"He [Lester Roloff] parlayed his traveling tent revival into a multimillion-dollar enterprise by founding the reformatories he called the Roloff Homes and asking his radio listeners for “love gifts” to sustain them."
Lester Roloff, a prominent leader in the Independent Fundamental Baptist Movement (IFB), once said, "Whether you like it or don't like it, if you live rotten, you are going to have some rotten works follow you." No doubt, Roloff never would have seen himself and the 'homes' he established as rotten and neither would the 'true believers' in the IFB. However, we believe history can be an excellent judge and from our vantage point, the fruit of Lester Roloff's ministry is rotten to the core.
In this post we are going to focus on just one of the homes Roloff established –the Rebekah Home for Girls. For those of you who are not familiar with it, here is how one IFB church bragged about this 'home' for girls.
The REBEKAH HOME FOR GIRLS, located in Corpus Christi, Texas, is our largest home. We have had fifteen hundred girls in about seven years and the three dormitories have a capacity of about three hundred beds. It is located on 440 acres of land. This has been the most miraculous work we have ever seen and has been fought and despised by the devil. I have never seen such miracles in all of my ministry.
Miraculous work? If it was so miraculous, why did it close in 2001? Some in the IFB might say — because it "has been fought and despised by the devil?" Well, we'll see about that…
The Rebekah Home for Girls was established by Lester Roloff back in 1968 in Corpus Christi, Texas. It was the very first Roloff home for girls, and its aim was to help young girls who were addicted to drugs, banished from their homes, involved in prostitution, serving time in jail, or in need of refuge. It sounded like a noble undertaking, especially to those in the IFB who are known for having a low view of the female gender.
In 1967 Roloff established an independent Baptist church in Corpus Christi called Peoples Baptist Church. In his sermons he railed against communism, television, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gluttony, and psychology. Not only that, he was a King James Version Only kinda preacher. In addition to his ministerial duties, Roloff estblished quite a speaking circuit and used his airplane to maneuver around the country. It appears that this is what really motivated Roloff. According to an article Remember the Christian Alamo in the Texas Monthly:
He [Roloff] parlayed his traveling tent revival into a multimillion-dollar enterprise by founding the reformatories [emphasis mine] he called the Roloff Homes and asking his radio listeners for “love gifts” to sustain them. The adult homes—the City of Refuge, the Lighthouse, and the Jubilee Home for Ladies—ministered to alcoholics, drug addicts, and petty criminals who straightened their lives out with Scripture, hard work, and clean living. The Anchor Home ministered to boys, and the Bethesda Home to pregnant teenage girls. But his greatest success was with the Rebekah Home for Girls, which he founded in 1967. The Rebekah Home took in fallen girls from “jail houses, broken homes, hippie hives, and dope dives” who were “walking through the wilderness of sin,” he told his radio listeners. Roloff remade these “terminal cases” into Scripture-quoting, gospel-singing believers. Girls who had been saved harmonized along with his Honeybee Quartet at revivals and witnessed to the power of the Lord on his radio show. He showed off his Rebekah girls at every turn, and he was amply rewarded: Each day, packages arrived at Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises laden with checks, cash, jewelry, the family silver—whatever the faithful could provide [emphasis mine].
Upon reading this portion of that article, it is my opinion that what was truly going on at the Rebekah Home for Girls and the other Roloff homes was a form of exploitation. Not only did Lester Roloff misuse the residents of these so-called 'homes' for financial gain, but he traveled around the country with the Honeybees (a singing group) and coerced IFBers to support his growing enterprise.
So what was life like at the Rebekah Home for Girls? According to an eye-opening article in Mother Jones,
Roloff's wards were subjected to days in locked isolation rooms where his sermons played in an endless loop. They also endured exhaustive corporal punishment. "Better a pink bottom than a black soul," [emphasis mine] he famously declared at a 1973 court hearing after he was prosecuted by the state of Texas on behalf of 16 Rebekah girls. (The attorney general responded that he was more concerned with bottoms "that were blue, black, and bloody.")
Another source lists the behaviors that would result in demerits at the Rebekah Home for Girls, specificaly:
talking about "worldly" things (such as television shows, secular literature, or old friends)
singing songs other than gospel songs
looking at boys in church
failing to snitch on other sinners
being too close to another girl (called the "Six Inch Rule")
falling asleep at any point during the day
if you were a "new girl" (arriving within the past 30 days), you could not make Eye Contact with another "new girl"
(before they removed the doors from the bedrooms) closing your door before "Lights Out"
talking after lights out
not finishing food
forgetting to wear a slip (which many girls are not accustomed to)
The above source also described the home's living conditions and rules of communication:
In the facility there were no televisions, no radios, no magazines. Only approved books were to be read. The approved movies that were watched in the home consisted of Little House on the Prairie and videos with preachers shouting about the penalty of sinful living, music, and thoughts. The bible was enforced every moment of every day. Anywhere from (approx.) 30-60 bible verses were recited aloud and as a group at least once a day. Bible verses were recited before meals, before songs practiced and performed for church performances (the girls performed every Sunday for the People's Baptist Church and a small group toured at different times throughout the year), and sometimes during disciplinary action.
Speaking of anything worldly was forbidden, as was singing worldly songs.
Meeting eyes with boys in church was barred.
Letters going both in and out of the home were read first by the staff and censored…
Phone calls, which could be placed only to immediate family members, were monitored. If any negativity concerning the home was brought up, the call would be disconnected immediately.
No conversations were private, since staff listened in on the intercoms that were installed in each bedroom. The staff could listen to each room separately. They could also talk through the intercoms into the rooms of any girls they believed to be talking.
And, of course, there were the consequences for disobeying at the Rebekah School for Girls: (link)
Licks: Being spanked with a wood paddle. Other times, whatever was handy was used. (i.e. the rod from a set of blinds)
Confinement: Spending weeks hanging her head without speaking or making eye contact with anyone. This punishment was called "red shirt" or "discipline". The former name being due to the fact that these "deviant" girls were given only red and white checkered shirts to wear. They were only allowed to wear any other shirt when they went to bed. They were also made to stand with their nose to the wall and their arms at their sides all day. A 10 minute break allowed if they complied to the Helper's satisfaction. Many times the Helper would forget to give them a break. In this instance, the Red Shirts just had to remain silent and hope for a break to be given. Or, the Red Shirt could take a demerit (or three) for raising their hand to remind the helper or taking their nose off the wall– no matter what, the Red Shirt will be in trouble for the Helper's oversight. More often than not, the Helper was sitting at a desk with nothing better to do than critique them.
Sitting on the wall: Being required sitting (suspended above the floor, as if there was a chair beneath them) with the back against a wall and without the support of a chair, arms outstretched with the palms flat against the wall. Helpers would come around to each girl and place a book on their thighs, if the book slipped off, they would push the girl's hips down. If they failed twice, they might have to start over.
Kneeling: Being ordered to kneel, while either have two bibles resting on each outstretched palm or with pencils wedged between the legs.
The lockup: (THIS WAS NEVR USED WHILE THE MCNAMARAS WERE OVER REBEKAH, THE ROOM HAD BEEN MADE INTO A REGULAR DORM ROOM. IT WAS OBVIOUS WHICH ROOM HAD BEEN THE LOCKUP ROOM, THOUGH; THERE WAS A CAGE OVER THE INTERCOM AND THE WALLS WERE SOME SORT OF METAL WITH WALL PAPER OVER THEM. THE ROOM WAS SOMEWHAT UNSETTLING TO BE IN, EVEN IF YOU DIDN'T KNOW IT'S HISTORY) An isolation room used as solitary confinement. During the stay in the lockup the intercom piped in hourlong prayers from the pastor (Lester Roloff or Wiley B. Cameron) that would play in loops 24 hours a day. The detained girl could use a toilet but there was no possibility to wash or bathe. Girls have told of terrible smelling survivors of the lockup when they were released after a month of isolation.
Calesthenics:* Girls would do laps (1 lap run + 1 lap walk = 1 lap) for first 5 demerits, and then 100 of chosen exercise for every demerit after that up to 10. "cherry pickers", "calf lifts", "jumping jacks", "squats", "arm circles", "lunges", "leg lifts", "kills" (10 slow "calf lifts", 10 fast "calf lifts", jumping 10 times, 10 "scissor jumps", 10 half jumping jacks, 10 whole jumping jacks, and then going back through the exercises finishing with the 10 slow "calf lifts"= 1 Kill= 1 demerit worked off) etc. No matter how hot it was, you would do the exercise outside. When it would sleet or was below freezing, they would let the girls do their exercises either on the enclosed patio or inside. As mentioned, after 10 demerits, it was one lick for every 2 demerits. If you had 20+ demerits, your licks would be transferred to the next day. If you received demerits the next day and you ended up with 20+ again (that day's demerits PLUS the rollovers), they would continue to roll over until Sunday. Being the day of rest, you didn't have to work off demerits. You attended church twice a day and rested. Demerits started at 0 on Monday, unless you were on someone's bad side. Although it may seem like it would be easy to avoid getting to that point, it wasn't. Helpers were rewarded for giving out the most demerits. Not with an award, but Bro. Mac would verbalize his admiration for their righteousness or begin to give them extra privileges or leniencies.
The Wiki article on Lester Roloff provides an overview of what happened to the Rebekah Home for Girls from 1973 until its closing in 2001. (see below)
Some of the homes were temporarily closed in 1973 because Roloff refused on church-state issues to license the home through the state government. The institutions re-opened in 1974 after Roloff successfully appealed to the Texas Supreme Court which ruled in Roloff's favor that it was unconstitutional to close the homes down. At one point, Roloff transferred ownership of the homes from his evangelistic corporation to his church, thus compelling the state to sue the "new" owners (and restart the entire litigation) while he kept the homes running. The Attorney General refiled the case and secured an injunction that tried to shut down the ministry. In 1975, the state passed laws that required the licensing of youth homes. Roloff was arrested twice for refusing to comply with this law.
In 1979, in an incident known as the "Christian Alamo", Roloff urged churches and pastors across America who supported the Roloff ministry to come to Corpus Christi and form a human chain around the church to prevent the Texas Department of Human Resources from removing children from the homes. Legal battles with the State of Texas continued, and the homes were closed and re-opened. The Texas homes were closed again in 2001.
If you want a detailed history of the Rebecca Home for Girls, I highly recommend Remember the Christian Alamo, which appeared in the Texas Monthly back in December 2001. It provides a lengthy explanation of how local officials received complaints about the Rebekah Home for Girls and how Lester Roloff and his successors were able to use their political connections and the separation of church and state to their advantage. One of our TWW rules is that we avoid political discussions; however, I would be remiss if I did not mention that there are some highly disturbing aspects to this story involving some well-known political figures. 🙁
So why are we discussing Lester Roloff and his 'homes' in the wake of his death and their demise? Remember what George Santayana said:
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
We are concerned that there may be other homes like the Rebekah Home for Girls still operating without any oversight whatsoever, and we have to ask WHY? Who is funding them and why are kids being sent there?
Next week we will be taking a look at other abusive 'homes' that operate under the auspices of helping troubled teens. If you know of any 'hones' you believe we should discuss, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lydia's Corner: Leviticus 16:29-18:30 Mark 7:24-8:10 Psalm 41:1-13 Proverbs 10:15-16