years with Teen Mania was like doing two years with the military. I willingly enlisted myself knowing a specific mentality and lifestyle would be expected from me and engrained in me. When a young man fresh out of high school heads off to boot camp and is trampled through muddy trenches as interns are in ESOAL, nobody says the government is manipulating, indoctrinating or abusing him even though all of those things are true. The military needs that boy to become a soldier, to have a like mind, to serve a purpose that has nothing to do with him and everything to do with his employer. Is Teen Mania wrong for doing the same thing just because it has a Jesus stamp on it? The use of religion as a form of control is as old as time. I suppose what feels so wrong about it is that the experience is pitched as being for the individual when at the end of the day it feels more like a meal ticket for the people running it. Ron Luce, Dave Hasz and Heath Stoner are not saints, they are not anointed, they are not different than the interns who service them. They’re salesmen who are very good at eliciting emotional, financial and physical support.

Over the last couple decades, Ron has grown this organization into a multimillion dollar machine by convincing thousands of young people to pay to work. Sometimes he succeeds in molding these youth into his cookie cutter version of modern Christianity and they go out into the world and perpetuate his version of truth, purity and godliness. Sometimes he breaks them down into depression, faithlessness, and a lost sense of self. I’m thankful that in my own way I have been able to digest the experience and glean positives from it.

To my fellow alumni, all I can say is do not to expect apologies or allow yourself to live like a victim. The staff at Teen Mania firmly believe in what they are doing and in the experience they are selling. Be honest with yourself, process your experience as it was unique to you, and if you decide it sits well with your soul that’s okay. If it doesn’t, grow forward from that place knowing exactly what you do not want to be. For me, in my own life and in my own faith, Teen Mania is not what I want to be.