Teen Mania had a bit of a crisis half-way through my undergraduate year. 9/11 had occurred, and numbers were down. Parents were hesitant to send their kids overseas on mission trips. Youth groups were backing out of ATF. The Aug. class of 2003 was shaping into an embarrassingly small one. TM wasn’t making enough money.
This was spiritual warfare, we were told. I remember we were all gathered into the auditorium. There were American flags everywhere, and battle music playing. Ron showed up on stage in fatigues and there were pyrotechnics and everything as he declared “WAR” on Satan, and worked us all up into a battle-hungry frenzy. Classes would be suspended until further notice, to make room for longer work-days. A make-shift call center was set up in the auditorium. Anybody who worked on the phones were required to work 10-12 hour days, Mon-Fri., and they were also required to work on Saturdays. My workload didn’t change at all, because I was on K-crew, but many of my core-mates worked in the call center, and it looked like Hell. They were burned out and exhausted all the time. They were berated when numbers weren’t satisfactory. They barely had time to eat. Whenever they got particularly discouraged, they would be reminded that we were in a WAR, that to give up was to let the devil win. The blood of America’s youth, and the blood of the nations they are supposed to reach, would be on your hands if you didn’t continue to fight. I see now that it was terribly manipulative. I wonder if the parents would have sent their kids to the HA if they knew their kids were used as slave labor.
Although this was a one-time event, it isn’t an isolated case. Alumni from other years can attest to moments of crisis within TM history wherein all the intellectual and spiritual aspects of the program are put on hold so the interns could be turned into work horses. The Honor Academy is marketed as a place of intensive discipleship and leadership training, so their recruiting material demonstrates a lack of integrity. There should be something in the brochure about the possibility of being turned into a soldier if the ministry runs into trouble. If interns know from the beginning that they are signing up for a year of slavery, that’s one thing, but they sign up expecting to be poured INTO, not poured OUT.
Around election time, Dave Hasz began to talk about politics a lot in World View class. He spoke about our responsibility as God’s people to be politically active in our government in order to preserve the godly ideals our country was founded on, etc. His friend, John Graves, who was running for local office, even came to speak in class one day. Today, I feel that it was really a campaign rally in disguise. Dave did not come right out and endorse the Republican Party, but he made it VERY clear that he was conservative and that he thought anyone who disagreed with him was deceived. We interns were carefully trained to revere Dave and eat up everything he fed us, and regarded most things he said as having been delivered straight from the mouth of God, so most of us did not dare think anything that would contradict his opinions. Anyone who DID express a different opinion in class was shamed and humiliated.
Dave announced that all interns would be required to spend a certain number of hours campaigning for a candidate of our choice. If an intern chose to campaign for Mr. Graves, they could meet at Dave’s house at a specific time and transportation and direction would be provided. If you wanted to campaign for anyone else, you had to look them up on your own and work it out with them. This was difficult for many interns who’s schedules were full, or for interns who didn’t have transportation, or weren’t aware of any other candidates. Most of us ended up campaigning for John Graves for the sake of convenience alone. I don’t think many knew who the other candidates were, or what Mr. Graves’ platform even was.
ESOAL AND OTHER RETREATS
I won’t go into much detail about ESOAL, as it has been covered extensively by other recovering interns. I do want to mention that I participated, with much initial enthusiasm. I rang out before the event was over, and IMMEDIATELY began to second-guess myself. Did I REALLY push myself as far as I could? Could I have stayed until the end? During debriefing, I cried and cried because all those who FINISHED finished were being honored, and I wanted to so badly to have be one of them. I knew that I just didn’t have what it takes, that it was further proof that I was a failure in life. I sank into a depression that lasted for a couple of months. I knew that I had blown it, ESOAL occurred only once a year, and I wouldn’t get a second chance.
There was a clear hierarchy among the interns during the time I was there. Those who were obviously talented, attractive, charismatic, driven, or outwardly spiritual won coveted ministry placements, recognition, popularity, awards, and power. Those at the bottom of the totem pole were ignored, or hidden away in less glamorous ministry placements as servants to the TM aristocracy. There was a boy in my brother core who, while brilliant, had a form of high-functioning autism and therefore was a bit socially awkward. His mind was amazing–he knew the names of all 600 interns, which dorm each person lived in, and who their CA was, not because he spend time memorizing these things but because he just naturally retained the info. The ministry could have utilized him in so many different ways. Instead, they stuck him in custodial. I will never forget the day I had gone to the dorm for some reason during work hours and found him in the bathroom, emptying the boxes full of used tampons in the bathroom. It made me think that there has to be a better way of doing things. What if interns all rotated through custodial, or shared custodial duties with responsibilities divided out to every core?
Further, what if the HA stopped giving out awards and started making EVERYONE feel valuable? What if the ministry quit implementing things like status levels and elitism? Jesus never divided his disciples up into gold, bronze, and silver status levels according to how many meaningless DEEDS they performed; but Dave sees no problem with doing this. He makes up arbitrary programs with arbitrary requisites and if an intern is somehow able to perform perfectly, he is held up as “the elite”. This sort of rhetoric is RAMPANT within the ministry, but it is very counter to Christ’s example and message. It is counter to real Christianity, and very damaging to the souls of people who are being taught to miss the point–who are being taught to pursue cheap honor bestowed and recognized only by men rather than true honor that can only be found in obedience to and humility toward God.
One of the very first things Dave talked to us about during gauntlet was confrontation. Confrontation is a very big thing at the Honor Academy, and it makes sense: there were 600+ interns living on campus when I was there, and not nearly enough staff members to keep order. If you empower the people to police everyone else, the interns basically keep themselves in line. I wish that he would have put less emphasis on confrontation, something that is sort of mentioned once or twice in the old testament, and put much more emphasis on LOVE, which is the theme of the whole Bible. There were a lot of people I barely knew, or didn’t know at all, “confronting” me about ridiculous things (usually something the person confronting perceived to be possibly questionable), and very few people trying to get to know me and earn my trust in order to gain the right to speak into my life. Perhaps the staff at the Honor Academy has good intentions with the emphasis on confrontation, but the end result if a lot of people making snap judgments about others–with whom they have merely a shallow relationship–and feeling validated and superior in the process. I was part of this. I, too, was guilty of sticking my nose where it didn’t belong, assuming I knew a person’s heart better than they did, trying to change their behavior, all in the name of “loving correction”. I really thought I was doing the right thing, as do most interns, I believe, but it only served to foster an environment of suspicion and judgement rather than one of acceptance and brother(sister)hood.
MINISTRY TEAM SUMMER
After my undergraduate year, I became a member of the ministry team. I knew what to expect: I would be worked like a dog in a very stressful, unpredictable environment, and I would be misunderstood by everybody back on campus. These things are not the fault of Teen Mania, but rather the nature of being involved in a travelling production of that scale. In the years since I was involved with ATF, I have gained some perspective and can in no way endorse that ministry, but while I was a part of it I was treated fairly well, especially in comparison to my intern year. My team was pretty functional. I honestly don’t remember much from my time on the ministry team because I was so tired all the time. But back on campus, the conditions were terrible. During the summer we were mostly forgotten about. They kept us there to work in ministry placements, but there were no focus groups, or core meetings, or classes, or anything. No one was pouring into us. I had to live in a broken-down trailer hidden back in the woods. There were no lights along the path to the trailer, so at night we had to stumble through the darkness of the woods to get to it. The conditions of the trailer were HORRIFIC. It was infested with mice, ants, roaches, spiders, and there was mold and mildew everywhere. There was a hole in the side of the building. The carpets and furniture were filthy with mold and years of grime that could never be cleaned out. If the place were sitting on a city block, it would have been condemned. There were about ten of us crammed into it, but not a single one of us even thought to complain to leadership. It was so ingrained in us to just make the most of what we had, to not state the obvious, to be willing to make sacrifices. At the end of the year, we spent hours cleaning that trailer, but we couldn’t get it to pass inspection, so our advisor wouldn’t let us leave. There were several moms trying to help us at that point–they were totally appalled at the conditions we were living under.
Though there are many who have brought their stories to this site that wish to God they’d never set foot in Garden Valley, I must be honest and say that I wouldn’t trade the time I spent at TM for anything, in spite of hurtful things that happened to me, or of the dangerous doctrine that had to be unlearned, and in spite of the fact that I am still discovering the ways in which those things have negatively impacted my life and my emotional/spiritual health. I met so many beautiful people there, and have quite a few wonderful memories with those people. My life is richer for having known them. But the classes, retreats, LTEs, chapels, core meetings, focus groups, accountability cards, spiritual evaluations, accountability partners, legalism, military rhetoric, confrontation, silly secret ceremonies, FIREV, week of the ring, etc., have NOTHING to do with any of the good things I took away with me from the Honor Academy.