By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Rows of cubicles fill every available space. In the Battle Cry call center, where youth ministers can call in to order Battle Cry informational materials, some kids are focused on computer screens, chatting into headsets and taking down information. Others gather together in circles with their cube mates, joking around. Things are quieter in Global Expeditions, where teenagers pair mission-goers with sites, organizing everything from flights to financial arrangements. Over at Acquire the Fire, interns take calls about upcoming rallies, secure stadium venues for the events, hire speakers and make arrangements for the Teen Mania VIPs at each locale.
Though they're hard at work at their volunteer positions, three young women have been pre-approved to take breaks for interviews. Carefully cast by the media-savvy Teen Mania powers-that-be, each has her own unique approach to Honor Academy life.
First, there is Amanda Hughey, a 19-year-old former hip-hop lover who used to smoke a lot of dope and cut herself. "I probably should have been raped two or three times," she says of her former dangerous, drug-filled lifestyle. Church was always in the back of her mind, but she always went back to the temptations of the flesh.
Hughey says her all-time low was when she persuaded a friend who had always vowed never to snort coke to do it with her. "I made her do it," she says, staring at the tabletop in front of her. Then, when Hughey heard about the Honor Academy in high school, she decided "either this is my last chance, or my life is over." She's now in her second year at the school.
Then comes Tara Milburn, a 22-year-old second-year "graduate intern" who abandoned a promising college career at Kent State after a Global Expeditions trip to aid in the 2004 tsunami relief effort. She's older than most of the other interns and concedes that since she came to the Honor Academy already over the drinking age, it was "quite a paradigm shift" to the godly lifestyle. She used to grab a drink after Bible study at her old church in Ohio, but she says now she's learned better. "My actions affect others," Milburn says. She mentors younger interns this year as a small-group leader.
Finally, there is Beth Vanderpol, a sun-kissed, blond 20-year-old from South Dakota who decided boys and popularity would never be as important as Jesus. "I just wanted to be a part of something bigger," she says, unsatisfied with the lives she saw her friends living in their hometown. "I don't think I knew what I was getting myself into," she adds with a laugh. She exudes maturity and confidence, something she's developed in her job as Honor Academy director David Hasz's personal assistant. Vanderpol admits she doesn't really "feel like a kid anymore," but that's OK. Whatever personal sacrifices she might make, she says, "I know the Lord has a plan for my life."
The three challenge the sheltered stereotype associated with Bible-college kids. When I first drove through the security checkpoint outside the Honor Academy that morning, I'd half expected to see a bunch of girls in ankle-length skirts and long, blond braids traipsing across the campus. But my first glimpse into the "Making of a Leader" class proved me wrong. Spiky hair, tattoos and piercings filled the room. Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts competed with Aeropostale logos.
Sure, there's a dress code, though it mainly affects the girls: no skimpy strapped tops and no short skirts or shorts. There's also a curfew. Everyone has to be back in his or her bunk by around 1 a.m.; most interns will come home to three other people in their room who will hold them accountable for that. Also, first-year interns can't date. And, of course, no smoking or drinking. Everything's done on the honor system. There's no need to get heavy-handed with the rule enforcement. Guilty consciences usually catch up with the interns over time, anyway, and the truth comes out.
There's no television at the Honor Academy, and kids aren't allowed to listen to secular music in their first year. That includes, for many kids, Disney tunes and even innocuous light listening such as Josh Groban or Andrea Bocelli. For a year, they're immersed in an alternative universe filled with the Christian version of just about everything, be it pop music or science. But out in "the world," the youth groups who get their lifeblood from Teen Mania are filled with kids who face the challenges of Luce's dreaded "virtue terrorists" every day.
Playing on DVD is that very same sanctuary, several months before. On it, a pot-bellied youth minister yells toward the back of the church, somewhere off-screen.
"Followers of Christ!"
Eleven voices echo back: "WE ARE THE WARRIORS!"