Proselytizing Report: "Teen Challenge"

July 26, 1984
By Rick Ross
Religious Advisory Committee to the
Arizona Department of Corrections

In our last meeting of the Religious Advisory Committee, to the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC) on May 10, 1984, at ACTC Tucson, we prominently discussed the issue of proselytizing within state penal institutions.

In our recounting of the minutes, it had been suggested that a sub-committee be formed to study the subject of proselytizing and report to the whole committee.

As you know I am an interested party in the issue of proselytizing. Often Jewish inmates are the targets of such activity. Recently I looked into the effort and programming of one particular organization that has often been questioned, "Teen Challenge."

The following is a report for your consideration. This may serve as an example of the proselytizing issue and how our committee might view it.

I visited with Wayne Soemo, Phoenix Center Director for "Teen Challenge" at 2810 North 16th Street on Monday, June 4, 1984. We spoke together for some time reviewing the activities and goals of Teen Challenge within the ADOC.

Mr. Soemo openly admitted that the primary purpose of Teen Challenge is the promotion of a specific religious belief system. He made it clear his focus is conversion. Mr. Soemo also admitted that his organization is not meeting any specific denominational liturgical requirements.

Mr. Soemo also advised that his organization does not posses, nor does he have on file, any specific consent forms that are signed by the custodial parents of minor children currently involved with Teen Challenge at juvenile facilities within ADOC. He also explained that the parents of minor teens do not receive any notification when their children initially become involved in Teen Challenge programs.

While at the Teen Challenge office Mr. Soemo gave me literature about the organization. Throughout that literature the intent of the organization is made very clear.

Phase I of the five phases of Teen Challenge, according to their literature, is "Basic Confrontational Evangelism."

Phase II, III and IV revolve around constant and continuous indoctrination or "Christian studies," also accomplished through "One on One and Group Counseling."

Phase V, which is about re-entry into society revolves is based upon the principle of putting a client in an "established . . .. local Church." That church would apparently meet the doctrinal requirements of Teen Challenge.

The doctrinal position of Teen Challenge can best be summarized by a referring to the "Teen Challenge Brochure," which specifically explains how the organization began. That history is as follows:

"Teen Challenge began in 1958 when Reverend David Wilkerson, author of The Cross and The Switchblade went to New York City to reach teenage gang members with "God's love." Rev. Wilkerson is a fundamentalist Pentecostal Christian.

Additional explanation about the program is also provided by Doctor John A. Howard, a member of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse. Howard states within the Teen Challenge Brochure, "Teen Challenge [is a]&religiously based program."

The Teen Challenge program has often been equated to a drug rehabilitation theme. However, in the organization's literature the "Teen Challenge Cure" is stated as follows:

"The only cure for . . . drug abuse, is Jesus Christ."

The steps to this cure are then outlined in "Step to Peace with God," published by Teen Challenge.

Those four steps are based upon the following scriptures within the New Testament:

  • John 3:16
  • John 10:10
  • Roman's 6:23
  • John 1:46
  • John 1:12

The four steps are very similar to what has also been called "The Four Spiritual Laws," as defined by Bill Bright the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. Obviously, this is focused upon proselytizing and indoctrinating people to accept a specific religious belief system.

The connections between Teen Challenge and the penal system of the State of Arizona are numerous.

According to "Good News," a publication of "Teen Challenge" February/March, 1983 Volume 6, Number 22, many full time jail and prison chaplains have dual positions as both volunteers and/or coordinators for Teen Challenge in addition to their staff position funded by the State of Arizona.

They also report that during 1983, 28 services were conducted by the organization with the result of 57 men being converted. They have averaged two to three services per month with about 20 men per service in various penal facilities.

Again, according to their literature "prison and jail Chaplains have been very supportive of our efforts." They specifically name Grover Jones and George Cuellar, both jail chaplains and volunteers for Tucson Teen Challenge.

Reverend George Cuellar is listed as "Prison Ministry Coordinator" for the organization.

Each service begins with "testimony" and various areas of "study or sermon," with conversion always the obvious goal.

Mrs. Barbara Soemo is the Women's Ministry Coordinator for the organization. She advises that "seven ladies" are now involved in the programming at New Dawn Detention Center in Phoenix. According to Mrs. Soemo, "Only one has had any prolonged involvement with drugs or alcohol." She add, "It doesn't matter that they cannot always relate from drugs or criminal experience [because]&each one has found the true source of love in their lives the love of Jesus Christ."

Mrs. Soemo explains, "The girls are not always receptive at first, but they know Susie and Patty drive over 80 miles each week just to be with them, that kind of love pays off."

The Teen Challenge literature also states, "Recently Teen Challenge was asked to expand their ministry with the girls. . . into the pre-release section at New Day. . .now, Teen Challenge is ministering in both sections of the Detention Center."

Numerous testimonies offered within the Teen Challenge literature outline the impact of the organization on juveniles. One juvenile states, "The people from Teen Challenge give us feedback about Jesus. They care about us and want us to learn about Jesus Christ."

John Sanchez, Director for Yuma Teen Challenge outlines the procedures within their jail and prison ministry. He says, "We then get all the information we can about the offense and the person incarcerated. This enables us to know a little bit about the person and the alleged offense. We then go into the jail and ask for the person incarcerated. We then are faced with a person we've never seen, but we are armed with some information about he or she. People may have contacted us from the jail itself. The person (prisoner) after realizing we want to help, usually cooperates with us, tells us all about himself. We in turn tell them . . .that the only true help we offer is new life through Jesus Christ. It may be on the first visit or the fifth. The person usually realized that the only true change can come through Christ. They either receive or reject Him. The plan of salvation is explained to them. When possible we direct them to a Church for further follow-up. Others having come to this decision 'I really want help through Christ' we will then represent them in Court."

Teen Challenge also has a "Christian Growth Center," which is located in Cave Creek, Arizona. After reading the literature provided by the Christian Growth Center it is obvious that their primary purpose is religious indoctrination.

In conclusion, Teen Challenge represents a direct violation of the guidelines of our religious manual which preclude any "proselytizing."

An organization, which has as it's primary goal "confrontational evangelism," obviously has no place within ADOC religious programs. Unlike Christian denominations, which may contain an evangelical message within the context of their denominational liturgical service, this organization has confrontational evangelism as its stated goal and essentially its only function.

Chaplains throughout the ADOC are expected to facilitate religious programming in a neutral, non-biased manner. Teen Challenge therefore presents an obvious problem. Any chaplain who engages in facilitating a program for this organization could easily be seen as assisting in proselytizing.

Moreover, Teen Challenge poses a serious problem regarding the abrogating of parental authority with minor children within ADOC juvenile facilities. All organizations that have contact with juvenile prisoners should be carefully scrutinized.

When religious programs and/or outside denominational activities specifically engage in the promotion of a particular belief system and/or allow religious groups entrance into the ADOC without a specific request initiated by an inmate, we open the door for other non-requested groups to enter. This may include groups such as the Unification Church, Scientology, Divine Light Mission and Krishna, which have been called "cults." Such groups also have a proselytizing agenda.

We must be careful before setting such a precedent.

Copyright © 1984 Rick Ross
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