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Teen Challenge: A miraculous half-century

by Peter K. Johnson in New York

Ministries come and go, but Teen Challenge has won the miraculous favor of God for 50 years.

“The power of God’s grace still amazes me more and more,” says David Wilkerson, Teen Challenge founder. “From all over the world I still hear about people saved and delivered from drugs through Teen Challenge. Thousands upon thousands have been impacted.”

Several thousand people representing 38 nations and 200 Teen Challenge centers attended a three-day service in late June in New York commemorating the golden anniversary of the ministry.

The Teen Challenge story began in 1958 when Wilkerson, an obscure preacher from an Assemblies of God church in rural Pennsylvania, caused a ruckus at a murder trial in Manhattan. Reading about the trial in Life magazine, he wanted to ask the judge for permission to meet the seven teenage gang members accused of killing a 15-year-old polio victim. His efforts backfired when he was thrown out of the courtroom and denied access to the defendants. The media made him a laughingstock.

Burning with compassion for ghetto-bound gangs and drug addicts, Wilkerson visited New York alone repeatedly, preaching on street corners. He faced Nicky Cruz, a vicious gang fighter who eventually committed his life to Christ at a Wilkerson rally and later became an evangelist and author of the best-seller Run Baby Run.

“I underestimated David,” Cruz recalls. “I thought he was crazy. But the force behind him was more powerful than any evil force. He let me know that if I killed him and cut him into 1,000 pieces on the sidewalk, that Jesus would still love me.”

Wilkerson conducted street outreaches before founding Teen-Age Evangelism, a forerunner of the Teen Challenge substance-abuse recovery program. He turned over the leadership to his brother Don, who founded Global Teen Challenge in 1995.

Wilkerson received national attention when he wrote The Cross and the Switchblade with John and Elizabeth Sherrill. Published in 1963, the book has been translated into more than 40 languages, and there are in excess of 50 million copies in print.

Cruz has preached to millions and at the June event joined other Teen Challenge graduates known for their ministries, including Assemblies of God evangelist Steve Hill and Sonny Arguinzoni, who oversees a network of 600 churches. All three spoke at the 50th anniversary event at the Brooklyn Tabernacle, along with Assemblies of God Assistant General Superintendent Alton Garrison.

“This room is full of spiritual sons and daughters who are trophies of grace,” Garrison said.

Jimmy Jack, a Teen Challenge graduate, founded Long Island Teen Challenge in West Babylon, N.Y., in 1990. He runs six centers and many outreaches, such as Rock the Block, a high-energy urban street ministry. Last year, Jack’s ministry held 96 outreach meetings with more than 85,000 attending. They included weekly coffee house meetings, street outreaches, prison ministries, high school rallies, and international outreaches.

Steven Barnett, 19, is a typical student at Long Island Teen Challenge. Raised in a drug-infested environment and tired of getting high, he joined the program last December.

“I trust Jesus now,” Barnett says. “He saved my life and gave me a second chance. I feel like the chains that were binding me have been ripped off.”

Teen Challenge’s success is best measured not through programs or umbrella organizations but by the thousands of people rescued annually through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and delivered by the power of the Holy Spirit.

“Every day for this ministry to function is a minor miracle,” says Mike Hodges, president of Teen Challenge USA in Springfield, Mo.

Beth Greco, vice president of the Walter Hoving Home for women in Garrison, N.Y., is a walking miracle. She entered the home in 1992 almost a lost cause. As a teenager in Lubbock, Texas, she snorted cocaine and heroin. Excessive partying in college with alcohol and ecstasy led to several suicide attempts. Numerous rehab programs and three admissions into a state mental hospital offered no remedy.

“I was diagnosed with multiple personalities,” Greco says.

She faced a potential lengthy felony sentence for joining a bank robbery scheme while high on drugs. Serving only eight months in a federal prison, she was released and placed on probation for 10 years. The Walter Hoving Home was her last chance.

“People believed that my life could become something,” she recalls. “They hung in there with me and never gave up.”

Founded by John and Elsie Benton in 1967, the home is located on a 23-acre former estate overlooking the Hudson River. It is named after the former chairman of Tiffany & Co., a Christian who helped finance the purchase of the property. The 61 residents stay for six months to a year and study a concentrated Bible-based curriculum. They follow a work schedule and participate in outreach ministries. Daily prayer and worship in chapel services are stressed.

“We’re praying all the time,” John Benton says.

In a study of 200 graduates completing the program, 87 percent were drug-free for at least five years, Greco reports.

Although the majority of women are high school graduates, they can earn a general equivalency diploma if necessary. Quite a few have college degrees and come from affluent backgrounds. About half have been raised in Christian homes. Most enter with substance-abuse problems in addition to eating disorders and self-mutilation issues (cutting and scratching their bodies with sharp objects). Many have suffered sexual abuse.

Angel Arrowood, 22, joined the program in April 2007 following her arrest on a driving-under-the-influence-of-alcohol charge. She had crashed her mother’s car at a railroad intersection at 3 a.m. Bewildered and high on alcohol and pills, she fled the scene and hid in a ditch crying, “God get me out of this one and I’ll do whatever You want.” She finally approached police, who handcuffed her and drove her to the detoxification unit at a local hospital. Her life was out of control.

Smoking pot at age 11 had pushed her over the edge. Heroin, cocaine, Ecstasy and alcohol followed, as well as self-mutilation.

“Drugs filled a loneliness that I felt,” she says.  “I was addicted at 16 and dropped out of high school. I even tried to commit suicide.”

The first three months at the Walter Hoving Home were rough.

“I wanted to leave,” she says. “I was not surrendering to God.”

Arrowood is a different person today. After completing 13 months in the program, she was appointed a staff intern.

“I don’t feel like the old Angel anymore,” she says. “I’m free. I feel joy, and Jesus is my best friend.”

Don Wilkerson recently returned to the original Brooklyn center as interim executive director. The facility has 18 female and 24 male residents. The women’s program lasts 12 to 14 months, but the men stay four to six months before transferring to a training center in Rehrersburg, Pa.

Founded in 1962, the training center is a 300-acre former dairy farm where the men receive further spiritual help, educational training, work therapy and vocational training. They represent all educational levels, from high school dropouts to college graduates to professionals such as physicians, dentists and lawyers.

Called “God’s mountain,” the farm is home to 220 students ranging in age from 18 to 65, as well as 80 staff members.

“Our commitment is teaching the students the basic disciplines of the faith through Bible reading, prayer, discipleship and mentoring,” says Executive Director Joseph Batluck. “We consider a student a success if five to seven years after he graduates he is still off drugs, has healthy family relationships and is still employed. And 75 percent of our men meet those criteria.”

Teen Challenge of Arizona is another success story, especially The Home of Hope in Casa Grande that cares for women and their children. Opened in 2003, the facility serves 34 women and 22 children ranging from infants up to about 9 years.

Angie Guerrero entered the home in 2007 reluctantly, even though she needed deliverance from years of addiction. Secular programs did not help her.

“I was a mess and didn’t know what to do,” she says.

Desperate and yearning to die, she hoped the next hit of crack would kill her.

A single mother, Guerrero signed over custody of her two young children to her mother. At the home she found a haven and discovered real love and hope through a personal relationship with Christ.

Reunited with her children, she rejoices now.

“I can trust Jesus,” she says. “I don’t have those feelings of loneliness and fear anymore.”

The mission of Teen Challenge continues around the world.

“Drug addiction is the same in Kazakhstan as in New York City,” Mike Hodges said at the June gathering. “We are seeing new centers rising up in areas of need. The need is still incredible and overwhelming.”

Hodges estimates there are 200 million addicts worldwide.

Besides opening new centers, Teen Challenge USA is partnering with Global Teen Challenge to train graduates in an international intern program. The ministry also recently launched Stay Sharp, a new drug prevention program aimed at schools and young people. Ministry centers and pastors have a resource tool that reaches beyond the traditional church setting into the community.

“We’re holding true to the original course set by David Wilkerson,” Hodges says. “The miracles haven’t ended. God isn’t through with Teen Challenge.” tpe

PETER K. JOHNSON is a freelance writer living in Saranac Lake, N.Y.

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