Texas Monthly

Remember the Christian Alamo: Evangelist Lester Roloff drew a line in the dirt to keep the State of Texas from regulating his Rebekah Home for Girls. Years later, George W. Bush's plan to free faith-based institutions from government rules handed Roloff's disciples a long-sought victory. But this Alamo had no heroes--only victims like DeAnne Dawsey.

THE REBEKAH HOME FOR Girls sits on a lonely stretch of South Texas farmland, a solitary spot where, amid the switchgrass and sagebrush and fields of cotton, young sinners are sent to get right with God. On a warm Saturday in May 1999, a sixteen-year-old named DeAnne Dawsey unexpectedly found herself at its doors. Her mother had said only that their family trip to Corpus Christi would last the day, and DeAnne had no reason to doubt her. Summer felt within reach, and DeAnne was relieved that her sophomore year of high school, which she was in danger of failing, was about to end. She was a slight girl with blue-gray eyes and dark brown hair who always wore a diamond-studded heart necklace. An inveterate flirt--"All she thought about was boys," her mother would later lament--DeAnne never ignored an admiring glance. Normally she was too restless to stay still for long, but that morning she was in a dark mood: She and her boyfriend had quarreled the night before, and she sat brooding in the back seat of her mother's car, lost in thought.

She was so preoccupied that she shrugged off a telling remark that her grandfather, who was traveling with them, had made after leaving Houston. Like DeAnne's mother, he did not know much about the Rebekah Home for Girls or its history: that it was the most famous, and infamous, of the homes for troubled teenagers founded by the late evangelist Lester Roloff; or that punitive "Bible discipline" was the method used to chasten girls who had fallen from grace; or that the home had been the center of an epic, twelve-year battle between church and state--culminating in a standoff that Roloff called the Christian Alamo--in which the maverick preacher and his successors fought to avoid regulation by the State of Texas. But DeAnne's grandfather felt guilty enough for lying to her about the purpose of the day's trip that he turned in his seat to face her. "I'm sorry we're doing this to you," he said softly. "I'm so sorry."

AT THE HEART OF LESTER ROLOFF'S BATTLE with the State of Texas were his homes for troubled teenagers: reformatories where "parent-hating, Satan-worshiping, dope-taking immoral boys and girls," as Roloff described his charges, were turned into "faithful servants of the Lord." Roloff's method of Bible discipline, which he said was rooted in Scripture, meant kneeling for hours on hardwood floors, licks meted out with a pine paddle or a leather strap, and the dreaded "lookup," an isolation room where Roloff's sermons were played for days on end. The state spent much of the seventies and early eighties fighting Roloff in court, insisting that he obtain a license for his youth homes and submit to state oversight. The preacher countered that he answered to a higher power and that his homes were licensed by God. Not until 1985 did the state prevail, forcing the Rebekah Home to shut its doors. At the time, no one anticipated that the political capital of faith-based social programs would rise dramatically in the next decade, or that Roloff's beliefs, which were far afield of the religious mainstream, would gain a new foothold. But in 1997 then-governor George W. Bush put forth a legislative package that included precisely what Roloff had long fought for: allowing church-run child-care institutions to opt out of state licensing. By 1999 the Rebekah Home was back in business--and the stories of DeAnne Dawsey's troubled adolescence, Lester Roloff's crusade, and George W. Bush's political career would converge.

Lester Roloff, the man behind this long struggle, felt the call to preach in 1932, when he was eighteen and living on his family's farm near Dawson, about thirty miles northeast of Waco. He had always been a sickly child, but one night, as he lay in bed gravely ill, he was filled with a sense of foreboding. He later said of that dark hour, "I promised the Lord, `If you let me wake up in the morning, I'll be a preacher.'" After he recovered, he began hauling hay and picking cotton to pay for his Baylor University tuition. The next year, he took his Jersey cow, Marie, with him to college. He sold fresh milk to pay for his room and board, and when he had to deliver his first sermon during his freshman year, he memorized it and recited it to the cow. He was unschooled in his craft, but he had a gift. Soon he was leading revivals around Waco, bringing people to their feet as they shouted and wept. In tiny Purdon more than a hundred people declared themselves born again, and according to Roloff lore, the town's gambling hall closed and the bootlegger went Out of business.

As a young preacher he pastored Baptist churches in small towns like Shiloh and Navarro Mills and Trinidad, but he hungered for a larger audience. During World War II, he moved to Corpus Christi, then home to the largest naval air station in the world, with thousands of Navy recruits; the port city, he remarked to his wife, was "a field ripe for harvest." He began broadcasting a daily radio show, "Family Altar, "in which he sang gospel songs and condemned whiskey drinking, among other vices. The show was soon picked up by KWBU, a 50,000-watt station owned by the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which broadcast it to 22 states. More and more listeners tuned in, and Roloff began evangelizing full-time, driving around in a "gospel van" equipped with loudspeakers and an organ and holding tent meetings that drew thousands. Before huge crowds, he cried, he exhorted, he swayed, he sang--and Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises was born.

An unabashed showman, Roloff enjoyed playing the part of the provocateur, but his audacity would cause him to fall out of favor with Baptist leaders. He raised eyebrows in 1945 when he argued that Baylor should not give President Harry Truman an honorary degree because he used rough language, going so far as to argue his case before the Baptist General Convention of Texas. In 1954 he garnered more adverse publicity when his neighbors in Corpus Christi complained that his use of loudspeakers at a revival was causing a public disturbance and the police agreed; Roloff denounced their order to keep the noise down as a threat to religious liberty and suggested that his neighbors were communists. His break with the Baptist General Convention of Texas came the following year, when he was banned from KWBU for broadcasting disparaging remarks about his Baptist brethren and for claiming that he was one of the few ministers to preach the true Gospel. By the time he returned to Waco to preach in 1956, no church would sponsor him. But amid the controversy, his radio audience grew and grew: His show was carried again nationally, and by 1958 he was traveling so much for his ministry-100,000 miles or more a year--that he bought and began piloting his own plane. …

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