(Photo: The Christian Post / Hudson Tsuei)
A documentary aired on MSNBC last November that portrayed Teen Mania Ministries (TMM), one of the largest Christian youth organizations in the U.S., as a cult that abuses its Honor Academy interns and uses mind control against them. On Tuesday, the organization's newest class of interns spoke with The Christian Post to offer their perspective on what the academy is like from their experiences.
Emily Cox is an 18-year-old woman from Arizona who joined The Honor Academy this month. She left her home in Arizona behind for the academy, which is located in Garden Valley, Texas, so that she could focus on her relationship with God and on seeking out His will for her future.
When she was in middle school she felt God calling her to the academy, she says. She went on two Global Expeditions missions trips – one to Panama and another to Peru – and her youth pastor had been an HA intern and was an encouragement to her.
So far, Cox says, the experience has been well worth her time.
"I've only been here a short time, and I've learned more about myself, and my relationship with God, and how to build a strong foundation in God...than I have in probably most of my years of being a Christian," Cox told CP on Tuesday.
Teen Mania Ministries is the parent organization for popular youth ministries like Acquire the Fire and Global Expeditions Mission Trips, and The Honor Academy is just one program that TMM offers.
The HA experience consists of a year-long internship in which high school graduates are given the opportunity to deepen their relationship with Christ, serve in one of the nation's top teen ministries and earn college credit, all at the same time.
In the first few weeks of the internship, Cox and the rest of the new recruits were taught about the history, purpose and future vision of TMM. They also took tests and participated in face-to-face interviews with TMM leaders to see which role they best fit to help the organization.
Cox was given the job of encourager for the Global Expeditions ministry. She now serves as a resource for youth who want to do missions work by offering them information, fundraising help and encouragement.
A typical day at The Honor Academy, Cox says, involves physical exercise, taking classes, working and enjoying some free time.
"The difference between The Honor Academy and, like, a college situation is...they're joining a ministry as an intern. They're not just a student. And what that means is...they're part of the core of the organization," Ron Luce, founder of TMM, told CP on Friday.
Luce says that about 60 percent of young people who become interns with The Honor Academy first heard about the program through Acquire the Fire, an event that is held in cities across the U.S. and reaches 150,000 young people each year.
Much of the other 40 percent of interns, he says, come as the result of family or friends who have been in the academy before and recommend it to others.
"That's number two recruitment after Acquire the Fire, it's friends," said Luce. "So that tells you...that they are having a good time and they want their friends and their family to experience it."
"Mind Over Mania," the documentary about TMM that aired last year, was created by freelance documentary filmmakers who sold their show to the MSNBC network. It showed film clips of interns crawling through mud, eating worms and being told by a TMM leader that they weren't going to be shown any compassion.
But Luce told CP after the program aired that many of the audio clips in the documentary were taken out of context, and the video clips were never fully explained. It also wasn't explained, he said, that the extreme activities shown were part of an intense three-day camp that was optional for interns, but not required.
Brandon Stolzfus, another new intern at the academy, also says his experience during the first month of the internship has been positive. He works in a call center for Global Expeditions, where he tries to round up new recruits who had previously showed interest in doing missions work.
Stolzfus grew up in Lancaster, Pa., with 9 siblings. He heard about The Honor Academy during a Global Expeditions trip to Panama, and he signed up at the encouragement of his peers who also went on the trip with him.
He told CP that he saw "Mind Over Mania" about a month before he arrived at the Honor Academy. He wasn't discouraged, however, because his friends, who had been interns themselves, said it wasn't anything like the documentary portrayed it to be.
The 21-year-old says when he was living at home it was difficult for him to break away from his busy schedule and spend time with God, but the academy gives him that opportunity.
"I really felt like I didn't have time for the Lord, to be honest. I was doing so many different things," he said. "In evenings I'd just go hang out with friends. During the day I'd work all day long...And so I wanted to set aside an entire year basically just to get to know the Lord."
Dominique Parros says she, too, felt like the Honor Academy would be a great opportunity to develop her relationship God without many of the pressures of the outside world. She emphasized that the academy is not "secluded from the world," however, citing that she has more freedom than she ever had while living with her parents, but it is easier for her to focus on her faith in such a thoroughly Christian atmosphere.
"It's really just an environment where really everybody is seeking God. So it's easy because we're all doing it together," she told CP.
Parros and her family also saw the MSNBC documentary shortly before she began her internship, and it affected her feelings toward the academy but didn't deter her from attending.
"I was a little hesitant, but at the same time I know that sometimes media really can twist things," said Parros.
In addition to having interns work for the ministry, The Honor Academy also requires them to follow a list of lifestyle expectations as well. Interns aren't allowed to consume alcohol or smoke cigarettes, they can't watch R-rated movies and they're also not allowed to be involved in any romantic relationships during their one-year stay.
Cox says she views the additional rules positively, because they help her to focus on her purpose in attending the academy.
"With my own life, relationships have been a distraction. So again, my reason coming here is to get to know God more on a personal level," she said.