Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Our Courtship Story: Kidneys, Needles, and Y2K

Continued from Life at IBLP Headquarters and Finding Each Other, Part 6

Remember getting your first email address?

I was introduced to email when I started work at IBLP’s CharacterLink. I was twenty-two and thoroughly impressed. The week before I’d been using a a rotary phone at home, and now I could type messages that arrived almost instantly at someone else’s desk? Get out! My dad got his first account a week or two later; he was in his forties. I remember talking to customers—customers whose names I recognized, whose books I had read, whose sermons my parents had followed, whose kids were held up as role models to me—who had been frightened of the dangers of the Internet but were so excited now about this rapid new mode of communication.               

Our customers, for the most part, did not own televisions. Many did not even subscribe to newspapers. Bill Gothard himself had told his followers that he would not risk the dangers of reading a newspaper with its unwholesome advertising, but let his sister clip out items of interest from U.S. News & World Report to leave on his desk. And these men--these homeschool dads now in their 40’s and 50’s--would give me their credit card number, we would give them an account and, just like that, they were ushered into the wild and wonderful world of 1990’s email.

This was a world of endless forwards and chain letters and “Reply all” and spammers offering to extend your piano by four inches. Google hadn’t been invented yet, mind you. And while Snopes.com existed, many new email users were unaware of it. The male sexagenarians who led Gothard’s Institute may not have had a lot of experience evaluating claims. Perhaps their schools had not offered exercises in distinguishing fact from opinion. For those who had spent many of their adult years overseas with limited means of communication, email’s rapid torrent of words and images must have seemed miraculous.

I had only been using my email account for a year when Bennie McWha, an ex-missionary who ran IBLP’s Indianapolis compound, stood up at lunch before we dispersed for the holidays and read to us from an email he’d received. As far as I could tell, he was deadly serious. The email—an urban legend that had circulated for years—described a traveler who awoke in a bathtub without his kidneys. McWha wanted us to be cautious as we journeyed to our homes, lest we meet a similar fate. I was incredulous that a man of God would spread such a fearful hoax to a group of terribly na├»ve kids. But there it was. We joked about it for years afterwards. (All the more so because it went along with a Dilbert strip we had adopted as a motto during our CharacterLink days in Oklahoma.)

At IBLP Headquarters a few months later, I tried to chuckle at the right times when one of the men, who no doubt thought he was sharing something special, read to the staff from pages of one-liners he had printed off email. Of course, they were the same ones that had appeared in everyone’s inbox sometime in 1998, but these guys were like kids in a candy store. At the Institute Christmas party, we had played a parlor game based on the names of Christmas carols; now you could just read all the entertaining answers in one email and be done with it.

Then there was the Y2K scare. Like many other evangelicals, Bill fell for it. I say fell for it, but really he spread the panic. Staff ordered large quantities of survival supplies (including kerosene stoves and lanterns) which ALERT packaged into kits and marketed to ATI families at Knoxville that year. At several hundred dollars apiece, many families could ill afford the Y2K kits, but maybe the peace of mind was worth the investment. We were glad Otto Koning didn’t burn down the Production Center the day he demonstrated the kerosene lantern (“just like the ones we used on the mission field!”) in front of the assembled staff. It did not light as smoothly as he expected and a pillar of flame shot out of it!

As a secretary in the Publishing Department, I occasionally handled copyright permissions—both granting and obtaining them. One week, Bill had come across an article he really wanted to distribute at an upcoming seminar and it was sent to my desk. I looked it over, and multiple red flags went up. I may not have gone to college and learned about citing sources, but I had spent a year surfing the wild worldwide web and I’d learned a thing or two about credibility. This article, something purporting to be about heart health, didn't pass the smell test. I looked up the website for the organization that had published the piece, and quickly grew more convinced that no educated professional would take this pseudo-scientific group seriously.

Glad to be saving Gothard and his ministry from an embarrassment, I contacted his office with my observations. To my surprise, I was told that Bill wanted to promote the piece anyway. The quasi-medical information may have been misleading, but it supported other points he wanted to make. I was to go ahead with the project and have copies printed. I swallowed my pride, and obeyed my “authorities”, wondering if attendees would be put off by encountering such quackery at a seminar they trusted. I think I realized at that point that my values did not parallel those of the Institute.

When summer rolled around, Bill and all the important staff went off to Knoxville for the big annual ATI conference. Chris, Michael, and I were part of the remnant left behind. After the hectic weeks leading up to the conference, the Headquarters campus felt strangely deserted. Brook Manor was nearly empty, most of the girls having gone to assist their department bosses in Knoxville. I remember that I cooked chicken and rice in my crockpot one day and took it over to the Staff Center so a small group of us could eat dinner together.

Friday evening, with the place still virtually empty, I invited Michael* and Chris, who were rooming together again at one of the IBLP men's houses on Pinehill Lane, to join me out on Brook Manor’s back deck. I dared not let them indoors, but the deck, facing the trees that bordered Bronswood Cemetery, was secluded while being publicly accessible. We sat on chairs and talked. And talked. We talked about life, we talked about God; we talked about our families, our plans, our experiences and concerns with the Institute. We talked late into the night, ignoring the darkness and our bladders and the cooling night air.

Then Michael, our indefatigable night owl, announced that he was ready to go home to bed.

Chris and I begged him to stay a little longer. We were savoring the rare opportunity to communicate deeply for hours. Since our weeks in Indianapolis, our friendship had not flamed with such intensity. To me, it was not sexual or even romantic in any way--I still thought Chris was scrawny, hairy, and sometimes dressed funny--but it was emotionally intimate; Chris was the best friend I had at that moment, and certainly the closest male friend I’d ever had. We would gladly have talked for hours more, but we both knew he could stay only as long as my brother (three years our junior) was there to chaperone. When Michael decided it was time for bed, our magical coach turned back into a pumpkin. Reluctantly, but oh so obediently, we said good night and went our separate ways to sleep. Little did we know how long it would be till our next heart-to-heart talk.

I think it was after Gothard returned from Knoxville that I was given a new position--as secretary to Robert Barth, director of the Legal Department. It had been my dream to work in the Legal Department from the time my family had first toured the Institute's Headquarters nine years earlier. I had spent over a year enrolled in IBLP's law school, and I admired Professor Barth and the rest of the aspiring lawyers who worked for him. I was, quite simply, starstruck. I trained a replacement to take care of Mr. Fredrickson, Mr. Garvin, Miss Julie* and the rest on the third floor, and I moved my personal items to the large desk across the hall from the computer server room. I discovered that I wasn't very good at typing from my new boss's dictation, but I was determined to learn. He would not be disappointed in me!

Change was afoot at Brook Manor, as well. With someone else going home, a single bedroom was vacating, and after six months, I now had the seniority to take it if I chose. My roommate was a dear friend, but our friendship has always been strongest when we are not sharing a bedroom. I could remember having my own room for several months when I was ten or eleven, and for several weeks on a ship in Russia when I was seventeen. Since then, I had always shared with someone else. What a treat to have a quiet secluded space all to myself! Chris, who had had a room to himself his whole pre-IBLP life and was afraid I would get so comfortable I wouldn't care about hanging out with him and Michael anymore, said I would "ferment" alone in there, but I was excited as I gathered up my possessions from the corner room with attached bathroom and began transferring them to the next room over. Sharing a bathroom down the hall would be a small price to pay for the luxury of privacy.

The next morning, Bill must have checked his email. Michael and I were sitting together in the morning staff meeting when, after the usual hymns and prayer, Bill advised us all of yet one more reason to commit never to enter a cinema: AIDS-contaminated needles in theater seats. Michael and I immediately recognized yet another urban legend and while I smirked and raised my eyebrows, Michael--never one to mask the truth--let out a short guffaw. Voluntary or involuntary, his insubordination was noted. 

While I waltzed up to my new office immediately after the closing prayer, Michael was confronted by Gothard himself. Later in the morning, Michael came looking for me. He’d been sacked, effective immediately. I was stunned. Hadn’t we been more subversive numerous times before? And now, to be fired for laughing at something that was clearly untrue being used as a scare tactic? It wasn't like either of us had been to a movie theater since we'd been scared by The Secret of NIMH way back in 1982!

After our many months of obedience and determined, albeit strained, loyalty, this was an insult. Even when we disagreed with the many ridiculous rules, we had tried always to be guided by honesty. If it was forbidden to laugh at a nude emperor, perhaps the Institute was worse than we feared. I commiserated with my brother and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to process the news. My life at Headquarters would certainly be different without his companionship, and his car. What would happen to my friendship with Chris, without Michael there to link us all as a "natural grouping" and to keep any activity from being perceived as a [forbidden] date?

Continued at Fork in the Road


  1. thanks. i have been waiting to read more. You have a good writing "voice".

  2. "Offering to extend your piano by four inches." I am still laughing.

  3. It figures that his ministry would promote quackery! Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  4. Oh Jeri, you're bringing up so many lost memories today. :-) I'd forgotten about the AIDS needle and the other humbuggery that was shared as gospel at those meetings. Ayiyi. Your poor brother, being fired over something so incredibly stupid. What arrogance.