Religion & Liberty Online

Washington Fiddles, Texas Burns

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Breaking government monopolies on providing social services takes more than patience and perseverance—it takes a witness.

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While Washingtonians in 1995 fought welfare battles on Capitol Hill, a struggle initially below press radar began in San Antonio. The July 5 afternoon temperature was 90 degrees as James Heurich, with sleeves rolled up and tie loosened, sat at his scarred desk in the office of a Christian anti-addiction program, Teen Challenge of South Texas.

Heurich, a big bear of a man, was a drug addict and alcoholic when he went through Teen Challenge in 1973. In 1995, heading Teen Challenge in San Antonio, Heurich tried to figure out how to answer a letter from Austin, 70 miles to the north.

The letter, from John Cooke, assistant deputy director, Program Compliance Division, Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (TCADA, pronounced “tacada”), declared, “TCADA is suspending the license of Teen Challenge. … Teen Challenge shall not provide chemical dependency treatment services. [Teen Challenge] shall make appropriate transfers and referrals for all clients remaining in the program.”

Heurich understood the difference between his program and a traditional recovery center: Teen Challenge emphasized not just treatment but also spiritual transformation. Students worked through a yearlong Bible-based curriculum that emphasized God’s love. The goal: Have students confront their destructive choices and self-sabotaging behavior. Many dropped out, but three-fourths of those who persevered left behind their addictions and usually stayed clean. That’s better than the typical addiction treatment program with its single-digit success record.

Cooke, interviewed in his air-conditioned office in a 12-story building near the state capitol, wore a pinstriped suit, starched shirt, and cufflinks. He said Teen Challenge’s record of success was irrelevant: “State law says they must be licensed. Outcomes and inputs are not an issue for us. If they want to be licensed, all they have to do is abide by our standards.” Those standards meant that counselors had to sit through at least 78 hours of classroom training at the University of Texas or other institutions.

Heurich, however, did not want to hire chemical dependency counselors who fought addiction the government’s way. He hired people like himself who thanked Jesus for turning their lives around. Heurich wanted counselors with street smarts rather than classroom training. He was also a paper-minimalist (VIOLATION of state standard 116a, which required each personnel file to have nine specific sets of records) and a believer in informally talking through problems (VIOLATION of standard 144b, which required a formal, six-step client grievance procedure).

Heurich also could not afford the cost of doing things the government’s way. Teen Challenge students paid $25 a day in 1995. Some programs cost $600 per day. Cooke, asked about the cost of running a program the government’s way, merely responded, “That’s what you take on when you open a center. You have to take a look at what your overhead is. If you decide you can’t afford lights, do you open the center and burn candles?”

Impasse. Heurich refused to close down. The 23 young men living at the San Antonio center had nowhere to go: Many had burned their family ties. Many had already failed at government-run or government-approved programs. But if Heurich did not obey, he would be committing a Class A misdemeanor, which could mean up to a year in jail, a fine of $4,000, or both.

I heard about the stalemate and learned that Heurich and his supporters planned to have a demonstration on July 17 in front of the Alamo, which is holy ground in Texas. I hopped in my car and drove south from Austin. The afternoon temperature was 93, but 300 people at the shrine were singing with gusto “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Many in the mostly Hispanic and Black crowd wore Victory Fellowship’s white T-shirts with red and black lettering. Bas-relief sculptures of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Travis looked on from above the Alamo visitors education center. Some ex-addicts and ex-alcoholics at the demonstration carried signs flashing financial messages such as “Once a Burden, Now a Taxpayer.” Others conveyed that same message with a spiritual frosting: “Because of Jesus I Am No Longer a Debt to the State of Texas.”

The rally included brief testimonies. One grizzled man said, “I was a junkie in the streets of San Antonio for 13 years. I was a thief. I went to the government programs. They didn’t work. Jesus set me free.” A pretty woman in her 20s recalled, “When I was a hooker, the Christians would come and talk to me. I’d blow smoke in their faces, but I was sort of listening. Then I came and learned.”

It was cool and hushed inside the Alamo itself. Some visitors stood before one of the wall plaques—Colonel Travis’ “Letter to the People of Texas and All Americans in the World”—and read the words silently, sometimes moving their lips, “I call on you in the name of liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character to come to our aid, with all dispatch. … P.S. The Lord is on our side.”

Outside, in the heat, pleas for help continued. A brawny guy held a Bible and told how, when he was 14, “My dad said, ‘I’m gonna show you how to be a man,’ so he tied my arm and showed me how to shoot heroin. Then we were in the pen and he’d point me out to other prisoners and say, ‘That’s my boy, he’s just like me.’ Now we both know Jesus, and we’re clean.” One woman said, “Teen Challenge isn’t being closed down because it’s ineffective, but because it works. It is a threat to the whole poverty industry. These people who are trying to take Teen Challenge’s license: Where were they when I needed help?”

The speakers at the rally were in essence penning a new letter to the People of Texas and to all Americans: “Come to our aid, with all dispatch. P.S. The Lord is on our side.” My contribution was a cover story and a column in World, the weekly news magazine I edited at the time. At the end of my column was a request I had never before made: “Letters of support for Teen Challenge should be sent to Texas Governor George W. Bush, Box 12428, Austin.”

Several days later, letters begin to arrive. The Wall Street Journal published a column I wrote on the rally. More letters arrived. Then came a phone call: “Could you come by the governor’s mansion for lunch and explain what’s going on?” Sure.

Gov. George W. Bush got it right away, helped by his own experience in leaving behind sometimes-heavy drinking. He told Assistant Deputy Director Cooke and his bosses to back off. He proposed, and the Texas legislature passed, three pieces of legislation to keep state bureaucrats on a leash. He instructed his officials to help rather than hinder faith-based community service groups. Over the next several summers, I visited a bunch of them and occasionally let Bush know about some great ones.

One, in South Dallas, the Sunny Acres Community Center, was in a humble, wood frame house that had been a crack joint but was now offering GED classes and tutoring to young men leaving the drug industry. The transformation came because a retired couple, Calvin and Johnnie Mae Carter, wrote 150 letters to the chief of police about drug and crime problems. They kept explaining how drug dealers blocked off streets so they could sell dope more easily. Finally, the police moved in, rousting the dealers. That made the classes possible. “Once folks are trained, once they’re computer-literate, the jobs are there,” Calvin Carter said, “but it takes a lot to turn around a 21-year-old who can’t read.”

I visited Jackie Mixon, founder of the Ideal Neighborhood Association in a drug-filled South Dallas neighborhood that belied its name. Mixon, then a 44-year-old former teacher who brought up her three children in a house her grandfather had built, asked neighbors who owned houses not to rent them to dealers. The dopers, though, responded with threats. Most people gave in. When one elderly woman refused to rent out part of her duplex to dealers, they invaded her home and threw her to the floor. She screamed.

Neighbors came to her aid. They held prayer walks and cooked dinners to raise money to set up a neighborhood association. They sponsored neighborhood cleanups. Mixon emerged as the leader and had to spend several nights in motels as dealers threatened her life. Finally, the police responded. “Undercover cops came in. In six weeks, the drug dealers were gone.”

Mixon, though, said officials later made and broke a variety of promises: “Different government agencies come over and they all say they’ll put money in, but they become discouraged and then they leave. They’d rather go to an easier neighborhood, I suppose.”

In the summer of 1995 it was so hot in Freddie Garcia’s east San Antonio backyard that Dante might have portrayed it as an infernal circle—but lunch at a folding table for 10, with brown, black, and white people sharing visions of God, made it seem a foretaste of heaven. I listened in as Freddie told reforming gang members and prostitutes that 30 years before he had stood in a gas station’s men’s room, probing for a vein to shoot heroin. His infant daughter lay on the filthy floor in a nest of shredded toilet paper: He had taken her along on a burglary.

After he kicked heroin, Freddie founded Victory Fellowship, which spread through the southwest and offered havens to men strung out on drugs, desperate for a place to sleep and eat. It was crucial that someone with empathy and experience sit by addicts, mopping their brows as they began to sweat in withdrawal, wiping away their vomit, reading to them from the Bible, and praying for them.

This is the third installment of an eight-part series on poverty and welfare reform in America. Click through for parts one and two.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky is the chairman of Zenger House, which gives annual awards to journalists who write great articles with street-level reporting; the author of 30 books, including Moral Vision: Leadership from George Washington to Joe Biden; and an Acton Institute affiliate scholar.