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."
For visual aids, Gothard prints block letters in magic marker on an overhead projector. As his bow to multi-media, Gothard performs an exercise called the "chalk talk"--in which he paints serene landscapes with mountains, palm trees, and pale, hovering crosses using sticks of brightly colored chalk. While he paints, rubs, and blows away chalk dust, he expounds on the Bible.
Gothard never raises his voice, never shouts, never solicits an "Amen." He never pleads for money--or even takes up an offering. He punctuates his lectures with amusing tales from his childhood.
Yet people leave these mass gatherings testifying how Gothard has enabled them to understand the Bible for the first time. The key, they say, is his practical, step-by-step instructions for dealing with complex problems. "I know it's rather simple to give steps," Gothard says. "Scripture is given to us as a foot lamp--enough light for the next step."
While sophisticated ministers have frequently scoffed at Gothard's paint-by-numbers theology, he has clearly mined a deep need for down-to-earth Bible teaching--especially on youth and family matters.
Gothard began presenting the seminar in 1965. While it is often identified with teenagers, in fact adults make up a large part of the audience. The basic seminar will be offered at the Dallas Convention Center on August 21-26--one of a few national locations where Gothard personally presents it, instead of appearing on videotape.
Tim Levendusky, one of Gothard's staff members at the Ambassador, says some 60,000 people from this area are seminar "alumni."
The seminar centers on what Gothard has identified as the seven "principles of life": design, authority, responsibility, suffering, ownership, freedom, and success. With occasional flashes of humor, Gothard explains the principles and pulls out hundreds of brief scriptures to back them up.
It's difficult to sum up the seminar in a few words, but it's clear that one aspect of Gothard's teaching, the concept of a "chain of command" in home and society, has gained the most currency among evangelicals--and caused the most controversy.
Gothard teaches that all individuals must be under some authority--an "umbrella of protection"--or they are in rebellion against God; it is the only way to be useful and to deflect the temptations of sin.
Children, of course, are under their parents' authority--until they marry, Gothard says. At that time, a young woman is transferred to the protection of her husband. Under his authority, she is counseled to submit and develop a "meek and quiet spirit." If she disagrees with him, she is taught to make an "appeal"--nonetheless deferring to any decisions he makes, as long as they don't require her to do something immoral.
"God worked through...a chain of command," Gothard says. "When he wanted something done, he simply gave the word, and the appropriate one down the line carried it out."
The young husband must answer directly to God--as well as any other legitimate authorities in his life, such as an employer, pastor, or government. He is also encouraged to seek his wife's counsel. If he wields his authority like a tyrant, God will send a "harsh messenger" to warn him that he has abused his right. "As long as we're under these umbrellas of protection," Gothard says in the videotaped seminar, "Satan cannot get through with destructive temptations. Whenever we get out from under that, we are opening ourselves up to tremendous destruction."
While some evangelical critics have pointed out the devastating effects a strict "chain of command" can have in a family where there is physical or verbal abuse, Gothard says the principle of authority never fails those who adhere to it faithfully.
"I'm not at all concerned that these [principles] will not work," he insists. "Only that you will not fully, quickly apply them. Apply them all and you will see results."
When girls come to EXCEL, they voluntarily place themselves under the authority of Bill Gothard. They see nothing ironic about putting so much faith in the social teachings of a man who has never married or had a steady girlfriend.
Gothard squeezed in a rare interview with the Observer during a recent swing through Dallas. Our conversation was only supposed to last 20 minutes, but Gothard answered questions for 45, disregarding an aide's conspicuous signals--ahem, ahem--as time ticked away.
This boxy, elfin-faced man, looking precisely as he does in the videotaped seminar--he seemed to be wearing the exact same navy suit, white button-down shirt, and bland spotted tie--seemed entirely devoid of affectation. In fact, at one point in the interview, he looked down at his pants and realized with a chuckle they were a different shade of worn blue. "I guess I got the wrong jacket for this..."
Gothard lives with his mother in a Chicago suburb. His father, to whom he often refers in the seminar, passed away a few years ago. He says he lives on a modest salary from his multimillion-dollar ministry--which has more than 1,000 staff members--owns no property, and still drives a 1971 Oldsmobile. "I never have to lock it up, and I never lose any sleep over it," he says proudly.
Asked if he will marry some day, Gothard pauses, then says, "Uh...I would like to. Yeah, I really would." His lack of time at home, he says, has hindered him from making the commitment earlier.
Gothard realizes that, with his strict behavioral guidelines, dress code, and ban on all rock music (Gothard won't even suffer "Christian contemporary" rock, because he believes its addictive beat invites sensuality), he's going against the grain of evangelicals' attempts to reach young people.
"If you talk to young people on the deepest level of their problems, then you can identify with them," he says. "But if you try to identify with them on the surface--with their dress and outward items--you never get down to the real problems they're facing."
Today's young people are turning out rotten because they get out from under their parents' umbrella of protection, Gothard says. Their problems, he adds, stem from three root causes: bitterness, greed, and immorality. But "when a young person is mighty in spirit, the world stops and looks."
Gothard believes the temptations available to teenagers are far deadlier than when he began his ministry in the 1950s on the streets of Chicago, preaching to gang members. Today, kids "are more concerned about what their friends think than about what their parents think or about what God thinks. We find that we can help them, but we have to separate them from all of their former influences."
Young people at EXCEL and ALERT, he says, have the opportunity to grow up in relative innocence.
"The young people here are not juvenile delinquents," Gothard says. "But we all need to have either discipline within, or controls without. And part of EXCEL is to train these young ladies how to have inward disciplines, so when they're on their own, they don't have to have people prodding them on the outside, but they're driven from within."
Gothard's ministry launched Dallas' EXCEL program in fall 1994 at the Ambassador, to pass on instruction in virtue to Christian girls.
Built in 1905, the Ambassador went through several incarnations as a hotel. While its conference rooms and 114 suites were completely renovated in 1983 at a cost of $3 million, occupancy rates were dismally low in succeeding years, and the grand hotel closed its doors for good in early 1990. Its demise seemed inevitable because of its unfortunate positioning on the wrong side of Interstate 30 in downtown Dallas.
But Gothard came to the Ambassador's rescue in 1993, when his ministry paid just $800,000 to purchase the old hotel from private owners who, in turn, had acquired it from the Resolution Trust Corporation. Gothard paid cash; he does not believe in borrowing money for his ministry.
Today, the Ambassador--whose ancient elevator was the first installed west of the Mississippi--shares a neighborhood with several fleabag motels, a day-labor hall, and homeless shelters.
The hotel was dubbed the Dallas Training Center, and details of staff and volunteers began readying its beautiful interior, which remains well-preserved.
Gothard decided to fashion the Dallas Training Center after another ministry facility in Indianapolis, which offers a residential program for court-referred juvenile delinquents. The Dallas hotel, however, would focus on the EXCEL program for home-schooled teenage girls. The center also offers seminars on Biblically-based financial management, as well as breakfasts for corporate leaders interested in Gothard's life principles, and occasional showings of the videotaped basic and advanced seminars.
"There are five functions we believe are important for a woman to know how to do in order to find her identity and find fulfillment," Gothard says. "Our problem is that today, most of these five have been taken out of the home. So there is not the fulfillment that there could have been."
The five functions, he explained, are for a woman to teach her children; to offer hospitality to guests; to possess a basic knowledge of medicine and healthcare, with special attention being given to natural childbirth (one of Gothard's stranger quests is to gather a 1,000-voice choir of children born into the world after their parents underwent reversal surgery for vasectomies and tubal ligations); to operate a home business; and finally, to teach others--"going out into the community and helping people."
Gothard's model of the home executive is taken from a literal reading of Proverbs 31--a poetic portrait of the wife of noble character.
"Who can find a virtuous woman?" the passage begins. "For her price is far above rubies."
EXCEL girls are taught a list of virtues gleaned from Proverbs 31 and other scriptures. Gothard has identified 49 virtues, to be exact--beginning with Truthfulness and Obedience, rolling on through Diligence, Dependability, and Decisiveness, and ending with the ever-unpopular traits of Deference ("Limiting my freedom in order not to offend the tastes of those God has called me to serve") and Meekness ("Yielding my personal rights and expectations to God").
Devising strategies for "remaining pure" is a constant focus of EXCEL. It is a given in these circles that a young man or woman will seek to marry as a virgin.
A scandal broke out in the evangelical community in the early 1980s, in fact, when Gothard's younger brother--who handled day-to-day operations--confessed to sleeping with several young female staff members in Gothard's ministry. Though all of the parties involved reportedly were single, Gothard's brother resigned, telling Christianity Today that "I have failed deeply before the Lord."
Bill Gothard, shaken by the episode, stepped down temporarily to contemplate what had happened. After three weeks, the ministry's board restored him to his post.
Gothard's quest for purity has led to strong counsel against dating. Instead, young people are encouraged to "court," with an eye toward marriage. It is Gothard's antidote for what he calls the "broken-heart syndrome." A young, single person's duty, he says, should be to keep his heart wholly devoted to God.
He takes the courting principle even further: a young man must ask for, and receive, permission from the girl's father to court and eventually marry her. The father "holds the key to his daughter's heart," Gothard says, and will only pass it on to a young man when he has proven he possesses the character to be a strong, responsible Christian husband.
In the meantime, the girls are to cultivate trusting relationships with their fathers--whether they're good, bad, or indifferent guardians of their daughters' virtue.
The girls at EXCEL enthusiastically sign on to this scheme--gushing about their wonderful daddies, or telling melodramatic tales about how they sought their fathers' forgiveness for their adolescent missteps.
Gothard ties the father's role into his principle of authority. "That's the one principle that is probably most misunderstood today, that is most under attack," he says. "Because everyone wants to reserve to himself the right to make final decisions. They don't want somebody telling them what to do, whether it be the law, or their parents--or certainly not a husband.
"And yet," he adds, "when a person really understands the authority principle, it's a freeing thing."
EXCEL's daily regimen is tight, fast-moving, and fills all the hours of the day, from 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Gothard's homey advice to youngsters is to rise early and immediately make their beds, so they are not lured into the sin of slothfulness.
But there's not much time and material for temptation at the Dallas Training Center. While its officials have retained the hotel's original furniture and color scheme, all of the televisions were hauled out and sold.
That's because Gothard's standard of purity is a moving target. Whenever a girl empties her life of distractions and impurities, he says, she discovers something else that God has pinpointed in her character requiring the remedy of divine grace.
Staying pure helps the girls maintain a "clear countenance," Gothard says. The EXCEL teens talk about it all the time--how "the eyes are the window to the soul."
"Many of them come from broken homes and have had major problems in their past," Gothard says. "But they have been able to clear their consciences. They have been able to tell their parents about secret failures they have had. So they don't have any guilt.
It is 7:30 a.m., and the seven girls in EXCEL Team One have already been up an hour and a half. They've showered, dressed, and squeezed onto two couches in the sitting room of their Ambassador suite for the daily "Wisdom Search." Each one carries a Bible--some adorned with padded gingham covers, others lined in lace.
The girls' 19-year-old leader, Joy Branch, asks the girls to read Psalm 51--a plea for mercy from God, written by King David after Nathan the prophet had exposed his adultery with Bathsheba.
There is obedient silence, and the rustle of Bible pages. After a few moments, Joy asks the girls to share the wisdom they've gathered from the Psalm.
"We need to go to God with a clean heart," says Stacy Stewart, from Pendleton, South Carolina.
There is more silence, and Branch, an unusually mature teenager from Atlanta, fills in the awkward spaces. She talks about America's steady slide into degradation, and proclaims that, in exasperation, God has "given us up to our own lusts."
She ends the morning's Wisdom Search with a prayer: "Lord, help us have a teachable spirit this day."
Joy Branch can talk. Scriptures roll off her tongue like some kids talk trash, and she's ready with an answer or explanation for the world's most complex problems.
This is Joy's third stint as an EXCEL team leader--she isn't paid by Gothard's ministry, but receives free tuition--and she's getting into the groove. "People think we're getting better and better--better technology and so on," Joy says. "But I feel like our country was most successful in terms of the family unit and the success of its people when it was first begun. And ever since we lost prayer in school and lost the Bible as the final authority in the areas of morality, everything has shot down. There's no absolutes.
"If you could get each teenager that's enjoying their parties and their music, if you could get them right down to the heart, I think they're hurting--they're frustrated because they can't communicate with their parents. They're looking for all the things the family might have given them in friendships, movies, entertainment. And they'll stop dead in their tracks one day and say, wow, I can't believe I did this--just living for the moment, not dealing with all the stuff that's underneath."
Joy tells how her parents "gravitated" toward home-schooling after attending Gothard's basic seminar. Her mother eventually taught Joy and her siblings through Gothard's curriculum.
The turning point in her life occurred when a young couple for whom her family had once provided shelter came to a hideous end. The young man, evidently jealous of his wife's success in a career, stabbed her to death one day, then killed himself.
In his will, which he'd dropped in the Branches' mailbox some time before the murder, he stated his wish that Joy and her family care for the couple's little boy.
Joy, who was 11 at the time, had grown extremely attached to the boy, named Devin. But his maternal grandparents eventually claimed custody of the child, and the Branches didn't fight it. Joy and Devin were forced to part, and Joy was devastated.
Today, she ties up the series of tragedies with a moral. "Oliver [the husband] came from the world, and he had all the background of partying and stuff," she says. "Through him, I saw what the world had to offer--I saw the wide gate. And I didn't want it for myself.
"I think Satan had just taken so much ground in Oliver's soul and had deceived him. It doesn't take an evil, vile, gross man to do something like that. We're all this far away from making a decision that could change our life."
After Devin's departure, Joy made her decision--to follow God, whatever the cost. To find a way to squeeze into the narrow gate.
"I'm committed to the Lord--I guess that's the bottom line," Joy says. "The purity we talk about is not something we've attained because we've been home-schooled all our lives or shielded from the world's philosophies. There's no way I can isolate myself and become pure, because we're sinful. The purity comes from the Lord Jesus."
After the morning's scriptural exercise, the girls line up downstairs for breakfast.
Laura Turke, a shy 15-year-old from Battle Ground, Washington, tries to explain what she likes so much about EXCEL. "I think I like how I've grown spiritually more than the sewing and the colors," she says. "We had our colors done. I'm a warm spring--which is very unusual. I look good in yellows. If you put a winter color on me, my skin would look uneven."
A girl named Katy walks up from behind and gives Laura an affectionate hug. Still hanging onto her pal, she expands the color analysis. "If you put a bright purple on her," she says, "she'd look sick."
After eating muffins and high-fiber cereal--Gothard frequently warns against the nutritional evils of white bread--the girls prepare for their morning lecture session in the Ambassador's elegant meeting room.
Lauren Bell, an administrative assistant for the program, leads the girls in "A Wonderful Savior Is Jesus My Lord," a Fanny Crosby hymn dating to 1890:
He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock
That shadows a dry, thirsty land...
The teens' clear sopranos ring high above the upright piano, played by a straight-backed woman with a lace doily on her head.
Bernadine Cantrell, a woman with big hair and a thick Southern accent, initiated the day's topic: "Pursuing the practice of hospitality."
"We have had neighbors who moved into our neighborhood, and seven women were standing at the door with a pound cake," she says.
She then leads the girls in a silly ditty, complete with hand motions. Some girls giggle at the line, "I was as happy as could be with my banjo on my knee." But all participate enthusiastically.
The effect is surreal--a room full of American teens putting their hands over their heads and making like a spreading chestnut tree.
Then, on an overhead projector, Cantrell lists numerous suggestions for "entertaining the VIPs in your life--your family." Among them: "A beautifully set table--pull out that china!" "Explore old memories." "Favorite foods." "Cloth napkins/no guests."
The girls follow along on their outlines. "Is your home obviously a place where believers live?" Cantrell asks.
She talks about how virtuous wives adapt to their husbands, and find any way they can to ensure his success in life. "When the men in this world find out how special we are, oh man--there's gonna be a stampede to get these EXCEL girls," Cantrell chirps.
"There's a lot of upside-down thinking in this world," she adds. "There's people who say men should adapt to us. But that's not what the scriptures say."
At lunch, Laura Turke is scribbling verse after verse on a sheet of theme paper while her buddies roll bean burritos. "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world..." she writes in pencil, hunched over her paper, pinching her lips in concentration.
The EXCEL girls must memorize more than 100 verses during their eight weeks in Dallas. The verses come in sets: there's the "tongue tamers," for example--scriptural passages that warn about the tongue's "power of life and death." There are the familiar Beatitudes ("Blessed are the pure in heart...") spoken by Jesus. And, of course, the 21-verse description of the virtuous wife in Proverbs 31. The girls and their leaders, in fact, often refer casually to "the Proverbs 31 woman."
Proverbs 31, however, says nothing about cramming dozens of Biblical adages written in Elizabethan English into your head, and Laura got tongue-tied when it came time to recite her verses to Joy. "I get very nervous, and my mind went completely blank," Laura says meekly.
If she can't recite her verses to her group leader by Saturday, she'll be called before Mr. Gothard himself to disgorge her penitential scriptures.
Despite the pressures, Laura says she's having the time of her life at EXCEL. She learned about courtship, and overcoming anger and bitterness. She sewed a dart for the first time, and made good friends. "My goal is to be the best mother and wife that I can be," she says. "And this kind of goes along that line."
When told that few teenagers today seem to share those goals, Laura looks puzzled. "Most of the people I'm around want to be wives and mothers. I really don't know of anybody, personally, who doesn't want to."
In the hallway, just outside the meeting room as the teens are preparing for their daily walk in Old City Park, one girl presents a discreetly bundled baseball jacket to Dolly Brandon.
"Is this OK?" she asks timidly.
"Let me see..."
Mrs. Brandon picks up the jacket gingerly, as though it were a soiled rag or some dead thing, and quickly looks it over, shielding it from the view of other girls passing by.
Then, bundling it up again, she hands it back to the girl.
"That's OK," she says, "if it's the only jacket you have."
The jacket's questionable status stems from a few stenciled words across its back. The words--whatever they were; the girl and Mrs. Brandon kept them hidden--were judged suitably innocuous.
Joy Branch later explained the little drama in the hallway.
"The T-shirt and jacket thing--I think it's probably to live above reproach. There are some T-shirts that aren't acceptable, but one person may think it is, and one may think it isn't. Also, a man's eyes may be drawn to a certain thing because of the words.
"Especially in this part of town--we don't want to walk out in skin-tight pants. We're representing the Lord in what we do. We want to live totally above reproach."
Branch confesses that she used to have a problem with the institute's rigid dress code, which requires the girls to wear navy skirts and white blouses. She privately mocked the institute's teens, and vowed never to be forced into Mr. Gothard's mold for the perfect teenager.
"These things were presented to me and I looked at them as rules before--things to limit my freedom," Branch says, leaping quickly to her happy conclusion. "Now I see them as road signs for my protection. Mr. Gothard is out for your best--out for God's best. It's not a mold. Everybody is just going along the same path trying to become more like the Lord."
Branch's change of heart led her in 1993 to personally ask Gothard--"though he didn't know me from Adam"--for forgiveness. She confessed to him that she'd harbored bitterness in her heart toward his organization, and felt compelled to "just make it right."
Branch says she wept. Gothard forgave her.
"That just brought so much freedom and joy," she says. "My misconceptions of the program--they were so sad. That mindset produced in me resistance and a hard heart toward something God had called me to."
At EXCEL, each girl receives a list of guidelines that she is expected to follow when she is temporarily transferred from under her parents' authority to the protective umbrella of Mr. Gothard.
Laura Turke happily shared her list one day.
"Our goal for EXCEL is that young ladies should be radiant examples of Christ's character," the guidelines begin. "Our further goal is for them to be godly young ladies, in every situation, manner of speech, dress...in and out of training sessions, in rooms, and in relationships with one another."
The "young ladies" are exhorted to be punctual, keep their feet off the furniture, and refrain from "boisterous behavior." Possession of Walkmans, radios, music cassettes, and "other books or magazines" than the Bible and EXCEL curricula is banned.
Guidelines for dress are more specific. The girls are instructed to pack four navy skirts and four white shirts; the skirts must fall below the knee and fit loosely. The teens must leave their slacks, shorts, and culottes at home. "Hair styles should be neat and feminine," the guidelines add. "If you have a permanent, avoid the 'wet' look."
Necklines are prescribed with an admonition: "Make sure your dress or blouse has a high enough neckline (in front and back) so as not to be defrauding in any way."
If a guideline is disregarded, the girl will be summoned to a meeting with Tom Brandon. For the second infraction, her father is called.
"Any further instances," the guidelines warn, "will be reported directly to Mr. Gothard."
Sarah Iliff, an outgoing, good-humored Kansas native, skips down the carpeted stairs, clutching a small treasure.
She opens her hand, revealing a red plastic heart and interlocking key. Each is attached to a string from which to fashion a pair of pendants.
"Joy gave us this heart," she says. "And later on, she gave us the key so that we can send it to our dads."
Sarah giggles, suddenly realizing how silly the trinket looks in the hands of a 19-year-old woman.
"This," she says, still smiling, "is to symbolize that your dad's holding the key to your heart till you choose to give it to your future husband. It goes along with the concept of a one-man, one-woman relationship, where we save ourselves emotionally and physically for our future husband."
Sarah goes on to tell an instructional tale about her former boyfriend, a guy named Bob who worked at a dude ranch. Sarah fell in love with him, and admits she gave away a small piece of her heart.
"I'm still having a hard time with that," she confesses. "It was only last year. I'm the kind of person who has to learn through circumstances, and I wish it wasn't that way, but I learn hard. I am convinced, from now on, that I'm going to be a one-man woman.
"It [her romance] was not God's will, and He made that pretty clear. But through that, I made a commitment with my dad to be honest with him in all the relationships I was having, letting him be the protector of my heart." Sarah plans to write a letter to her father, to send along with the plastic key to her heart. She's having a hard time finding the words to say.
"When this courtship thing was first presented to me, I was like, 'Are you kidding? I am not gonna allow my dad, who is 40 years old, to tell me who I can like and who I can't like.'"
But through her experience on the dude ranch, Sarah--whose parents met on a blind date in college while drinking green beer on St. Patrick's Day--has realized the need for her father's protection.
One of the joys of her late teens, she says, has been getting back under her parents' authority after a mild rebellious spell, and eliminating from her life certain sources of temptation, such as the girlfriend with whom she'd sneak out of the house and run around the neighborhood.
Now, she spends her free time at home in innocent pursuits--hanging out at the mall, playing basketball with her younger brothers, sitting at the doughnut shop, and doing homework. She's considering becoming an interior decorator, and hopes to marry some day. She is a virgin.
"We're going back to the dark ages," she says, laughing. "But y'know, can you be too pure?
"What I want is a guy who hasn't had sex with another person--who hasn't given himself emotionally to other girls. So what does that require of me? My grandma has a saying--'Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?' And the question is, how much are you willing to pay for it?
"Are you an heirloom that's gonna be given away some day for no price--because you're a treasure? That's what I want to be. Because that's what the person I fall in love with would want."
In the evening, just before 9 p.m.--time for the girls to retire to their rooms--the sounds of stampeding feet and girlish squeals fill a hallway, then dissolve into sighs and gasps as the girls attempt to compose themselves.
Lights-out is 9:30 p.m.
Joy Branch is in no hurry to get to bed.
"EXCEL is almost like heaven to me--it's just the innocence that's here. The purity. The joy," she says. "There's no spirit that it's cool to be cruel.
"Maybe the world thinks it's bizarre. Maybe it's like we're all standing on our heads. We see life from a totally different perspective.
"But I think it's funny," she concludes. "Sometimes I think the world is standing on its head.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- Houston vs Dallas: How Super Bowl Performers Stack Up
Thu., Feb. 11, 7:00pm
Fri., Feb. 12, 8:00pm
Sat., Feb. 13, 2:00pm
Sat., Feb. 13, 7:00pm
- A Texas Doctor Again Puts on His Hat as Virus Hunter
- Why the Crackdown on K2 Among Downtown's Homeless Won't Work