Seated in a semicircle, Bibles on their desks, a dozen men in a Brooklyn basement are preparing to visit local churches, where they will describe how their newly found faith in Jesus Christ is helping them to kick lives of addiction. The men are all residents of Teen Challenge, a non-denominational Christian program that treats about 3,000 addicts each year at 150 drug rehabilitation centers nationwide. Because the program does not use state-licensed addiction counselors, the Brooklyn branch is ineligible for state funding and relies entirely on private donations to provide free, yearlong residential treatment to each of its 45 men and women. However, that could all change under President George W. Bush's proposal to allow religious groups to apply for federal drug treatment funds under his proposed Faith-Based Initiative plan.
Many question whether taxpayers' dollars should fund such programs, in which the religious message is inextricable from the drug counseling — as it clearly is in this class. Prepping the students for their presentations, the teacher instructs, “You want to elevate Christ.”
His students respond in the same vernacular. “When people read of the pain and suffering Jesus Christ went through, [they'll realize that] most of us have been there: When you've got lots of years of bondage, hating that drink but knowing you need it,” says a neatly dressed red-haired man in a madras shirt. “I've carried my own [cross], man.”
His words are greeted by a chorus of “Amens” from the mixed group of African-American, Hispanic and white men, ranging from their 20s to middle-aged. The central message of the program is that addiction is a sin and that accepting Jesus Christ is the solution.
Work in the kitchen as well as daily prayer are important parts of the therapy for these two former drug abusers at the Teen Challenge program in Brooklyn. (Teen Challenge)
But several express doubts about how they will fare once they leave the program. “My greatest challenge will be when I'm out in the street,” says a young man recalling the worldly pull he felt in a recent conversation with an old friend from the streets.
“The temptation will still be there,” the instructor answers. “We definitely are weak men, and that's why we need Christ.”
When another student laments that drugs have impaired his mental faculties and his ability to memorize Bible verses, the teacher again is encouraging, a quality of the program successful graduates often praise. “It's going to take time. Don't rush it,”' the teacher says.
Women Confront Abuse
Most of the women at the Brooklyn Teen Challenge women's residence were sexually abused before they began using drugs, says Dave Batty, executive director of the center. Much of the women's counseling focuses on those old and painful issues, he says, adding, “Abuse issues are far more difficult to deal with than heroin addiction.”
Although Batty says acceptance of Jesus Christ is the key to the program, when it comes to sexual abuse, he sounds like a mainstream psychologist. Intensive counseling is often necessary before the women can break the habit of turning to illegal drugs, he says.
Phyllis Jones, 48, a 1995 graduate of the program, says sexual abuse by a family member — starting when she was 4 — precipitated her drug use, which began with marijuana at 9 and heroin sniffing at 16. She ran away from another drug rehabilitation program, Odyssey House, in 1992, when she was pregnant with her first child. She recalled one particularly humiliating incident at Odyssey when the staff tied her by the wrist to another addict as they were squired to a medical clinic for prenatal treatment.
“There was a lot of condemnation” for being an addict, she says. “Your self-esteem was always torn down. Here [at Teen Challenge] they told me it was going to be OK.” Jones was HIV positive and convinced she was about to die when her sister, a practicing Christian, got her into the Brooklyn Teen Challenge program in 1993.
The religious focus “was real strange at first,” Jones says. But the combination of discipline and love from the female staff allowed her to come to terms with her past abuse and the void she had filled with men and drugs, she says. “I always say this is where I was reborn again,” she says. At Teen Challenge, “I felt like I was somebody.”
Today Jones is a counseler and teacher at Teen Challenge. She recently married and is studying to be a non-denominational minister and to get her license as a state-certified addiction counselor.
Some successful graduates of Teen Challenge say the program resonated with them because they had a religious upbringing. Maria Rodriquez, who was raised Catholic, said other programs failed to help her deal with her alcoholism, which she also says was rooted in a history of sexual abuse. She thinks the other programs failed because they lacked a religious component.
“I was looking for somebody real so I could be free of bondage inside,” Rodriguez says. “Now I call God first.” Rodriquez has been a house manager and teacher at Teen Challenge for the past six years.
Success Rates Questioned
A 1975 study of Teen Challenge's effectiveness by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that while some people, like Jones and Rodriquez, thrived on the program's religious component, others were put off by it. “Too much religion” was a main reason cited by the 82 percent who drop out of the program before graduation. Teen Challenge's Web site highlights the study's finding that 67 percent of graduates remain drug-free seven years later. But, the NIDA study found that only 18 percent graduate, which casts doubt on the 67 percent success rate, say addiction experts.
The program's Web site also claims an 86 percent success rate based on a 1995 study completed for a doctoral dissertation at Northwestern University. But that study also fails to count dropouts. According to the Northwestern study, Teen Challenge graduates reported returning to drug use less often than graduates of a hospital drug rehabilitation program, but not less than hospital program graduates who continued attending Alcoholics Anonymous support groups.
Lack of Licensing Questioned
Addiction specialists also are concerned about the lack of licensed counselors at Teen Challenge, particularly in such potentially dangerous situations as detoxification.
“It is anti-intellectual, anti-professional and potentially dangerous to [addicted] patients to presume that all they need is spiritual advice,” says Michael Miller, chairman of the public policy committee of the American Society for Addiction Medicine.
But John Castellani, president of Teen Challenge International USA, based in Springfield, Mo., responds that the program routinely sends addicts to detox at local hospitals before they enter Teen Challenge.
Teen Challenge's unlicensed status brought it to the attention of food stamp authorities in Texas. According to Castellani, the state threatened to cancel the food stamps that clients received at a Texas Teen Challenge center, on the grounds the program was unlicensed. However, then-Gov. Bush signed legislation permitting such unlicensed faith-based groups to remain eligible for government assistance.
Nevertheless, some Teen Challenge officials are ambivalent about the possibility of receiving federal funds other than food stamps, since federal law prohibits religious groups from spending federal funds on religious conversion, worship or instruction.
On the one hand, Batty says he would welcome government money for such non-spiritual items as a new sidewalk and new bathrooms for the facility. And, some program aspects that are not religiously oriented might be eligible for federal funding, such as job training, drug prevention programs and preparing students to take the GED (high school equivalency exams).
But, “the spiritual component is the key to our success,” says Batty. “We're not willing to give that up just to get government money.”