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Teen Challenge's newest challenge

Independent-minded local directors of a Christian drug-addiction recovery program are reluctant to accept taxpayer funding under the president's faith-based initiative, but the organization's leaders argue that accountability-so long as it doesn't compro

in New Orleans-"If all you're looking for is an oil change, this isn't the place. Because the oil will get dirty again," says dark-haired Enzo Pallitta, speaking with a thick New Jersey accent and dramatic hand mannerisms. "Listen closely," he says, leaning over his desk and staring at his listener. "This is not just about getting clean. This is about changing your lifestyle." Mr. Pallitta isn't selling cars. But as an ex-heroin addict turned Christian counselor, he doesn't mind high-pressuring the addicts who walk through his door. "I don't like to give them time. I've seen so many guys walk out the door, get shot, or pop a pill and overdose. I'm trying to reach them before the cycle begins again." After drifting through six secular treatment centers, Mr. Pallitta broke his own cycle in 1995 by checking into Teen Challenge, a Christian drug-rehabilitation program. Founded 40 years ago by a Pentecostal minister, Teen Challenge has over 300 worldwide affiliates, including 147 U.S. chapters. At the New Orleans affiliate, Mr. Pallitta and six other ex-addicts run a streetfront operation in the heart of the Ninth Ward ghetto. Their office-a weathered, two-story clapboard home-faces a grungy concrete bar called Paradise Lounge and rows of dilapidated wooden homes whose occupants sit in metal chairs beneath brightly striped awnings. This morning's walk-in-a thin blond man in his late 20s with long sideburns and bleary eyes-slumps in a chair across from Mr. Pallitta and stares at the wall. He can't seem to kick his six-year heroin habit, he says, and his parents don't know how to help him. "I stayed away from it for five days, but I crashed this weekend.... I need help, but I'm worried my dad won't like this place. He wanted me to go to a boot camp." "Just tell him it's a spiritual boot camp," responds Mr. Pallitta. As the four-month "induction phase" to the 12-month Teen Challenge program, the New Orleans center serves as a ground-level, weed-out program that grabs drug users off the street and incubates them in biblical teaching. Those who stay off drugs and complete daily Bible lessons receive gold-stamped certificates and a bus ticket to another eight-month "training center" that offers intensive Bible study and job-skills training. Only 20 percent of residents who enter the Teen Challenge program graduate after 12 months. Of those graduates, 86 percent remain drug free seven years after graduation, according to a study done by the National Institute of Drug Abuse in 1975 and later confirmed by university studies in 1994 and 1999. "At this place we deal with the problem-sin-not its effect," says Mr. Pallitta. "And the only way to change sin is through the deliverance power of Jesus Christ." Drug addicts aren't the only ones undergoing change at Teen Challenge. As a poster child for President Bush's faith-based initiative, the organization has received unprecedented media attention in recent months, and as name recognition increases so does scrutiny. Critics note that many staff members are ex-addicts whose only degree is a Teen Challenge certificate. That, worries the liberal group People for the American Way, "could nullify state regulations for substance abuse professionals by requiring states to recognize religious education as equivalent to any secular course work." The complaint marks the latest round of volleys fired at President Bush's efforts to allow faith-based social-service programs to compete for federal funding. At first, left-wing groups argued that putting Christ-drenched programs like Teen Challenge on a level playing field with secular programs amounted to state-funded "proselytism." John DiIulio, head of the White House faith-based office, placated them in February and March by guaranteeing that programs like Teen Challenge wouldn't be eligible for grants. But after conservative pressure forced him to reverse that policy, opponents discovered another buzzword, quality control. At issue is how much oversight Uncle Sam should have over Christian groups that accept funding. As a preemptive strike, Teen Challenge leaders have pushed voucher-style funding and prodded their own centers to adopt higher standards. The question is, can Teen Challenge accept more regulation without diminishing the grassroots flavor that makes it so effective? All Teen Challenge affiliates currently follow 80 standards outlined in a 28-page manual published by the organization's national office in Missouri. Affiliates must keep written job descriptions and evaluations of each staff member, maintain student files for at least five years, and record each discipline "incident" and individual counseling session. They must also adhere to their own states' health and safety codes and pay for annual independent audits. To guarantee adherence, the national office collects monthly financial reports and conducts on-site inspections every four years. This self-regulation is burdensome enough without adding onerous oversight from Uncle Sam, says Greg Dill, the New Orleans director. "I'm already struggling to pay for the audit, which costs me $3,000 each year," he said. "If they throw in another 10 regulations, that would be fine. But if they throw another manual on the table, that's another matter." Mr. Dill's center is cramped but clean. A tiny reception area doubles as a dining room filled with plastic round tables, fish tanks, and maroon couches. At the door, two parakeets greet visitors with cat calls they learned from the residents. Upstairs, 14 men wait in line for three showers and share three bedrooms, but each has his own bunk and closet space. Residents begin their day at 7:00 a.m. with group prayer, breakfast, and household chores followed by eight hours of mandatory Bible study, chapel, and choir practice, even if they can't sing. ("They have to learn to praise God instead of just asking Him to fix their problems," says one employee.) At 8:30 a.m., they squeeze around an upstairs conference table covered with Bibles and spiral notebooks. Behind a small wooden podium stands Brother David Sampson, a 6-foot-2, 220-pounder with lots of gold rings on his fingers and a heavy silver cross hanging from his neck. "Some of you guys figure, OK, this is Christian and that's good as long as I'm getting out of jail," says Brother Sampson. "But the real jail is not a place; it's your mind. And if your spirit doesn't change, then your mind won't change." Brother Sampson ends his lesson with a commentary on the book of Romans: "That guy Paul, he knew something," he concludes. "He knew that no one becomes a Christian by accident. God never tricked a person into becoming his follower. This isn't a Burger King, 'have-it-your-way' religion." As the on-site "dean of students," Brother Sampson teaches and counsels drug addicts eight hours a day. But he doesn't have a college degree. His qualifications are 15 years of street experience as a homeless crack addict and three years of Bible classes. After graduating from Florida's Teen Challenge training institute in 1995, he became a certified teacher making $50 a week. ("It's not that we're opposed to hiring MSWs [master of social work], it's just that most MSWs didn't go to school to make $50 a week," said Mr. Dill, who also graduated from the program. "This is a ministry, not an occupation.") Mr. Dill and his colleagues are what national Teen Challenge leaders call "street fighters"-ground troops working on the front lines to rescue prisoners from enemy territory. Street fighters aren't concerned with national strategy or whether the battalions are appropriately equipped; they simply want to save lives at any cost. "Without them this organization would just be another institution. They are the only ones who can reach the people we want to reach," said Dave Scotch, the Teen Challenge accreditator. Problem is, most feisty street fighters tend to resist outside mandates. "We're still trying to get them to wear our national logo," sighed Mr. Scotch. And now he wants to convince them to accept more regulations so Teen Challenge can compete for faith-based funding. Texas became the first testing ground recently as some 40 Teen Challenge directors met for a southwest regional conference at the gleaming white Calvary Temple building in Irving, a Dallas suburb. "If Teen Challenge is going to climb the mountain, we've got to learn to live with change," insisted Teen Challenge's president, John Castellini: "Say, change." Some 40 directors mumbled, "Change." A balding minister with bushy eyebrows and round cheeks, Mr. Castellini was trying to unite the independent-minded street fighters in a willingness to apply for government funds in order to expand their programs. He started out treading lightly, first telling a few introductory jokes about his grandchildren and reading a news article about how hotels earn five-star ratings. Then he levied the final punchline: "You just think you've been inspected now. But just wait until this faith-based initiative takes off," he said, adding that some centers might need the pressure: "The parents are the real inspectors. Can I be very honest? I would not drop off my son or daughter at some Teen Challenges." That comment irritated some directors, who still have fresh memories of their less-than-glamorous beginnings. "When we first started, our place was dirty and run down, and all of our staff were wearing 15 different hats. But you know what? People got saved, delivered, and set free," argued Jim Heurich, director of the San Antonio affiliate. "My concern is that we are going to be so evaluated that we are evaluated out of business." "Go Jim," whispered someone across the room. Mr. Castellini remained unfazed. "We should treat the government like any other private donor and be accountable," he said. "The government consists of taxpayers." Mr. Castellini believes the extra funding and added legal protection provided by faith-based legislation will outweigh the cost of conformance to regulations as long as those regulations don't change the Christian emphasis. But local affiliates remain skeptical. Mr. Heurich has good reason to feel skittish. In 1995, state officials tried to shut down his San Antonio center, even though it was not state licensed, did not receive government funding, and defined itself as a "discipleship program." After a much-publicized rally at the Alamo (see WORLD, July 29, 1995), then-Gov. Bush came to the rescue, pushing through a state law exempting faith-based social programs from state interference. That was the beginning of his compassionate conservative campaign. So far, that campaign hasn't helped other Teen Challenge centers. Florida director Jerry Nance received food stamps for 17 centers and 650 residents every year until officials suddenly withdrew assistance in 1999, announcing that unlicensed facilities no longer qualified. Here's the catch: To obtain the license, Mr. Nance had to replace Bible lessons with group psychotherapy sessions and hire state-approved counselors. Explaining that his program was a "discipleship model, not a medical model," he refused and lost $100,000. "Does this make sense to you?" Mr. Nance asked a White House drug abuse committee last year. "Individuals can live in the streets, use drugs, rob people, and still get food stamps. But if they decide to get help and come into a faith-based program, they lose their stamps." At the heart of the dilemma is a difference in diagnosis: State-funded groups treat drug addiction as a disease, prescribing medical treatments and psychotherapy. But Teen Challenge says the disease began with a condition of the heart and prescribes a relationship with Jesus Christ. That difference threatens some people: "This [faith-based funding] will roll us back 60 years, right back to when people thought you were an alcoholic merely because you didn't accept Jesus as your personal savior," fretted Bill McColl, spokesman for the National Association of Drug and Alcohol Counselors. But Mr. Castellini says he just wants the right to offer his solution alongside others: "We're not asking for a handout. We just want a level playing field so we can take care of people's basic needs." With that in mind, he is also offering his own ground troops a compromise: In exchange for federal vouchers for food stamps, emergency medical assistance, and lodging, Teen Challenge will accept reasonable government safety, health, and accountability standards. ("Just because you're saying the name Jesus doesn't mean you should build fire traps," he said.) Mr. Castellini, however, emphasized that Teen Challenge will not accept extra regulations-like teacher education requirements or required psychotherapy sessions-that ultimately undercut faith-based initiatives by eliminating differences between religious and secular entities. Ultimately, he said, the street fighters will have the final say: "We will only lead those who want to be led."

Candi Cushman

Candi Cushman