By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
It is one of the stranger sights in South Dallas: each day, when the weather is fair, 125 teenage girls stream out of the Ambassador hotel and cross the street into Old City Park.
The girls are dressed almost identically, in navy blue smocks and skirts and crisp, lace-collared blouses, their long hair cinched with bows or bands. All but a few of the teens are white.
Through the tall hedges surrounding the park, one can see the line of them curling like a white ribbon among the turn-of-the-century shops, homes, and artisans' sheds. They walk briskly, giggling among themselves, catching a bit of fresh air and exercise.
Then, after a half-hour of padding the park's circular paths, the girls round the hedge and return to the old hotel, entering two abreast. The big mahogany doors lock behind them.
The sight is so odd, so sweetly anachronistic, that a pair of street-hardened women at the bus stop on Ervay Street stood still and stared. A bemused grin formed on their faces as the girls whooshed by.
No, these teens aren't part of the exhibits at Old City Park, or some lost tribe of Girl Scouts. But they are vestiges of values past, students in an eight-week religious finishing school--works in progress at a factory seeking to build pure and perfect teens. The program is called EXCEL, which stands for "Excellence in Character, Education, and Leadership." It costs $900 per teen.
The girls, who range in age from 15 to the early 20s, come to Dallas from all over the country for the year-old residential program at the Ambassador. Though they hail from a variety of evangelical and fundamentalist churches, they've all been nurtured in the "basic life principles" of well-known Bible teacher Bill Gothard--principles that include unquestioning obedience to their parents, future submission to their husbands, eschewing rock music and television, and remaining chaste.
Gothard, 60, is an unassuming Chicago minister who still lives with his mother, has never married, and drives a 1971 Oldsmobile during the few days of each month when he's home near the ministry's headquarters in suburban Oak Brook, Illinois. His design for EXCEL, he told the Observer, is to provide "apprenticeships" for future "home executives."
Part of the plan is to protect the girls from the pernicious influences of decadent American culture. "I would plead with you parents--protect your sons and daughters from the philosophies of the world," Gothard says in a videotaped lecture. Families, he adds, "should be building walls around their sons and daughters."
Accordingly, all of the EXCEL teens are home-schooled, enrolled in a division of Gothard's ministry called the Advanced Training Institute International. Gothard also runs a residential program called ALERT for young men.
While some of their peers in public schools cultivate a rebel pose--piercing their navels, neglecting to wash their hair, extolling nastiness--these girls carry on dreamily about becoming virtuous wives and mothers, and protecting their virginity.
They rise early and spend their days listening to speakers talk about Christian virtues, and learn the crafts of sewing, calligraphy, interior decorating, and "home hospitality." They spend their spare time writing home and memorizing scores of Bible verses. The girls follow a strict regimen from morning till night; few distractions exist.
There are no televisions or radios in their suites at the Ambassador Hotel; the only music is supplied by an upright piano in the hotel's airy banquet room.
EXCEL has turned back time--and people like it.
It has already proven so popular that future sessions--right now, EXCEL is offered only three times a year--are booked months in advance. Tom Brandon, a Baptist minister from Sherman who directs the program, offered an explanation for its success. "People out there are hurting, and they've tried everything, especially when they're seeing their young people washing out," he says. "They're crying out for help. And when you look at a group of EXCEL girls like we have here, with their radiant faces, that has to bring hope--to know there is something that works."
The EXCEL girls are "taught to stand alone," adds Dolly Brandon, who, with her husband and several other staff members, lives at the hotel. "They're taught to keep their focus on the scriptural principles."
Few people, even in the evangelical community, realize just how much impact Bill Gothard's teachings have had on American Christianity.
Consider how few people get your total, undivided attention for even an hour or two during a week--meaning the person is talking to you, lecturing and exhorting, and you're not talking back. Then consider that nearly two-and-a-half-million people have given Gothard not just an hour or two, but 20 grueling hours for instruction, squeezed into one week between eight-hour workdays and Saturday errands. That's how long Gothard's Basic Life Principles seminar--the "basic seminar," shortened somewhat from its original format--takes.
Gothard has never advertised the seminar, which costs $75 for an individual, and $125 for a married couple (seminar "alumni" can attend subsequent sessions for free as often as they want). And at first glance, it's hard to understand just what the attraction is.
Gothard, after all, is not a great speaker by conventional measures. There's nothing about his approach that suggests he's given any thought to entertaining his listeners, let alone that he's hip to the attention deficits of the MTV generation. His seminar consists of one blue-suited guy--either a pea on a stage in a giant coliseum, or a talking head on a video screen--preaching in a Midwestern monotone for 20 hours about what he calls "Biblical principles."