Hope in the wilderness
Christian Encounter helps youth who need family, structure, and the gospel
When Jacqueline Turner arrived at Christian Encounter, a residential youth program in Grass Valley, Calif., the 19-year-old was full of rage from a lifetime of scars. She passed from foster family to foster family as a kid. She said caretakers and social workers sexually, physically, or emotionally abused her.
While on a 15-day wilderness trip to the Sierras with Christian Encounter, staff and students (which is how the ministry refers to residents) read 1 Corinthians 13 together—“Love is patient, love is kind …”—and Turner stormed off, trembling with rage. She fumed to the staff, “Black people don’t come here. We don’t go to the middle of the wilderness eating fruits and vegetables.” And the passage didn’t match her own experience.
As a kid, Turner remembers going to school with a nick in her eyebrow, a chunk missing from her lip, a swollen-shut ear. She remembers being locked in closets without food. Some of her abusers called themselves pastors. They brought her to church, and she grew up hearing a gospel that didn’t manifest outside of church walls.
“I was screaming internally,” Turner recalled. “And it was like no one could hear.” By the time she came to Christian Encounter, she was also literally screaming. People saw her as an angry, troubled girl. So she internalized that label: Don’t even try to get close. I’ll bite your head off.
She says Christian Encounter was the first place to try to break through to her: “It gives many kids the opportunity to get to the root of what happened, and say, ‘No more.’” Turner is now 34, a 4.0-GPA college graduate, a church planter, and a ministry outreach coordinator at a shelter for homeless women and children, and has written about her background. “My whole life before here was all destruction, chaos, pain, abuse, trauma,” she said. “I got here in rage. I left here with full hope.”
Christian Encounter, which turns 50 this year, sits among woodsy hills in a historic mining town in Northern California. The ministry originated as an outreach to hippies but now only serves youth: males ages 15 to 21, females ages 15 to 24. People here call it “the Ranch,” and it has a rustic, pastoral feel: The dorms, worship hall, cafeteria, school, recreation room, cow pastures, and pig pens dot the hilly 86 acres of forested land with four ponds and quiet walking trails.
Fifty years of experience have taught the ministry what works and what doesn’t when it comes to healing young people who come from all sorts of backgrounds: dysfunctional families, Christian families (including pastor and missionary families), foster and adoption homes. Some have a history of substance abuse, suicide attempts, and illness.
Christian Encounter uses four core program elements with students: discipleship, counseling, school, and work. It only accepts individuals who want to be there. Anyone is free to leave, but students can stay as long as they need (the minimum recommended stay is a year). Christian Encounter caps enrollment at 16 to preserve its intimate, family feel and to keep students from slipping through the cracks. “And that’s what they’ve done their whole lives: slip through the cracks,” said executive director Nate Boyd. “We’re committed to not letting that happen here.”
MANY STUDENTS come from broken families, so Christian Encounter seeks to model a safe, stable, and healthy family that offers unconditional love. Most staffers live on site, including Boyd and his family. All students must give up their cell phones and have limited access to the outside world. A healthy family also comes with structure: scheduled bedtimes, mealtimes, and activities.
Mealtimes here feel like a Thanksgiving reunion: Everyone crams into the cabinlike dining room, which roars with laughter, conversations, and clangs of silverware—it’s hard to hear the person sitting next to you. During a lunch of potato soup and garlic bread, a 17-year-old girl with short hair and a baseball cap leaned across to tell me, “This place is a lot better than I thought it would be. It’s not a lockdown facility. I didn’t expect to get this close to people here.” She had only been at the Ranch for five days but was already cracking sarcastic jokes with staff and students.
Christian Encounter infuses discipleship into all activities through curriculum and daily devotional times. The Ranch is also a church. Every Sunday a small group of students, interns, staff, and others gather for service and fellowship (all students must attend Sunday service). One student told me the night before, she, another student, and an intern sat in a circle talking about self-worth and opened the Bible to see what God has to say: “I’ve never had friends like that to sit with and just read the Bible together.”
Each student meets with a counselor at least once a week. Kevin Phillips, director of counseling, said a common theme in every kid he counsels is “unbelievably low self-esteem. I don’t mean just they’re not proud of themselves. I mean they don’t see that they have any worth.” Many also don’t feel heard: “They talk and talk and talk, and no one actually hears what they’re saying.”
Most students come testing far below their academic grade level (some can barely read, some have learning disabilities), but at the Ranch’s on-site school, it’s impossible for them to slide by unnoticed with a 3:1 student-teacher ratio. “When you have three people in the classroom, you can always tell” if someone slacks off, school principal Suzanne Hartley said. “There isn’t a back row in this school.” Students can earn their high-school diplomas through the program. Hartley, who lives on site, spends most Saturdays working individually with students who need extra help: “It’s really fun to see them get their first A on a test or report card. They just light up.”
Students also must work: They help clean the kitchen, sweep the floors, and clear and burn brush. They learn wood shop, electrical wiring, and plumbing and life skills such as filing taxes, driving, and car maintenance. Not all students make it to college, or want to, and the work program provides students some vocational training and develops a work ethic.
WHEN NEW STUDENTS ARRIVE, all that the staff and interns know are their first names, hometowns, and ages. Counselors know more but keep much of it confidential for privacy reasons but also so the staff can create organic relationships with the students.
Interns spend the most time with the students. All interns must be 21 years old or older, receive weekly counseling themselves, and commit between three months and two years to living full time at the Ranch. They act as daily mentors to the students and share a dorm building with them. Their work is not easy. “Expect the unexpected,” the staff warns prospective interns. “You’re going to get your heart broken.”
Any moment can become a discipleship opportunity. For Kevin Campbell, a 25-year-old intern, that can be standing in front of a bonfire with three students, chatting about lizards. Or sitting silently with a student whose father just died.
“I just see myself in all of them,” Campbell said. “We all just want to be known and seen. We all have the same basic desires … and once those are met, then they can have the opportunity for healing.”
Sometimes, that healing takes radical transformation. One student Campbell had was so severely traumatized that he walked hunched over and avoided eye contact. He was 18 but couldn’t read and sometimes soaked his bed with sweat. By the time he left Christian Encounter, he stood straight-backed, had learned how to read, and pumped weights at the gym. “We get to see constant transformation here,” said Campbell. “It’s like a greenhouse for growing.”
Kayla, a 21-year-old student who’s been at the Ranch since July 2020, said she still struggles with traumatic memories of abusive men, one whom she said tried to sell her into prostitution: “Sometimes I’m overjoyed to be here. And sometimes I dread it. Because that’s how trauma works.” But she’s healing. At Christian Encounter she’s recovered forgotten hobbies, such as guitar and painting: “It’s going to be OK. … If I can learn how to work through my trauma, it’ll free me to help others.”
Turner, the woman who came to Christian Encounter at age 19, ended up loving that wilderness trip—and also loving the people there: “The gospel became alive and active. … It’s like, the walls are shattered, and you’re united. And what has the power to do that? Jesus Christ.”
Turner said it took a whole year to deal with her past, including acknowledging her own bad choices (including stealing other students’ food when she was in kindergarten because she had no other way to get food) that hurt others and herself. Then in her second year at Christian Encounter, she began asking for the first time: What do I want to do in my life? What’s my dream?
Now in ministry, Turner says God keeps bringing her to “love people in the most broken places” because Christian Encounter did the same for her: “I believe the gospel is the only way that change can happen. Because if there was no Bible, there would be no Christian Encounter.”
2020 income: $867,162
2020 expenses: $915,389
Paid staff: 14; volunteers: 250
CEO’s salary: $55,440
For fiscal year 2019-20
—WORLD has updated to this story since its original posting and corrected details about Jacqueline Turner’s background.
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