The Calgary Herald ran an article recently about a documentary entitled “Kidnapped for Christ.” The documentary exposes the horrors that occurred at an allegedly Christian school for troubled American teens, called Escuela Caribe, located in the mountain village of Jarabacoa in the Dominican Republic. Through harsh treatment and isolation from the rest of the world – and supposedly within the paradigm of a “Christian” milieu – these teens take up life in this remote compound. Life involves school, chores and fairly frequent servings of physical and emotional abuse.
I felt driven to share some thoughts because I actually have some inside knowledge about the situation. For six months my wife and I lived in the same town in the Dominican Republic that Escuela Caribe is situated near, and a childhood friend of mine – I’ll call him Leonard – actually worked at the school for a year and a half. Let me be clear from the outset; Leonard is by no means a staunch defender of the school who pines to return. He openly confirms, and condemns, the horrors that are reportedly described in the film. However, given this first- and second-hand knowledge about the school I have some questions about how the film, and the school it exposes, are being presented to the public.
Because there are so many hot-button issues surrounding this film it would be foolish of me to not clear the air on a few points before diving in.
- I do not support the harsh discipline that was typical at Escuela Caribe.
- I emphatically support the general purpose behind the film; exposing corruption and immorality wherever it is found (in Christian circles or otherwise).
- I am not in any way attacking Kate Logan, the filmmaker, or anybody else associated with the film. I don’t know them from a hole in the ground so I have nothing kind or unkind to say about them.
- I have not seen the film, so this is not a response to it. I initially read about the documentary at the Calgary Herald and I investigated further at the film’s website (http://www.kidnappedforchrist.com/). My comments about the film are based solely on what I read from those two sources. I am not trying to “disprove” what’s in the film, rather I want to raise what I consider to be some very relevant questions and perspectives that I hope people will consider as they watch it.
With these disclaimers in mind, here are a few questions that the viewer of the film ought to consider when watching it.
Are the teens really “kidnapped?”
Well, that would depend on who you ask. For the teenagers who end up there I am certain the process of their arrival sure seems like a kidnapping. Leonard tells me the teens were usually taken at night, from their homes, with absolutely no warning. There was often a struggle.
But from the parents’ perspective the teens were most certainly not kidnapped. The parents sought out the school. They signed a contract. They knew when the school representatives were coming and they knew where their teens were going. They paid their monthly dues to keep their teens “enrolled” in the school.
The “kidnapping” of the teens that ended up at Escuela Caribe was perfectly legal. It would have been similar to a teen who might have been forcibly apprehended by police and taken into custody. In fact, many of the teens at the school probably had that experience too; run-ins with the law were common for those at Escuela Caribe. It’s hardly a kidnapping when seen in those terms.
To call it “kidnapped” for Christ is strongly misleading. Does the film clarify the title, or just run with it?
Was the school really that bad?
Yes. Unquestionably yes. It was horrible. It was the subject of lawsuits that were almost certainly deserved. It was traumatic for both the students and non-administrative staff. And that’s just the stuff that was officially sanctioned by the administration. There were also accusations of sexual abuse and other immoral activities that were not part of the “program.” The list goes on, and I am certainly not going to try to downplay all of that horror.
But there is more to the story. As awful as the worst of the worst was – and what follows is not to be confused as a justification for that – there was a best of the best. Discipline was doled out in response to inappropriate behavior. Appropriate behavior, on the other hand, was rewarded. The school worked with a “levels” paradigm and students could work their way up to higher levels. With the higher levels came less discipline, greater freedom, more earned trust and greater rewards. Many of the teens “got it” and cleaned up their act accordingly. In fact, Leonard described camping trips, sleeping in tents on the beach and enjoying lobster, freshly caught from the waters off the coast of the Dominican Republic. They got to tour the beautiful island (and trust me, it is astonishing), taste local cuisine (not quite as astonishing, trust me…) and generally “getting away from it all” for even a week at a time. Yes, they had vacations! Well, the ones in the higher “levels” did anyway.
As Leonard pointed out to me, such a system is not unlike the real world. When I start at a job I get minimal pay, minimal vacation and my every decision is monitored. The longer I’m there, and if I work hard and ethically, I am subjected to less supervision, I get pay raises and increased vacation. If I mess up, I can be reprimanded or even fired. In extreme cases I could be sued.
I wonder if the film highlights the reality that many of the teens do, in fact, clean up their act and endure far less harsh discipline and enjoy far greater rewards for earned trust. One can hardly complain about fresh lobster, camping on the beach of a Caribbean Island.
What about the staff at Escuela Caribe?
I ask about the staff not because it’s a natural question that one would ask, but because Leonard’s experience as a staff-member has made it clear that it is a question that ought to be asked. According to Leonard’s description of the school it bore a lot of the characteristics of an authoritarian, manipulative, cult. Communication with the outside world was heavily censored. The staff were not exactly “on board” with the whole thing, but their views were not open for discussion. Leonard’s initial interest in working there rested on a false representation of what they were up to, and during his stay there he was almost as much a prisoner as were the teens he worked with.
For years after he left, Leonard was still dealing with the trauma of having been treated as he was, and having been forced to treat other human beings in the manner he was forced to treat them. I wonder if Kidnapped for Christ highlights the struggle of the staff; torn between what the authorities are insisting they do and what Christ – and common moral decency – tells them they ought to do.
What about the whole “gay” thing?
The article in the Herald describes how that documentary follows the lives of three of the teens, one of whom was gay and was apparently sent to Escuela Caribe for the purpose of “correcting” his homosexuality. The article goes on to quote Logan as saying that the reason she chose those three students was, “because they represented overall the type of kids that were sent to this school” implying that homosexuality was a common motivating factor for sending a teen to Escuela Caribe. Furthermore, screenings for the film that were listed at the website when I checked (they disappear after the screening dates have passed) were, for the most part, at gay film festivals like the Fairy Tales film festival the Herald article describes. The homosexual theme, it would seem, is no peripheral issue to the film and the promotional efforts behind it.
I asked Leonard about the whole “gay” theme in the film and he sincerely wasn’t sure what to make of it. He didn’t recall that any of the teens during his year and a half stint at Escuela Caribe were gay. If they were, it certainly was not a focus of attention, nor a motivating factor for their stay. And it’s not like the administration at Escuela Caribe were even remotely concerned with discretion; there would be no reason to tippy-toe around the issue if one of the teens were gay.
I investigated further. There is a website of alumni from this “ministry” who share their experiences, including why their parents sent them there in the first place (http://nhym-alumni.org/alumni/). I was unable to find a single person claiming they were sent there because they were gay. It is not a stretch of the imagination to suppose that a handful of gay teens may have been sent there over the years because their parents wanted to set them straight, but it is a massive stretch of the imagination to suppose that one or two gay teens were “representative” of the whole.
For all of its horrors – and the filmmakers were right to expose those horrors – Escuela Caribe had little or nothing to do with homosexuality or any kind of sexual reorientation. I fully support exposing the truth about these kinds of institutions, but I do not support exaggerating the truth to make it out to be worse than it actually was.
Is Escuela Caribe representative of Christian ministries in the Dominican Republic?
My wife and I spent six months living in the Dominican Republic, doing ministry with the locals. The town of Jarabacoa is teeming with Christian ministries. We worked with an organization called ANIJA (operated through Kids Alive) that ran a small school for local kids whose parents could not afford a decent education. I can assure you that there was no abuse going on at that school, except for the abuse of the English language at the hands of a teacher from the Southern States (Perhaps Arkansas?) who insisted that the only way to pronounce the English language was with a deep southern drawl. We also dabbled a bit in working with a local orphanage; again an upstanding ministry from all that we could tell. We spent two months living with a couple who were involved with Medical Missions International. We still keep in touch with them. Their organization provides health care resources to locals who have little access to it, including doctors and dentists from North America who fly down at their own expense to provide free services to the locals.
In fact, in order to physically reach Escuela Caribe, one has to literally drive right past some of these other Christian ministries that are operating ethically and doing a remarkable work down there. I wonder if Kidnapped for Christ mentions these other ministries? Does it share stories of the innumerable Christian volunteers working in reputable organizations, making a significant improvement in the lives of those they minister to, and helping folks in a developing nation enjoy some of the privileges of life in a first-world nation? From personal experience I can assure you that Escuela Caribe is just as representative of Christian ministries in Jarabacoa as the gay teen in the film is “representative” of the teens that get sent there. It was a very anomalous ministry among the Christian ministries in Jarabacoa.
Is there anything good that came out of Escuela Caribe?
Leonard filled me in on some of the local service projects that the school participated in. These outreach projects served a few excellent purposes. First, they were able to make a difference in the lives of those in the community by helping out. Second, they taught the teens many life skills they may not otherwise have acquired; cooking, cleaning, yard work and so on. Lastly, these opportunities to help others gave the teens a sense of pride at making a difference in the lives of others. They were truly bonding experiences and character growth opportunities for the teens who started thinking outside of themselves in order to understand their duties toward their fellow humans.
The film describes some of the punishment that got doled out at the school, but it should be known that there were times when Leonard and the other staff chose to accept the punishment on behalf of the teens. And the magnitude of punishment that the staff received was by no means a watered down version of what the teens would have received. Some days Leonard had trouble even walking because he was in so much pain; undeserved pain. Leonard’s choice to accept the punishment that he most certainly did not deserve, just to offer some mercy to the teens (who in many cases did deserve at least some kind of disciple), is an act of selfless heroism that was relatively common at the school. This drive to extend mercy, to accept unwarranted punishment, has an inherently Christian flavour to it, and the act of mercy on the part of Leonard was rooted squarely in his deep commitment to, and understanding of, the Christian Faith. Even in the midst of such horror, falsely perpetuated in the name of Christ, true Christian charity shone through.
And if you poke around at the alumni website I mentioned earlier you will find some of them admitting that it was not all bad. Some of them admit that their time at the school was a factor in them turning their lives around. Now I’ll be clear again; a handful of success stories by no means justifies the abhorrent practices that brought about those success stories. The school was still a horror show that deserved to be shut down, but it should be pointed out that, even in the midst of such dehumanizing horror, the best of humanity did shine through. There was some good; a few diamonds in the rough. And those diamonds, by and large, reflected the glory of Christ.
I cannot help but wonder if the documentary spends some time showing the selflessness of the staff at the school. They were troubled and perplexed by what they saw, and by what they were asked to do, but they did their best to put their Christian Faith into action in that horrible situation. As a result, some days they could hardly walk. Does the film document this? Does it describe their service projects in the community? Does it describe the character growth experienced by some of the teens?
Is what happened at Escuela Caribe grounds for a crisis of faith?
The Herald article reports that the process of making the film shook the filmmaker, Kate Logan’s, Faith. She now identifies as an Agnostic. It is a good and reasonable question to ask whether the horrors perpetuated at Escuela Caribe in the name of God are good grounds for questioning, or even rejecting, God.
From Logan’s perspective, the atrocities are clear grounds to seriously undermine faith in God. But Logan merely watched the horror; she did not live it out. Leonard went through a significantly more troubling experience than Logan, the creator of the documentary. Logan filmed the horror, Leonard received the horror. Sometimes Leonard was forced to dish it out. Which raises an interesting question, why did Logan abandon her faith but Leonard maintained his? Why would a witness to the abuse suddenly become unsure of whether God exists or not while somebody who received the very abuse Logan witnessed did not lose his faith?
If the horrors that took place at Escuela Caribe make you uneasy, as they should, before you come to any conclusions on the matter please make sure you have considered all that data. It is true that many atrocities took place “in the name of Christ” but please recognize that the overwhelming majority of Christians reject and renounce what took place there in the strongest possible terms. And we are fairly confident that God rejects it too! Escuela Caribe is by no means representative of Christianity.
Please also consider the good that was done in the name of Christ. The teens were involved in service projects aimed at improving the lives of locals. Leonard and his colleagues volunteered to accept punishment they did not deserve in order to extend grace to the teens. Such actions were motivated by their Christian Faith. Somehow I don’t think most people would reject a Christianity that looked like that.
Lastly, please consider the many Christian ministries that do some amazing work in the little town of Jarabacoa in the Dominican Republic. Providing education to local kids whose parents could not otherwise afford it. Providing shelter for orphans. Providing medical and dental care, free of charge to the poor. Building homes, building relationships and building a nation.
In other words, when considering the actions of the so-called Christians at Escuela Caribe, please remember that “one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl”
(Because we could all use a little more disco in our lives)