Saturday, March 8, 2014

Life at IBLP Headquarters

Oak Brook, Illinois            January-July 1999

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." 

I shared Brook Manor with about a dozen lovely and hard-working ladies. It was an enormous house split into numerous "apartments" with a common kitchen and living area. In spite of sharing proximity and chore lists, I suspect we all hid a lot of ourselves from each other. Not knowing who could be trusted and how much, I tended to err on the side of caution. Once a month we would have a "house dinner", sponsored by (or mostly sponsored by) the Institute. We often planned these occasions to coincide with birthday celebrations. They were a fine excuse to dress up and enjoy a meal together, at an area restaurant or in Brook Manor's basement dining room. One time we cleared enough space and danced the Virginia Reel, half of the girls lining up to take the boys' part in spite of their skirts. Another time, we all chipped in a few dollar to buy the birthday girl one of her favorite movies: "While You Were Sleeping". She was delighted, and I was slightly embarrassed because I'd never heard of it. 

Boys weren't allowed in Brook Manor and as all the "authorities" at Headquarters were male, our house was a more or less unpatrolled zone. Inside, the campus dress code was largely disregarded. It took me a while to get used to this freedom. When I encountered one of my housemates wearing Daisy Dukes in our kitchen one day, I was genuinely shocked and had to try desperately not to stare at her legs! I had purchased my first pair of navy sweatpants, to wear as pajamas. I remember the snowy Saturday when I wore them outside my room for the first time. I had no plans to leave the house that morning so after I fixed myself breakfast, I sat down at the piano and practiced some hymns--in sweatpants and a turtleneck! I remember willing myself not to give in to the awkward feelings, forcing myself to chat casually with a friend who stopped to listen. I am certain I failed dismally. 

One weekend following a heavy snowfall, word spread through the grapevine that there would be sledding on the hill below our drive after dark. I grew up going sledding every winter, but had been doing so in long skirts since I was about ten. Now, I had pants! Cotton sweatpants, too be sure, but they would be warm, and it would be dark, and my parka covered my hips anyway so my butt wouldn't defraud anyone! I slipped on my boots and zipped up my coat. I thought about calling Chris to make sure he knew about the party, but that seemed inexcusably forward, especially since he'd never seen me without a skirt. I felt daring enough playing in mixed company with my legs visually separate at the knee. Chris is still mad that no one invited him to join in the fun that night. He would have loved the rare opportunity to socialize with peers in the dark! His house leader Josh was there that night, and the children of some staff families. Sleds were in short supply, but the kitchen staff produced their biggest baking trays and the bravest among us bounced down the hill on those. That evening was a beautiful respite from the usually oppressive atmosphere of rules and meetings avoiding unprofitable "folly", though I couldn't shake the feeling that we might be caught having fun. Like the unregistered Christians in BJU's film "The Printing" when the soldiers found them holding services in the woods. "This meeting is over! Go to your homes!"

Every weekday, the kitchen staff prepared lunch for everyone. It was served in the dining room on the lower level of the Staff Center. This was our big meal of the day. For those with little cooking experience or without convenient transportation, breakfast and supper could be a challenge, but I loved this opportunity to do my own meal-planning. Never before had I had so much control over my own diet! Every week or two, I would get Michael* and Chris to take me to the Jewel-Osco down the road and I would stock up fresh produce and other groceries. Strolling the aisles was a walk in the free air, a reminder that the rest of the world, with its sensual magazines and alcoholic beverages and romance and prescriptions and ham sandwiches, went on as usual. Our sequestered life was the anomaly. I liked to just look at everything in the store, especially the floral arrangements.

Grocery shopping was almost like a date, hanging out with the boys and making suggestions about what they could eat that week. Sometimes I got the ingredients for a whole meal and after cooking a casserole in the crockpot at home, the guys would help me transport it to an empty office conference room where I would produce plates, forks, and napkins and we would dig in together. We would invite other stragglers to dine with us, but most of them were too frightened to participate in such a bold unauthorized activity. On weekends, we had picnics--on a colorful blanket on the hill overlooking IBLP's pond, or on a bike ride further afield. Chris and I still use the little blue cooler he bought to carry on the back of his bike all those years ago.

I tried really hard to integrate with Headquarters life. After all, it had been my dream for years and years. When one of the staff moms had a new baby, I baked cookies and took a casserole to their house. Michael and I joined the handbell choir that met one evening a week. We didn't sound very good--many of us had no prior experience--but we had a lot of fun. I sometimes played the grand piano for staff meetings. I went back to Pacific Garden Mission with the Garvins, singing Fanny Crosby's "Safe in the Arms of Jesus" for the "down and out" men in the audience and feeling a connection to the great "cloud of witnesses". I was asked to tutor Telos students  in English, and that took up some of my evenings. Some nights there were "work parties", like the night we were all "invited" to stay late and stuff envelopes. We spent hours on that mailing, sent out to mayors all across the country. But it didn't count as overtime because Gothard had another treat for us: Papa John's pizzas to reward our diligence and availability. I also had chores at Brook Manor and at the office. IBLP didn't bother with a cleaning service--we were assigned a rotation on the chart for cleaning the office bathrooms. My secretarial responsibilities included vacuuming, dusting Dwight Fredrickson's office, and maintaining his personal humidifier.

Besides being a director's secretary, I was an official tour guide. When ATI families dropped in to visit, I would show them around the building and recount the ancient Institute lore: the story of Bill Gothard's eyes being healed so he didn't need glasses anymore, the birthday card collection, the expensive printing equipment God had provided... The printing department was my favorite place. I loved any excuse to go down there. The work there was loud and smelled funny and was interesting to watch, and the men there didn't wear suits. Sometimes the families wanted to have a picture taken with me, as if I was a celebrity! My other favorite place was the attic. We didn't take guests up there, but I sometimes got the job of filing papers away in huge cabinets. Inside a closet, I'd found the file cabinet that held all our completed Faith Journals. One time I pulled mine out to look at. I still remember the years I labored to fill up those lines, sometimes shivering in the kitchen over a cup of herbal tea while the rest of the family was asleep, sometimes nibbling a heel of day-old whole wheat bread which I was later accused of stealing, sometimes struggling not to fall asleep over it on my bed on a Sunday afternoon. And now, my pages and pages of neat handwriting was stuffed in a drawer in a closet in an attic in a Chicago suburb. I wondered if anyone had ever read what I wrote. Sometimes I wish I had retrieved it then, but, no, I filed it back neatly by alphabetical order.

I once rode in Gothard's conversion van (the Gothardmobile) from Chicago to Indianapolis for an overnight trip. Gothard had some reason to visit the ITC, and invited any ladies from IBLP Headquarters to come along to help out with the "work" there. It made sense when he announced it, and I had no plans that weekend, and I like to travel. It seemed like a good opportunity to say hi to some familiar faces in Indiana. I packed casual clothes, because I intended to work. In the van, it was Gothard and five of us young women. He sat in the middle; I think I sat next to him. He read us a letter with a question about the IBLP policy against beards and consulted us about what we thought he should say. I don't think he got the answers he wanted. I said my dad had a beard when I was young. Ruth* said Gothard had given her dad a dispensation to keep his beard. Kathy* said that when her dad shaved off his beard to join ATI, she had cried. Bill looked so crestfallen that I felt the need to cheer him up. I assured him that he had convinced me: I would never grow a beard!

When we got to Indianapolis, there really wasn't much for us girls to do. The ladies there looked confused as to why we had come, dirtying rooms they had cleaned and beds they had made--for what? We were Headquarters staff, Gothard's favored ones, with paychecks, in a different class from the Indy staff. I had been in their shoes not long before, and I knew they were looking down on me now. It was an uncomfortably awkward position. In the afternoon, there was a picnic of some sort at South Campus. I couldn't escape the feeling that I was crashing their party for no reason. I tried to enjoy myself anyway and caught up with some old acquaintances, including a girl whose parents had sent her to join the Russia team but had made the ill-fated decision to get her hair trimmed the week before. Bill had determined that her stylish cut was too short and would jeopardize the integrity of the Institute's image. She had been banished to South Campus for six weeks so her hair could grow out. She blamed only herself, but I felt so bad for her! On the way back to Chicago, I sat up front with the driver instead of in the back with Bill. I preferred not having my hips touch his, and it was far more daring to converse with a male peer.

The Oak Brook staff lunches were followed by announcements, so attendance was pretty much mandatory, unless one had a dispensation from a supervisor. Fasting days were designated once a month. On those days we had a big prayer meeting at the other building instead, then went back to our offices and listened to our stomachs growl till we could leave at 5:00. In late spring or early summer, the Voeller family (Jim Voeller was the director of ATI) shared at a staff meeting about their experience switching to a vegetarian diet. Mrs. Voeller, at least, was very excited about raw vegetables and the Hallelujah Diet became a major topic of conversation. Especially at lunch, where salad became the entree for weeks on end. A salad bar, with the ubiquitous whole wheat rolls. The poor girls in the kitchen knew these meals were inadequate for the hardworking adolescent boys who depended on lunch for their daily protein. They put out bowls of diced chicken and shredded cheese on the salad bar, and replaced them as fast as they emptied. Someone said they went through more cooked chicken that way than when it was the main dish! Bless their hearts, those cooks kept us all going. (When Michael and I were fired and returned home to Michigan, it was weeks before Mom dared serve us salad again.)

Chris, Michael, and I had been warned not to go downtown together, but no one had said we couldn't ride our own bikes to the trails on the lovely green grounds of McDonald's Oak Brook headquarters, or stroll down to the nature preserve north of IBLP's campus. Once we all went to drop someone off at the airport, and then decided to play hooky from that night's staff meeting. We got ice cream and went to a playground instead. Chris and I had such good times on those trips, always with Michael along for propriety. Chris was still interested in me, but shoved down all signs of it so I was blissfully ignorant. Some Sunday mornings we walked together to a church in a Hinsdale neighborhood. I admired the budding trees and colorful flowers along the way, while Chris secretly admired me. He still visited Kansas once a month. One such weekend, Michael and I explored as far as Wheaton, where we spent hours at the Christian history museum on the Wheaton College campus. I imagined Billy Graham and my idols Jim and Elisabeth Elliot wandering those same hallowed sidewalks.

One warm Sunday afternoon at Brook Manor, a bunch of us girls went out on the deck in tank tops and shorts (or pulled-up skirts) and sunbathed for an hour or more. Some of us with fair skin roasted quickly in this uncharacteristic exposure. Jill* was one of Bill Gothard's favorite blondes, and she was afraid her red face would give her away and get her in trouble. The next morning, he did indeed notice when he saw her bright countenance!
"Looks like you got some sun," Bill remarked.
"Yes, I did!" Jill replied, trying to keep cool.
"Well, you wear it well," said Bill.
In my alcove office
Fortunately for all of us, Bill never remarked on my appearance. One of his henchwomen did, though, the day I wore a homemade vest over my white blouse. It was white, with a pattern of large blue roses. Lauren came to my office and admonished me. It would need to come off, she said. Dress code said ladies who worked in my department could wear only white shirts and navy skirts. Well, I couldn't remove it right there and then. I was wearing no camisole that day, and my mom had drilled into the fiber of my being that my bra must never be seen through my clothes. So I spent the rest of the morning vibrating between feelings of anger and feelings of guilt, until it was lunchtime and I darted over to Brook Manor to change my garments before rejoining the group.

Many evenings, Michael, Chris, myself, and other friends who were bold enough to join us, would gather on the rug in the front lobby of the Production Center. Some evenings we prayed aloud together. Other times we read aloud, from Chris's hardbound copy of  A Tale of Two Cities. I had my own paperback copy, which I had found at a garage sale. In that old-fashioned room, under the painting of Gothard's parents, we sat on the floor and let Dickens' timeless characters in an age of revolution come alive in our imaginations.
" was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair..."

*Names are pseudonyms.

Keep reading at Kidneys, Needles, and Y2K


  1. My wife tells tales of having to wear a skirt over snow pants to cross country ski. (She wasn't ATI, but part of Jonathan Lindvall's group.) It does seem the fun police were particularly out to make sure girls didn't have any fun...

  2. I had the same experience with Lauren and the discriminatory dress code over a vest that had an argyle pattern on the front and was solid navy in the back. Interestingly, this vest was no problem in Russia, but then again the blue/white dress code was equally applied to male/female staff and missionaries. I can only assume she must be really embarrassed by those days.

    1. Yes, she was hurt by IBLP as much as any of us. She is blogging now, too, and healing. One reason I consider IBLP a cult is the way it used us all against each other.

  3. This is old, but what is the story about how Bill Gothard's eyes where healed and he no longer needed glasses?

    1. In the hallway behind the reception desk, Bill had glass display cases highlighting early IBLP lore. One case had a pair of glasses, which he no longer needed because God had healed his vision. That's what we told guests on tours, anyway! I wished later I'd asked more questions. :)

  4. What was the story about Bill Gothard's eyes?