I was 13 when my parents chose to send my brother to Life Focus. Josh was the first in our family—at age 16—to experience an apprenticeship program, and the whole family was both excited and apprehensive. What would the Indianapolis Training Center (ITC) be like? (My parents attended a short admissions seminar there several years earlier, but they assumed a student’s perspective would be different.) Would my brother come home the same, or would he be completely changed? Would we be able to endure seven weeks without him? Would he be able to manage seven weeks without us?
My parents viewed Life Focus as an opportunity for Josh to meet other young men and be discipled in his faith. They weren’t trying to “fix” a problem child. He was a good kid, not a rebel or juvenile delinquent. They believed that Life Focus would, as the description promised, help Josh bring his life into focus and gain a vision for the future.
Little did we know what he would actually experience.
The preparation for Life Focus began at home, several weeks before the program officially started in Indianapolis. I remember the first day my dad started the preparation materials. He asked Josh, “Okay, what time were you up, done with devotions, bed made, ready for the day?” My brother—as usual—had been up since 6:00 AM. Since he shared a room with our much younger brother, he got up, gathered his belongings, and left quietly so that he wouldn’t disturb anyone. He returned later to make his bed. To Josh’s frustration, my dad insisted on recording that he was ready for the day at 10:00 AM, when he had completed the checklist required on the questionnaire. Josh was concerned that he was already off to a bad start. Would the leadership view him as lazy? The question didn’t accurately portray what really happened, but there was no room to explain—just a box to mark off.
For several weeks, Josh wrote short essays, met with my dad to clear his conscience, studied the provided materials, and prepared for seven weeks away from home. He had a packing list of things to bring (phone card, money, slacks, polo shirts) and a list of things to leave home (jeans, music, electronics). The day finally arrived for him to leave. It was an emotional time, but we knew it would be worth it for everything he would gain from the program.
When Josh arrived at the ITC, he called to let us know that he had made it in safely. He also relayed the first of many surprises: the phone card we bought him would be next to useless. Over the course of seven weeks, he would be able to use just over an hour, since the students were allowed only one phone call home per week, on Sundays, for ten minutes. The reason given was that they would be too busy to call any other time, and there were only four phones available during the limited free time each week, so they had to keep calls short out of necessity. Josh promised to write weekly letters as he was able.
On the 4th of July, about a week into the program, Josh called with an extra phone call for the holiday. I picked up the phone and heard, “Hey, guess what? I’m not in Indianapolis anymore!” Two days earlier, the Life Focus leadership had awakened the guys, given them a list of things to gather, loaded them into vans, and left the ITC. After many hours of driving, they ended up at the Northwoods Conference Center in Michigan. Parents were not previously informed. In fact, my parents expressed both shock and betrayal, since they had pictured their son happily working and learning in the ITC, which they had visited several years earlier. At first, they were upset that dozens of young men ages 14-16 had been taken across state lines without even checking with parents, but they decided that the leadership must know what they were doing and accepted it as part of the training.
The first four weeks of Life Focus were a different kind of training. Josh ended up working at the ITC, Northwoods, Flint, South Campus, and back to the ITC. Each move was a surprise both to him and to our family. His weekly phone calls and letters revealed that the students were serving in the kitchens, manning construction crews, tearing down outbuildings, installing sheet rock, painting, cleaning bathrooms, and performing general maintenance and upkeep around various IBLP (Institute in Basic Life Principles) properties. The “spiritual instruction” given during this time involved daily Bible time, both personal and in small teams, brief meetings with speakers, and occasional sessions. The main focus for the first half of the program was physical labor.
Why did Josh pay for the privilege of working for IBLP? He was told simply that it was a time of preparation. Just as Jesus worked for his father for many years before beginning his ministry, so the students must work in preparation for training. During the preparation, the teens were kept very short on sleep, worked long hours, and experienced significant pressure to conform. Any outbursts of frustration, discouragement, homesickness, anger, etc., were responded to with, “The more you are stretched, the more your true character comes out, so you can see what you need to work on.”
Another aspect of Life Focus was physical fitness training. The teens spent hours at a time doing calisthenics, including pushups, crunches, butterfly kicks, and sit-ups. Leaders also included such activities as requiring the students to hold their arms out at their sides for extended periods of time without lowering them. If one of the guys couldn’t keep his arms up, he was assigned additional pushups to perform. Many of these calisthenics sessions took place in the middle of the night, when leaders woke up the teams at 2:00 AM for two hours of exercise. Since students were not informed ahead of time that this would be included in Life Focus, many of the teens were completely unprepared for this level of physical challenge.
During the seven-week program, the teens memorized the book of James. Each week, they were required to pass a written test covering 16-20 verses. The tests were graded for accuracy in spelling, punctuation, and wording. Any more than three errors earned a failing grade.
Unfortunately, the consequences for failing the verse test were quite severe. As mentioned in other Recovering Grace articles, the training centers did not serve breakfast or lunch on Sundays, since staff and students were required to fast that day. If a Life Focus student did not pass his verse test, he also missed dinner on Sunday. He continued to either miss meals or eat a very limited portion at subsequent meals until he passed the test. Each team leader was extremely motivated to have his team members pass, since he also missed Sunday dinner if a student did not pass.
To further complicate the verse test, Life Focus leadership on several occasions chose to administer the test immediately after a 2:00 AM calisthenics session. As a result, the teens never knew when or where they would be handed a sheet of paper and told to write their memory passage. It might be mid-afternoon, first thing in the morning, or at 3:30 AM after spending over an hour doing physical fitness training. Many of the students struggled to pass their tests and spent multiple meals on limited rations. I’m thankful to say that Josh always managed to pass the verse test by taking laminated cards with him everywhere and studying every extra moment he found.
During the first half of the program, Josh and the other students were kept completely in the dark about what each day would hold. He learned to hate the phrases, “You’ll find out,” “We’ll see,” “Maybe,” and “Wait.” When they finally reached the second part of Life Focus, the leaders began sharing more information. The contrast was so drastic that Josh told us, “It’s like when Jesus told the disciples that they were no longer servants but friends because he told them what he was doing” (John 15:15, paraphrase).
Approximately halfway through the program, the Life Focus students received white polo shirts indicating that they were progressing well. Once the leaders distributed shirts, they required students to wear them for various activities. One served as a work shirt, while the second was saved for nicer events. The shirts, probably intended as a reward, became a status symbol, because students who were not progressing did not receive the shirt. They immediately stood out in the crowd of white, bringing additional shame at group activities.
At the end of Life Focus, my dad flew out to participate in the last few days and attend graduation. Josh met him with a hug and tears. Tears? Since when did my 16-year-old brother cry?
Josh came home changed. He knew better than to complain about work. He was almost too grateful for being allowed to have a say in plans for the day, or for being informed of upcoming activities. He quit wearing jeans for several months, since he’d grown so accustomed to living and working in khakis and polo shirts. He religiously continued to memorize Scripture, skip meals on Sundays, and take copious notes during seminars and church services. He told stories of sleep deprivation that left students standing in the back of the room during training sessions in vain attempts to stay awake, and of team leaders popping caffeine pills so they could set a good example for the students. He told about brief periods of voice lock-down, during which the guys could not speak at all until the leaders granted permission.
As Josh gradually readjusted to family life, I found myself confused. Why did my parents send him to Life Focus? Why did it not bother them when he was transported across state lines without their prior knowledge or permission? Why did they simply accept that a ten-minute weekly phone call was sufficient contact? Why did his stories of sleep deprivation, food deprivation, and hard labor not disturb them? Why did they implicitly trust Training Center leadership, many of whom were only in their twenties?
I still don’t know.