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“So you’re Caleb,” my high school guidance counselor said as she handed me the results of my Pre-ACT test. “You did really well.” I didn’t just have the best scores in my class, I was among the best in the nation. She told me I could write my own ticket, if I would apply myself, and described my college future, throwing out names of the top universities. I wasn’t exactly sure what college I wanted to attend or even what I wanted to do. Probably not medical school, but maybe law school? I was a little taken aback at all of this.
But life doesn’t usually go as you’ve planned. Two years later, college wasn’t in the game plan anymore. Instead, my family had gotten involved with Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute (ATI) program, a strict, Bible-based program with a primary focus on personal character. No degrees were offered, but in its place was a promise to focus on learning to live the way God intended. So now I was flying to Oak Brook, Illinois, to join a law internship program at ATI headquarters. I would study law for a while, work as an intern or clerk for a lawyer and, eventually, to take the bar exam. Or that was how it was presented to me, anyway.
I had never been to Chicago, or the Midwest for that matter, and didn’t know what to expect when I was picked up at the airport. For a kid who grew up in a rural area, Oak Brook was very nice. It was nicer than anything I’d ever seen. There were numerous houses in which the students and staff stayed, all surrounding a small lake and nicely manicured lawns.
The following morning I reported for duty at the law library on the other side of the ATI campus. Or tried to anyway. There was literally nobody there. I walked around for a few minutes, thumbing through the books and poking my head into different rooms. Finally I found somebody.
“The law department isn’t here,” I was told. “They’re all in Australia. Why are you here?”
I knew nothing about Australia, so I explained what the plan was. She had no idea what I was talking about, but tried to find someone who did. Turns out everyone who knew anything about me was also in Australia and wouldn’t be back for another week or so. So I ended up being assigned to the landscaping crew, at least until everyone else got back. Then my law studies could begin.
I got along great with the guy I was assigned to work with on the landscaping crew, and, though I didn’t expect it, we ended up working together for much longer than a week. We tooled around the campus on a little vehicle doing odd jobs, such as tree trimming.
Finally everybody returned from Australia and the empty campus filled. I met with the head of the law group and learned that there had been an error. There was no opening for me in the program. They weren’t sure how that had happened but there was nothing they could do. However, they offered some hope that there could be an opening soon and I was welcome to hang around and keep working in landscaping for a while until something opened up.
This was a major disappointment, but I tried not to let it show. I thought it through. What else was I going to do? I had no college plans, no job offers waiting elsewhere. I would wait it out. A spot finally opened up in the law department. And then was filled by a girl I didn’t know. So instead of the law department, I was transferred from landscaping to shipping.
As the weeks went on, it became more apparent I didn’t really fit in. But I had always felt that way, at least a little. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that nobody’s normal.
I was missing football season during my time at Headquarters and was not happy about it. None of the houses had televisions, so I resorted to walking to the Oak Brook Center mall, which was quite a haul from the ATI campus, and tried to catch snippets of football games on department store televisions.
There were no church services on campus, but there were two nearby churches that a lot of the students attended. On one of these Sundays, I met some kids at church that played touch football after service. They weren’t involved in ATI, they just lived in the area. I eagerly jumped at the chance and started playing with them. No one else from Headquarters played, and I later discovered it wasn’t just because they didn’t like football. Most activities weren’t allowed on Sundays, even chess was forbidden, though Church, naps, and playing an instrument were okay.
One night after dinner, one of the older boys approached me. He mentioned that he knew I had been playing football on Sunday afternoons. “Yeah. Sure am,” I said lightly. “You want to play?” I knew the answer to that already but wanted to underplay it.
“Well, I was just wondering if you think that’s the best use of your time? Spending a Sunday like that?”
“Yeah, I do.” I wasn’t about to be rude to him, and just answered sincerely. “I think it’s a good way to relax and get some exercise. Get ready for the week ahead.” He clearly didn’t agree. “You just pray about it and see if you really think that’s what God wants you to be doing,” he said calmly before returning to his table. I agreed I would do just that.
In addition to football, music proved to be another area where I didn’t fit in. I had a lot of long conversations with my roommate. I thought a lot of the things we were being taught in morning meetings prior to beginning our job assignments were pretty good, but I also began to challenge some of the things I was learning that didn’t seem quite right. My roommate and I talked about music quite a bit. That was a major point of conflict with this group in general. Hymns and bluegrass. That was what was allowed and nothing else. Some of the questions I raised with my roommate I think he had maybe never heard before, and he really seemed to think it through. But he also challenged me with questions and points to consider. Eventually, I played him some of the Christian music I had brought and we discussed if it was actually godly or not.
On another occasion, I got into a discussion I’ve never forgotten. There’s scripture in the New Testament that says, “Do not be unequally yoked.” A couple of the guys used that to say you shouldn’t marry outside of your race. I was flabbergasted. The verse was clearly telling Christians not to marry a non-believer. How could they get interracial marriages out of that verse? They tried to explain, but I don’t remember what they said because I wasn’t buying it for a second. What are the differences between races anyway?
“Are you telling me that if I marry a Mexican or Asian girl then I’d be sinning?” I probed. I was interested in that answer because I had lived in Mexico. They hemmed and hawed a bit on that. They agreed that God made everybody the way they are, but wouldn’t agree that the race of the girl didn’t matter one bit to God as far as marriage went. To be fair, I never heard the topic of interracial marriage taught by ATI. That was just the opinion of those two boys I was talking with, as far as I know.
One day I noticed her. The new girl on campus, from South Dakota — Rachel. We were playing volleyball out on the lawn. I don’t remember if Rachel was any good at volleyball, but I do remember that she was striking and I was determined to try to get to know her. We had a few brief conversations from time to time, but nothing in depth that I can recall. However, I discovered that her brother and I had some things in common and I ended up spending a good deal of time talking with him. Her brother and I talked about religion and God and life in general. I would have liked him even if I didn’t have his sister there in the back of my mind.
We were all sitting at a table in the Headquarters dining room one day when suddenly Bill Gothard was standing next to me.
“Caleb,” he said, “how are you?”
I was surprised and it probably showed in my voice. I swallowed my food. “Fine, sir. How are you?”
He smiled slightly. “I’m fine, too. I’d like to talk to you after lunch in my office.”
“Okay.” I nodded. What else would I say to that?
His office was wasn’t hard to get to. It was right upstairs from the dining room and I distinctly remember I was sitting at the table nearest the bottom of the stairs that day. It was just him and me in there on opposite sides of his desk. I had heard that most, if not all, new students met with him soon after arriving on campus, so he could get to know them and feel them out. But this was the first time we had ever spoken. I’ve always just chalked it up to Australia.
I don’t remember every detail of that conversation but I believe it started off with some small talk of how things were going for me there. Before long we got down to brass tacks. Obviously word of my activities and conversations around campus had gotten all the way to the top. He asked me about football on Sundays. Basically the same questions that the other young man had asked me not long before. I had done nothing but debate and study these topics for the past couple months, so I was ready for it. I pulled out the passage in Romans 14:5. “One man considers one day more sacred; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” It goes on to say that, either way, you should do it for the Lord and not judge each other if your brother doesn’t see it the same way. To me that’s a very compelling case. I don’t remember his exact response now, and I wish I did. But he really didn’t want me doing that sort of thing on Sundays, and I got the impression he’d be even happier if I left football for special occasions only. But that wasn’t the biggest sticking point between us. He next asked about the music.
I told him what I brought with me. I’m not a rebel-type looking to make waves, but I didn’t have any desire to hide anything either. I mentioned I would go on long walks sometimes with my Walkman and listen to music. Sometimes Michael W. Smith. He really had some good stuff. And Carmen. Mr. Gothard just dropped his gaze to the floor and slowly shook his head. I was glad I hadn’t mentioned my Petra albums.
“This music isn’t good,” he said. “Do you really think God is honored by that?”
“Have you ever heard them?” I asked. “Really just listened to a few songs? The words talk all about God and I’m sure you would agree with the message. Some of it just quotes Bible verses even.”
“If the music itself is corrupted, nothing about it can honor God,” he replied.
“Okay, I agree with that in principle,” I said. “But how is the music itself corrupted? You’ve said the emphasis shouldn’t be on the off-beat in a song. One and three in a four/ four measure for example. Where do you see that in the Bible?”
He wasn’t able to point to a specific scripture but he went on to say that if your parents don’t want you to listen to it, it’s rebellion if you do. Now my parents were never very fond of the harder beats of Petra, but they did enjoy some of the other music I liked, including the ones I’d mentioned to Bill Gothard. So for me it wasn’t rebellion.
He gave me examples of bad things that had happened to people that listened to it, and how in Africa, witch doctors used drums in their ceremonies. I thought (but don’t think I mentioned to him) that witch doctors also wore clothes and ate food, maybe while worshipping Satan, but that wasn’t the part God objected to. It was that they failed to give Him glory and worship Him in what they did.
I had one last question that I felt I could ask without things blowing up. “The Psalms talk about praising God with clanging symbols. Do you ever do that?” I asked calmly, almost quietly. I didn’t want to sound accusing because I wasn’t. I really wanted to know what he made of that portion of scripture.
I remember this part vividly. He looked down again and shook his head, pausing for a moment. “It’s just not the way I was raised,” he finally said. Then he spoke again. “Look, we have to close the house you’re in. I’ve been praying about who to send home, and God put your name on my heart.”
I was surprised. Honestly, I didn’t even know Bill Gothard knew my name before that day, although I suppose he’d been keeping an eye on me for a while now.
“Well,” I said, “I have a ticket to go back for Christmas break in a couple weeks anyway.”
He shook his head. “It’ll have to be sooner than that. You can change your flight. If there’s any charge to do so, we’ll pay for it.”
A couple days later, I was on a flight home, never to return.
Nearly twenty-two years later, my thoughts ended up again on Headquarters. An old friend of mine had posted something on Facebook about Bill Gothard being placed on administrative leave in response to allegations of repeated inappropriate contact, sexual harassment, and abuse of female students. I read it over, quite surprised. And saddened. I read the stories of girls published on the Recovering Grace website, many written under pseudonyms. As I scanned, I came across one written by Rachel. Wait, Rachel? I clicked on the title.
This is my real name, and below is my real story. That was how the article started. I looked at the picture. It was her. No question.
Reading these articles really brought me back. “Mr. Gothard” was how we always referred to him. I’d usually heard him called by his full name when he would do the occasional seminar in Seattle, or when we went to a convention in Knoxville in 1991 that he put on. But at Headquarters he was “Mr. Gothard” only and always. He had seemed to be good man, a man that followed God, and expected you to do the same, especially if you lived there at Headquarters. He was calm and steady. A father or maybe grandfather figure to the students. He never married, but like the Apostle Paul had a higher calling. He had books and lessons on how to be pure, how to treat girls. Lessons Numero Uno, Dos, and Tres were never be alone with someone you weren’t married to. I guess he forgot. A lot.
Do I believe these accusations against Bill Gothard? Yes, I think I do. He broke his own rules. I was surprised by this, but not shocked. I’m not shocked anymore when a human acts like a sinner. Whether they are frauds intending to deceive, or honest folks with good intentions, the Bible clearly tells us that “all have fallen short of the glory of God.” If for some reason I have decided that some among us are actually better than that, well … that’s on me.
But was he a “wolf” from the very beginning? A fraud who used the Bible to manipulate when he could? I’ll never know. But I know this: my life, and relationship with God, were made better by the time I spent there. I matured and grew. Bill Gothard has been used by God, of that I’m sure. Of course, the Bible tells us that both Moses and Pharaoh were also used by God. So, really, being used by God is no credit to us at all, just to Him.
It’s funny looking back on it now. I ended up marrying the prettiest girl I’ve ever met, and she was from South Dakota, too. Her name is Abigail and she happens to be Korean. Ironically, the very argument I was using that day would end up being reality for me. And so far, God has continued to give me peace about playing touch football on Sundays, although I take advantage of it less now than I used to.
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