by Revan Filiaexdeus
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My legal name is William Donovan Saunders. I prefer to be called and am published under the name Revan Filiaexdeus. During 2016, I was a member of the Teen Challenge program in Dublin, Georgia, United States and am now taking the opportunity, two years later, to write about my experience.
For those unfamiliar, Teen Challenge is a religiously oriented program that is self described as”To offer life transformation to individuals through Christ-centered programs”. Members of these programs live a communal lifestyle, work jobs, and are limited in both contact with the outside world and their own families. People staying at the Teen Challenge centers are called students. The organisation is officially associated with the Assemblies of God, a charismatic Pentecostal denomination with membership primarily in the Western, developed world.
The reason for my own participation in the program was as an alternative to jail because of crimes committed in the State of Florida, a bargain struck with the courts by my lawyer.
Thesis #1: Teen Challenge presents it’s own history and doctrine in a religious and mythopoeic fashion.
While a so-called “student”, I was taught that Teen Challenge was a divinely ordained organisation started in 1960 by David Wilkerson, a divinely inspired preacher. Required reading was a book authored by Wilkerson, for which he himself claimed divine inspiration.
Interestingly, I see strong parallels between this organisation and the claims of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which I am a member, which teaches that our Church is divinely ordained, was started in 1844 by Joseph Smith, Jr. who was a divinely inspired prophet and presented the divinely revealed Book of Mormon as a primary evidence of his own prophethood and the Church’s authenticity. But more on that subject later.
During my year long experience, I and other students were exposed to this narrative and only this narrative. It was reinforced six days a week during Bible study classes and Sunday worship services. Access to religious material was restricted, and students caught in possession of non-approved material were punished by either further restricting access to our families, public shaming, and extra work.
The characterisation of student is, I believe, inappropriate. Classes taught at Teen Challenge were over approved materials only; deviation from the material was not allowed, and any discussion in contrarian directions was shut down. There is no exposure to academic topics or objective material of any sort.
Interestingly, this exact approach is used by the Church of Scientology affiliated organisation NARCONON, which shares further similarities with Teen Challenge described below.
Thesis #2: I was not allowed to practice my religion.
This is, perhaps, of all the issues with my Teen Challenge, my biggest issue. I am a faithful member in good standing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I also self-identify as Jewish because of Ashkenazi heritage on my mother’s side.
My very first day in Teen Challenge, I was presented with a stack of papers I had to sign in order to participate in the program. One of these was a waiver of civil rights, including but not limited to a person’s First Amendment rights. I wrote by hand, in very strong terms and bold letters, that I was LDS and refuse to convert to another religion, surrender my beliefs, not practice my beliefs, or in any way shape form or fashion be anything except for a Latter Day Saint.
Dan Williams, the then program director of the Dublin Camp, himself a graduate of both the Teen Challenge “discipleship program” and seminary took particular issue with this. I was called into his office where I was alone with him and another staff member. I was asked to explain my beliefs. While I worked to calmly explain what we believed, I was frequently interrupted, told I was wrong, and flat out told that I could not be a Mormon at Teen Challenge.
For the remainder of the year, this individual made it clear that he had no interest in my recovery and healing or furthering along the path of Christian discipleship. For twelve months, he made active attempts to deconvert me, to challenge my faith at every turn, and in short ridicule me for being LDS. By contrast, if I ever spoke positively of my beliefs, I was reprimanded.
One instance that remains seared in my mind is being only a few months into the program. Williams gave a speech in our assembly building where various services and other ritual-esque things were held, and publicly attacked LDS belief without naming me. It was clear that he was trying to publicly shame me. It did not work.
Curiously, staff maintained a general ignorance as to what, precisely, my beliefs as a Latter Day Saint were. When I was given the opportunity to teach classes or give devotional talks - despite my apparently heterodox position - I would frequently quote the words of Joseph Smith and other sources of LDS scripture without naming the source. These admonitions were met with frequent exclamations of “amens” and “hallelujah!”
Despite these injunctions, I made the active choice to practice my religion. Over the course of the year, I acquired four copies of the Book of Mormon and kept them hidden in various locations throughout campus. I would wake up in the middle of the night and slip away during my free time just to be able to read a few verses of this treasured scripture, which I knew would be confiscated if discovered. Additionally, I was able to share my beliefs with one other student who will remain unnamed for safety reasons. He and I have stayed in contact after our Teen Challenge experience and he has made the active choice to be baptized and join the LDS Church.
Additionally, I was told by another staff member responsible for the teaching of these courses that I could not simultaneously be Christian and Jewish. During class time, he would often make it a point to poke at my Judaism. It was neither fun loving nor humourous; I can only characterize it as blatant anti-semitism.
In another instance, the primary preacher of the program David Kincaid found several objects with Stars of David and other Jewish markings and threw them at me while I worked at the Teen Challenge-run thrift store.
Thesis #3: My family and I were actively lied to about what services the program offered.
Prior to entry, I was told that I would have access to counseling by qualified professionals, that there would be medical staff on hand at all times for any issues, and that I would be given an environment in which to focus on my own healing.
None of the staff at Teen Challenge in Dublin, GA possessed qualifying degrees of any sort or even rudimentary training. The program had no certifications outside of its own internal certification. It was, pure and simply, a religious indoctrination camp.
I was at no time counseled as a part of the program. I did experience counseling due to the voluntary effort by one single staff member, Tim Emery. Our counseling sessions were friendly in nature, but not therapeutic. At no time during the year did I ever see any student have access to counseling as we were told.
There were also no qualified medical professionals. Our medical services were limited to a small selection of over the counter drugs for common ailments.
Further, the majority of my time was spent either working without pay or in “class” listening to rhetoric. This is not an environment conducive to self reflection and healing like the program offered.
Finally, upon informing my legal team about the true nature of where I had been placed, they agreed that the program had been wholly mischaracterized.
Thesis #4: I was denied psychiatric care.
From my third month to approximately my fifth month of the experience, I suffered three to five panic attacks every day. They were debilitating in nature and physically painful. Having been previously diagnosed with both clinical depression and chronic anxiety by no less than three qualified psychiatric professionals in the State of Florida, I had an active prescription for the drug Remeron (mirtazipine). When I sought both professional counseling and access to my prescription, I was denied both. David Kincaid, the Dublin center’s pastor, told me that all I needed to do was pray, and my ailments would be cured. I had to involve my family and become very vocal and insistent to all staff members just to eventually have access to my prescription. After sixty days of continuous suffering, three separate doctor’s appointment, and an appointment with a psychiatrist - all of which easily confirmed by previous diagnoses - and about $500 of out-of-pocket medical expenses, I was finally allowed access to my prescription.
I never received access to the professional outside counseling I asked for.
Thesis #5: I was frequently overworked without pay.
Teen Challenge charges each of its students a “tuition” to be present and participate in the program. Regardless of whether full, partial, or no tuition is paid, each student is required to work a job. We had little to no choice in our places of work. Throughout the year, I was required to do farm work, yard work, warehouse labor without the presence of a representative union in OSHA-violating conditions, a car wash, and manage a thrift store.
With minimum wage at $7.25 and given a very conservative estimate of forty hours a week, I generated over $15,000 of income for Teen Challenge in addition to full tuition paid.
For several months during the middle of my experience, I worked upwards of sixty hours a week.
Thesis #6: I was kept in unsanitary conditions
For the entirety of the year, I was forced to sleep in bed bugs. Though every single one of us, myself included, frequently protested we never saw any alleviation of this problem. We were given insecticide available at any hardware store to treat the problem ourselves with; this provided little to no solution.
I find it interesting the organization refused to have professional insect treatment provided given the sheer amount of money we generated.
My own bed was so infested that it had to be burned. Upon leaving the camp, I had to disinfect both myself and all of my belongings.
Thesis #7: The organization stole from me.
During the first month of my experience, I had a book confiscated from me. It was a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which had been gifted to me by my father nearly a decade earlier. It was a source of great comfort to be able to read. The organization promised me it would be stored for safekeeping and would receive it upon “graduating”.
I never got it back. Interestingly enough, they did return my earring - also confiscated - but not my book.
Thesis #8: I was encouraged to participate in abuse of fellow students.
I worked in the kitchen for several months. The program director frequently admonished my fellow cook and I to feed the rest of the students as little as possible. This is tantamount to abuse.
Additionally, both I and others were encouraged to ignore students who were currently receiving “discipline” for any number of infractions.
Thesis #9: Staff frequently exhibited behavior antithetical to the very message they were presenting.
On numerous occasions, staff challenged students to fights, hurled swear words at them. How is this conducive to the “discipleship” mission that TC claims?
I would like to make my message very clear. I got nothing out of my time at Teen Challenge. It was a “get-out-of-jail-free” card for which I am very thankful to God and to God alone. My time there was absolutely miserable and was more characteristic of something between a concentration/re-education camp and a jail.
My story is one of many among people who have been through TC. I stand with those people to call for a thorough independent review of the global program by a disinterested third party in the interests of the welfare of any and all who participate in it.
I am also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am a devout practicing Jewish-Mormon. I refuse the theological claims of Teen Challenge, deny that David Wilkerson was ever inspired beyond his own imagination, and challenge Teen Challenge to recognize the nature of it’s own teachings.
Ahmed Nait-Djoudi is a faithful Muslim and self-employed citizen of Algeria. He has studied at Université Mouloud Mammeri de Tizi Ouzou. Fluent in Arabic, German, English, and Algerian, he resides in Tizi Ouzou, Algeria.