Beware the Grace of God
Missionaries at a Baptist home for troubled boys so loved their young charges that they chained them to beds, kept them in leg-irons, and locked them in stocks.
They loosened the bolts, kicked out the screen, and climbed out of the bedroom window just as the August darkness fell over the Grace of God Boys’ Home. After scurrying through the back yard, the four teenage boys hoisted themselves over the chain link fence. On the other side of the fence lay freedom. The boys dashed across the street and through a weed-clotted field, through the outside world, which had been denied to them for months now but had been plainly visible from their side of the fence, taunting them like a jewel just out of reach.
They ran on, knowing better than to celebrate. Within minutes, the directors of the boys’ home would discover that Evan, Nash, Hassim, and Nicholas had escaped. (These and the names of all the other boys have been changed.) Search parties would scour the area; the directors would radio the Corpus Christi Police. Running away from the home was a common activity and so, unfortunately, was being caught. The four boys knew this all too well. Each of them had tried to escape the Grace of God before. Each had failed and had paid dearly at the hands of the directors.
This time, the boys had a plan. They would weave their way to South Padre Island Drive, where they would hitch a ride to Sunrise Mall, steal a car from the parking lot, and drive the two hundred miles to Austin, where Hassim’s and Nicholas’ mothers lived. Hassim would then get money so that Evan could fly back to Indiana and Nash to Michigan. Each boy would then have the opportunity to look his parents in the eye and tell them why he had run away from the Grace of God and what would happen to him if they sent him back.
But would anyone believe them? The issue dogged the boys as they pushed onward through the tallgrass and the burrs. Each boy had a criminal record; each of them had given his parents a reason to believe that, as Nicholas’ mother put it, “He’ll lie or do anything to get what he wants.” So who now would be disposed to accept this bizarre tale, that at a boys’ home called the Grace of God, two Baptist missionaries were forcing boys to wear leg-irons during the day, chaining them to their beds at night, and confining them to stocks for up to eight hours at a time?
At the southern edge of the city, less than a mile from South Padre Island Drive, three law enforcement vehicles roared out of the darkness and surrounded them. The officers stepped out; one of them held photographs of the boys.
Evan, Nash, Hassim, and Nicholas swallowed hard. Then they began to talk, and out poured the unbelievable tale. The first ears to hear it were naturally skeptical. Yet the desperation in the boys’ voices made an impression on Sergeant Angela Horn of the Nueces County Sheriff’s Department, who later wrote in her report: “Each boy begged to either go back to their parents or to jail or some other facility, but to please not make them go back there to the Boys’ Home.”
Sergeant Horn knew the law. Whatever else these boys were, they were also children. The charges were serious. The Texas Department of Human Services would have to be contacted. Don’t worry, she assured the boys. We won’t take you back to the home.
And so began the latest and most peculiar episode in the ongoing Texas battle between church and state, with 22 teenage boys huddled squarely in the middle. The debate involves a decades-old question: whether the government has the right to tell a religious organization how it may treat the children assigned to its care—specifically, children the government either cannot or will not help.
But the case of the Grace of God Boys’ Home brought out the worst in both entities. On the one hand, DHS behaved like an agency far more interested in punishing those who do not bow to bureaucracies than in protecting children. The agency appeared anxious to gain some nice publicity by condemning a couple of religious zealots but not so anxious to have the condemnations tested in a court of law. When Nueces County officials chose not to pursue criminal charges against the Grace of God, the state uttered not a whisper of protest.
In forgoing a criminal inquiry, however, the county officials dismissed explicit, thoroughly consistent statements to the effect that boys were beaten, chained, and locked in stocks. In a telephone interview, the home’s director, Gerald Provorse, would not discuss the methods he and his assistant, Kurt Gross, employed. Instead, he pointed out that he was the boys’ “temporary managing conservator,” which essentially gave him the powers of an adoptive parent. As such, the Texas Penal Code allowed him to use nondeadly force against the boys, and he added, “the code does not specify what force or punishment is permissible.” Provorse emphasized that “uppermost in my mind was the way they were cared for. Their health was good, often better than when they arrived.” Brother Kurt Gross, in an unsigned statement to DHS handwritten by him, took the position that “the allegations of child abuse & mistreatment & neglect are completely unfounded & false.” But in the same document, as well as in some conversations with some of the boys’ parents, he acknowledged that “we did at one time have a set of feet stocks.” That the missionaries did what they did with the purest of intentions only fortifies the state’s position that unlicensed homes cannot be counted on to treat children humanely.
The information gathered by state and local officials, in addition to information obtained through interviews with numerous involved parties, leaves no doubt that something went terribly wrong at the Grace of God. But the evidence also suggests that much had gone wrong with the boys before they ever came to the home and that, but for the Grace of God, their destiny was a grim one. The four boys who ran away last August 23 were, as Brother Provorse would later say, “unlovable”—lost souls consigned to his care. Under his roof, in the tight grip of his makeshift family, perhaps they stood a chance.
The property once occupied by the missionaries and their boys sits just west of Corpus Christi’s city limits, in a sparsely populated rural community known as Four Bluff. The Navy owned the forty acres until 1987, and planes from the landing field across Yorktown Boulevard still roar overhead every five minutes or so.
The acreage would go completely unnoticed by passersby were it not for a long, dull-colored brick building that despite its modest appearance seems to lunge out of the wilderness just behind it. Until 1984, the building had been a convent inhabited by nuns who raised miniature horses on the grassy fields. The boys who helped modify the structure so that the Grace of God could relocate there in June last year said they found the nuns’ candle wax on the floor of the chapel. They also found several dog skeletons, which Brother Provorse believed had been deposited there by Satanists sometime after the nuns left.
Today there is nothing to indicate that the building is any more distinguished that an abandoned South Texas farmhouse going to seed at its own quiet pace. The weeds have overtaken the front lawn, and the aluminum foil that was used to block out sunlight has fallen from some of the windows. Pigeons roost behind the inconspicuous wooden cross nailed to the front of the chapel and scatter noisily at the approach of trespassers.
That the large brick building had functioned as a dormitory becomes clear only after looking through the windows of the south wing. Each room contains two bunk beds, a sink, and a closet. The rooms are small but tidy, freshly painted, and nothing seems amiss until one notices that there are no doors on the hinges—no doors, for that matter, on the toilet stalls in the communal bathroom. Whatever purpose the dormitory served in earlier days, its most recent incarnation was one in which the right to privacy was sacrificed, perhaps to accommodate a greater good.
Behind the dormitory sprawls the rest of the property and the trappings of an agricultural lifestyle: chicken coops, a tractor, rusted farm implements abandoned in the grass, and a fenced-in lot where wheat and corn now fight a losing battle against the weeds. Nearby stands a small metal shed on top of a concrete slab. Inside, a discarded toilet and a bag of animal feed sit off to one side. Its only other feature is a curious one: a Realistic Powerhorn speaker mounted in one corner at the top. Other speakers are mounted along the dormitory’s exterior, but the location of this particular speaker seems inexplicable—much like the two wooden posts that stand just outside the shed on either side of its doorway.
If one did not know, from talking to the boys or reading state affidavits, that these posts had held up the stocks to which disobedient souls were consigned, while the fire-and-brimstone voice of the late founder of People’s Baptist Church, Lester Roloff, rumbled out of the Realistic Powerhorn speaker—if one did not know that this shed was used to punish children, then one might be able to stand just outside of it, facing north, and while squinting through the trees, admire the recreation yard where the boys played basketball and volleyball on summer afternoons. From this bucolic perspective, the Grace of God resembles a haven for boys, a place where even black sheep would be content to graze.
But this was no summer camp. Nor was Brother Provorse a camp counselor. Provorse was an imposing potbellied, bald-headed, heavy-jowled man, 61 years of age, with a taste for overalls and a rural twang that was given to periodical fulminations. His worldview borrowed heavily from the Old Testament, and the spiritual diet he prescribed at his boys’ home consisted of Scriptures, a spartan and highly structured environment, and harsh punishment. Provorse took a dim view of mischief, cursing, arguing, sloppiness, rock music, wasting time, and adolescent fantasies. He would not stand for misconduct. But slaying the evil that festered within his boys was too big a job for one man.
Provorse always had help: first, from an ex-Marine; then, from an assistant who extolled the virtues of hard physical labor. That assistant was replaced, in September 1990, by a thirty-year-old ordained minister who had worked both with youth groups and with prison inmates in his native state of Florida. Brother Kurt Gross was handy with tools and enjoyed farming. The outdoor work had made him stronger than his scrawny appearance suggested, just as his slow and earnest tones gave no hint of the talent he had acquired in his prison work—that of spotting deceit. While Brother Provorse and his wife busied themselves with cooking, administrative matters, and communicating with the boys’ parents, it fell chiefly to Brother Kurt to crack the whip.
The 22 boys under their care were, with 5 exceptions, strangers to the state of Texas. Some came from big cities like Dayton and Orlando, and others from towns with names like Eden Prairie, Minnesota; East Flat Rock, North Carolina; Lithia Springs, Georgia; Computa, South Dakota; Rawlins, Wyoming; and Wenatchee, Washington. For all the miles that separated the parents of the boys, two depressing realities united them. First, they each had a son over whom they could exert little control, a son who did poorly in school and, in most cases, seemed destined for jail or worse. And second, each parent had exhausted every available option.
Exhaustion, in fact, is the tone most evident in their voices when they recite all the traditional avenues for dealing with a troubled child. “The state’s facilities are overcrowded—they’ve turned me down twice.” “My son had used up $250,000 worth of mental health care insurance.” “He kept running away from the rehabilitation hospital.” “I was at the point where I didn’t know what to do.”
State agencies had no answers for these parents, other than institutionalizing the boys or letting them run loose in the streets. Thus neglected by the state, many of the parents appealed to their ministers. I love my boy, they would say, but he is out of control. Where can I find help? And the reply in many cases was, call People’s Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, Texas.
The parents may not have known where to find Corpus Christi on a map, but they had heard of People’s Baptist Church and its controversial founder, the late Lester Roloff, a pioneer of religious youth homes and an unapologetic proponent of corporal punishment as a means of turning spiritually wayward youths into God-fearing citizens. Roloff’s methods drew the attention of Texas state officials, who in 1973 demanded that Roloff’s homes be subjected to the regulations of state-licensed child care facilities. Roloff refused to apply for a license, claiming that as church homes, his facilities were protected from regulation by the state. The court battle between People’s Baptist Church and the State of Texas continued even after Roloff died in a plane crash on November 2, 1982. Two years later, the Texas Supreme Court sided with the state, and the issue was settled when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case in 1985. Rather than close down the homes or apply for a state license, the Roloff homes—including eighty children—relocated in the dead of night to Calvary Bible College in Kansas City, Missouri, where state licensing and inspections were not required.
But the massive People’s Baptist campus in northwest Corpus Christi, referred to around town simply as “the Roloff farm,” continued to carry on educational and church functions in the spirit of its great departed leader. And while the state could prohibit Roloff’s successors from operating a child care facility, it could not prevent them from encouraging outside parties to pick up where People’s Baptist Church had left off. When parents from Florida to Wyoming began calling the campus in early 1990, asking if someone could do something with their boys, invariably the switchboard operator took the parents’ numbers and said someone would call them back. And someone did. Though it was not immediately volunteered, that someone was not an employee of People’s Baptist Church but instead an independent missionary from Kansas named Gerald Provorse.
Provorse was one of several missionaries who admired the teachings of Brother Roloff and found themselves drawn to his spiritual haven in Corpus Christi. Some came purely to visit and worship; others lingered for months at a time, doing volunteer work on the Roloff farm until God’s calling urged them elsewhere. Provorse and his wife, Nancy, arrived in Corpus Christi on a houseboat in the late seventies and went to work on the Roloff farm. By the mid-eighties the Provorses were temporary managing conservators of several girls on the property. Heeding what Provorse described as the call “to help the parents who were trying so hard to protect their children from the evil in the world and to get them through these dangerous teenage years,” the missionary decided to open a boys’ home and went to Missouri to raise funds. Later the Provorses would claim to parents that they were missionaries sponsored by Midwest Baptist Church in East Florissant, Missouri. That church’s pastor, Eddie Paul Oats, confirms that the Provorses visited now and again, but, he says, “We have never financially supported them. I don’t even know if you could say they belonged to our church.”
The first hint that the Provorses were violating state civil codes came in 1990. While looking through courthouse records, Corpus Christi Caller-Times reporter Scott Williams discovered that Gerald and Nancy Provorse and two other couples had filed papers seeking to become temporary managing conservators of various children at the request of the children’s parents. The mailing address listed by each couple was that of the Roloff farm. Williams called DHS, who responded that it had been aware that the two other couples were living in trailers on the Roloff property and caring for children there. But the agency had never heard of anyone named Provorse.
On June 20, 1990, DHS licensing investigator Dan Matthews paid a visit to the Provorses in their trailer home on the Roloff farm. Already present was People’s Baptist Church attorney Clyde Jackson, who had set up the meeting at Matthews’ behest after the Provorses had not responded to his letters. The couple received their guest politely if warily. Nancy Provorse, a plain-faced sixty-year-old woman with large spectacles, let her husband do the talking.
Gerald Provorse answered the questions Matthews asked and volunteered little else. He said that they were independent missionaries who had arrived at the Roloff farm from Missouri in February 1990, that they had no formal connection with People’s Baptist Church, and that they had received financial support from a Missouri church. Four boys, aged fourteen and fifteen, currently lived with the Provorses, though they were nowhere in sight during the meeting. When Matthews asked how the boys’ parents knew about the Provorses, the missionary responded, “Word of mouth. God sent them to us.”
Walking the fine legal tightrope, Provorse informed Matthews that he and his wife were managing conservators of the boys and were taking care of them “just like we did for our own children.” Theirs was not a child care facility, Provorse said; no one else was assisting them. The missionary rounded off the conversation with a few sharp remarks about the evils of the state, and Matthews left.
Later that month, Matthews wrote the Provorses a letter, stating that in his opinion, they were running an unlicensed child care facility. He sent them a license application; the Provorses did not respond. Matthews notified his DHS superiors, but the matter was dropped. For the next fourteen months, the state, for all practical purposes, forgot that the Provorses existed.
ON JUNE 11, 1991, A HEAVYSET thirteen-year-old boy named Stephen got his first look at Texas when he stepped off an airplane and into the Corpus Christi airport. In recounting his ten weeks spent at the Grace of God Boys’ Home, he recalled that waiting for him was a bald, paunchy man in overalls. “I hear you’re from California,” said Gerald Provorse to the boy. “Is it warm there?” Stephen said it was. “Well,” said the missionary, “it gets mighty warm here too.”
The boy knew only a little bit about the place where Brother Provorse was taking him. His mother, who would be paying the Provorses $350 a month for expenses, had told him it was a boarding school for boys with emotional problems like the kind Stephen displayed when he aggravated his teachers and hit his grandmother. But there was nothing to fear, the mother had assured her son. She had told Nancy Provorse over the phone that she didn’t want to send her boy to one of those tough-love camps she had heard about on Oprah Winfrey. And Nancy Provorse had assured her that the worst a recalcitrant boy could expect at the Grace of God was “a light spanking.” It sounded like the right place to send Stephen, who would have come sooner had the Provorses not urged his mother to wait a few weeks: They had outgrown their old trailer home on the Roloff farm and were in the process of relocating to a “wonderful new facility.”
Stephen and Brother Provorse arrived at 715 Yorktown Boulevard before dark. The new boy was led inside and into a dorm room, where his belongings were searched for weapons, drugs, jewelry, and pornography. Then his hair was cut short, and he was sent off to chapel and, afterward, to dinner. When bedtime was announced at nine that evening, two boys known as leaders, who seemed to command respect from the others, came into Stephen’s room. Stephen remembered that they ordered him to lie down on his bed. He did so, and the two boys chained his legs to the bedpost: “So you won’t run off,” they told him. Stephen swore he wouldn’t run. They paid him no mind and left him there, chained to his bed. The chains cut into his skin. Stephen did not sleep well that first night at the Grace of God.
The chains came off at five the next morning, which began as all others would. Stephen and the other boys climbed out of their bunk beds, shuffled into the recreation yard, and ran five laps—roughly a mile—through the darkness, without supervision but also without stopping. Stephen noticed that two of the boys were running rather stiffly. Looking closer, he noticed that they wore chains between their legs.
At six the boys went to chapel, then cleaned their rooms, and finally had breakfast at seven. The hours before lunch were spent doing chores around the home, ranging from cleaning toilets to working in the woodshop. After lunch came school and more chores, followed by a couple of hours in the recreation yard, chapel, dinner, and bedtime.
There was little to spice up the monotony. Caffeine and pork were for-bidden menu items; candy bars were doled out sparingly as rewards. When attending church services at People’s Baptist, the boys were instructed not to look at the females in the congregation. Once a month, each boy had to recite a Bible chapter he had memorized. Every Friday Brother Provorse rented a movie for the boys to see—usually a western—but the video would be shut off if a character cursed. This was life at the Grace of God for Stephen, each day blandly rolling into the next—until the day he reacted to a remark by exclaiming, “Oh, my God,” which was overheard by one of the leaders, who fetched Brother Provorse’s assistant, Brother Kurt.
The leader told Brother Kurt that Stephen had taken God’s name in vain and pointed to three other boys who had laughed along with the remark. Brother Kurt, wearing his customary feedstore cap and overalls, stood over Stephen. He slapped the thirteen-year-old boy in the face. Then he pulled out a bar of soap from his overalls pocket, and with his pocketknife divided the bar into four pieces.The leader distributed the pieces among Stephen and the three boys who had laughed.
“Chew for three minutes,” said Brother Kurt.
Stephen chewed. The soap stung his mouth. He felt like throwing up. One of the other boys did—a boy who had been there for sixteen months, longer than anyone else, and who would later write wearily in his state affidavit, “Life around here is too hard.” Brother Kurt waited patiently for the boy to finish vomiting. Then he handed him a fresh piece of soap and told him to start over.
Brother Kurt insisted on clean minds, clean mouths, and clean clothes. The latter was a problem for one boy, who had a weak bladder and occasionally wet his underwear. One day Brother Kurt told the others to strip the boy naked and have him submit to a “GI scrub”—that is, to scrub him from head to toe with Ajax, using toilet scrubbers and toothbrushes. The boys did as they were told and repeated the punishment when Brother Kurt announced one afternoon that another boy, Mitchell, could not keep his underwear clean. Mitchell was dragged into the bathroom and told to spread his legs. As with the first boy, a toothbrush was stuck up his rectum.
Mitchell had managed to stay in trouble since his arrival, when Brother Provorse declared, after the boy’s earrings had been removed and his hair freshly cut, “Now you look like a very nice young man.” Mitchell replied, “You’ve been here too long,” and was promptly shown the lap track and subsequently chained to his bed.
Mitchell professed to be a Satanist, but his real religion was rebellion. Back home in Pasadena, he often ran away, used LSD, and stole cars. Once he set fire to his mother’s apartment; on another occasion, he shot his little brother. He was a slender and bright but reckless boy running amok in a broken home, secretly searching, it seemed, for a worthy adversary, someone who could dominate him. In Brother Kurt, Mitchell met his match. When Mitchell ran away from the home, he would say later, the missionary dragged him back and fitted him with leg-irons. When he stole a postage stamp, Brother Kurt sent him out to the lap track to run five miles. When the boy talked back, Brother Kurt got out his wooden paddle and instructed him to hold on to a chair and bend over. Mitchell took his punishment, and when he came back for more, there stood Brother Kurt, ready to accommodate him.
One day, when Mitchell was writing a letter in his dorm room, Brother Kurt came in and sat down next to him. He took the paper and pen from the boy and drew a diagram. Knowing that Mitchell was handy with wood, he asked the boy if he would build the object he had drawn. Mitchell said he would and asked what the object was called. Stocks, said the missionary, adding darkly that some of the boys had been rather rebellious.
The next day, Mitchell and two other boys built the contraption. A few days later, Mitchell insulted Brother Kurt. The boy spent that afternoon in the shed, in a chair, with his hands cuffed behind his back and his legs locked by their ankles in the stocks that were his own handiwork. Directly behind him, above his right ear, a taped sermon by the late Brother Roloff blared from a speaker that Mitchell himself had installed a few days back. It was hot, and the mosquitoes attacked him relentlessly.
No one was permitted to visit Mitchell. But one boy, a quiet kid from rural North Carolina, took pity. He sneaked over to the shed, hammer and nails and a board in hand. After making sure no one was looking, the boy nailed the board across the two posts supporting the stocks, so that Mitchell would have something to scratch his nose against.
“YOU DIDN’T HAVE ANY CHOICE: either get punished or get saved,” Mitchell would say later. If a boy could convince Brother Kurt that he had suddenly, somehow, between bars of soap and licks and laps and duck walks and hours spent in the stocks, seen the light of Jesus Christ, then for that boy the punishment would come to a halt.
DHS officials found dozens of letters in the files of the Yorktown facility, written by the boys to Brother Kurt, begging his forgiveness and pledging that they were now good Christians. A number of the boys would later admit that these were hardly sincere testimonials. Their sole purpose, as one boy put it in an affidavit, was to “brownnose Brother Kurt.”
The task was not as hard as it might have seemed, for the missionary wanted very much to believe that his boys could be saved. A few were elevated to the rank of leader, joining Thomas and Frank, who had lived with the Provorses for more than a year and were fanatically devoted to the missionaries. Being a leader meant that you had the right to be called Sir by the other boys, and that you shared a bathroom and a dining room table away from the rank and file.
But leaders were also required to snitch on the others to Brother Kurt, or they themselves would suffer punishment. Not wanting to fall from grace, one new leader expressed his faith as demonstratively as he could. He wrote his parents—knowing that the Provorses read all incoming and outgoing mail—and instructed them to destroy all of his rock records and posters.
The leaders were Brother Kurt’s lieutenants, for better and certainly for worse. “As I was in a position of being a leader in the home,” one boy wrote in his affidavit, “I had to lock these people in stocks, chain up there [sic] feet in shackles, handcuff them and beat people around the lap track with sticks and willow branches off the tree. I didn’t enjoy doing these things, but I had to because I didn’t want to find out what would happen to me if I told them no.”
As hopeful as Brother Kurt was that a boy would see the light, his eyes were just as alert for signs of transgression. During the summer of 1991, when the Grace of God’s population swelled to 22, the stick seemed to come down more swiftly than before. There were more boys to manage, so many souls to save, and the summer heat threatened to sap them of their discipline. The Gulf Coast air was pungent with salt and sin. Perhaps, as some parents would later suggest, things simply got out of control at the Grace of God: There wasn’t enough time for traditional measures, and Brother Kurt—“a stickler for time-saving,” according to one of the boys—found himself relying on the most radical forms of punishment available.
None of the methods were his invention. The duck walks, wall sits, laps, licks, being told to keep silent for weeks on end, having mail censored and calls monitored—most of these were staples of the Roloff method, practiced for years under Roloff’s approving eye and later imitated by the various managing conservators who followed in Brother Roloff’s footsteps.
The handcuffs, leg-irons, and chains were something else again, new features far afield of Roloff’s strict vision. But the devices, according to one of the boys’ earlier caretakers, had been in Brother Provorse’s possession, available for use, before Brother Kurt ever arrived on the scene. A former People’s Baptist Church associate would also claim that, before moving to Yorktown Boulevard, the Provorses “tried using stocks on the Roloff property, but Brother Cameron put an immediate stop to it.” (Wiley Cameron acknowledged in an interview that he had discussions with Brother Provorse along these lines.)
No, Brother Kurt was merely the enforcer—a man who, in his footrace with the devil to claim the souls of the wayward, found himself cutting corners. So it was that when a fourteen-year-old boy could not finish his laps, Brother Kurt urged the leaders to “provoke” him. The leaders chased the boy around the track, beating him with tree branches. The boy fell to the ground, gasping, unable to continue. The other boys dragged him inside the dorm, where Brother Kurt swatted him with a paddle, then sent him back outside to finish his laps. The boy could not and was dragged inside again and swatted again. In all, he was swatted 32 times and might have received more had he not finished his laps with the help of boys who dragged him around the track. After the final lap, Brother Kurt told the boy to take a bath with Epsom salts to heal the bruising.
Said Thomas, a loyal leader, “If you got paddled and that didn’t work, if you got laps and that didn’t work, if you got soap and that didn’t work—if you got everything and that didn’t work, the final thing was stocks.”
As the summer advanced, it seemed that no daylight passed without one of the boys being confined in the shed. A new boy tried to run on his first day and was immediately brought to the stocks. Another tried to saw his way out of the stocks with a pocketknife he had stolen from Brother Kurt. He was caught early by the leaders, who handcuffed his arms behind his back and added a few chains around his legs. Some boys spent two hours in the shed, others five, others eight. They were returned to their dorm before dusk—except for Stephen, who had an eight-hour sentence in the stocks stretched to twelve when the leaders forgot about him until late in the evening. When they ran to the shed, there was Stephen, right where they had left him, asleep.
One day, a fifteen-year-old Georgia boy called a leader a liar. Brother Kurt was brought to the scene. He moved to slap the boy, who in turn put up his hands to deflect the blow. Brother Kurt called for the handcuffs. The boy’s hands were cuffed behind his back. The missionary raised his hand again. This time the boy fell to the floor, curling himself up to protect his face. Brother Kurt ordered the leaders to grab the boy’s legs. They did, and Brother Kurt got a few clean shots at his face before sending him off to the stocks, where the boy spent his sentence listening to Brother Roloff rail against the wages of sin while mosquitoes buzzed in his ears.
For all the retribution inflicted by Brother Kurt, Stephen would remember a point when the missionary’s methods seemed to lose all reason. That was when Brother Kurt turned the full force of his righteous rage on Mitchell, the rebel. For a period of a week, the boy who had built the stocks spent eight hours each day confined to the shed. He was beaten around the track for up to nine-mile stints. For an entire month he wore leg-irons throughout the day and was chained to his bed at night. Finally, in August 1991, Mitchell cratered. He apologized to Brother Kurt for all that he had done. He said that he was saved.
“I wanted to get out bad,” he later explained. “Everybody wanted to get out.”
But the Provorses and Brother Kurt were not letting anyone leave the Grace of God anytime soon—not with so much evil left to purge. A new boy arrived in August, and on one of his first days he was paddled in the chapel by Brother Kurt for not putting his name on his towel before throwing it in the laundry basket. Later in the month, a boy failed to clean the kitchen and was thereby made familiar with the taste of soap.
On Thursday, August 22, Brother Kurt told a boy to pull down his pants and hold on to a chair. With the others gathered around, Brother Kurt reared back and landed the paddle twice against the boy’s bare backside.
“That’ll fix you,” declared Brother Kurt. “Or do you want more?”
The boy, whose name was Nash, did not want any more. But Nash would not wait for the day when he would see the light. Instead he waited until the night of August 23, and into the darkness he and his three friends ran.
AFTER SERGEANT ANGELA HORN DROPPED off the four boys at La Raza Runaway Shelter, she stood in the parking lot, anticipating Brother Provorse’s arrival. She did not have to wait long.
The missionary was in a foul humor. Where are my boys? he wanted to know. The Nueces County officer informed Provorse that he could not have them. They were in the shelter, she said, and as a result of allegations of child abuse, DHS would have to investigate. Provorse erupted. The boys were his, he yelled. Their parents had turned them over to him because no one—not the parents, not the state—had been able to do anything with them. “Sure, I chain ’em!” he roared; chaining was what they needed. “You’re trash!” the missionary bellowed at the officer. “The state is trash! You don’t care anything about these boys!”
His words fell on deaf ears. The law had caught up with the Grace of God. Four of his boys were lost to the state.
Two days later the state came for the rest of the boys. They were in the recreation yard, playing volleyball and throwing a Frisbee, when a procession of sedans and police vehicles pulled into the circular driveway. As television crews drove up in their vans, more than twenty DHS caseworkers, along with several law enforcement officials, approached the property. They knocked on the front door, and Brother Provorse answered it. “I’ve been expecting you,” he said.
Carol Walt, a DHS licensing investigator, handed Provorse a copy of the child care licensing law and a copy of the law regulating child care administrators. The missionary showed no interest. “My standards are higher,” he said. “My standards are the standards of God.”
Walt asked Provorse if he understood that child care facilities had to have a license. “I know about your license,” replied Provorse. “I know all about the state of Texas. All you’re going to do with these boys is take them somewhere and lock them up in cages.” Provorse denied that he was abusing children. “We only use gentle restraints,” he said, to keep the boys from running off. He never kept any boys in stocks. Search the property, he challenged them—you won’t find any stocks. The boys you’ve talked to are criminals. They’ll tell you any story you want to hear.
The other caseworkers fanned out, one to each boy, and took statements from them, while officers from the Nueces County Sheriff’s Department and the Corpus Christi police searched the scene for evidence of abuse. There were no stocks by the shed, only two wooden posts. Not one of the officers found any handcuffs or paddles. Not one of the boys looked battered. And although a few of the boys pointed to the chains that were wrapped around the gates and claimed that they were the chains used as leg-irons and to confine them to their beds at night, how was one to know for sure? They looked like regular chains.
Some of the boys were running through the hallways, rejoicing that they had been rescued. But others appeared confused, and others still were crying. While Brother Provorse bellowed on about the intrusions of the state, Brother Kurt was hugging the boys. “Be good,” he told them, tears in his eyes. “Remember what we taught you.”
The boys were ushered into the state vehicles, where they were driven to the regional DHS office in Corpus Christi. Each boy was taken into an office and asked to sign his statement. Thomas looked at his affidavit, then up at his caseworker. “Would this in any possible way hurt Brother Kurt and Brother Provorse?” he asked. When told that it might hurt them, he refused to sign it and began quoting the Bible. A second boy began writing Scriptures on the office blackboard; his behavior, according to the DHS report, “became so agitated that…police officers arrived and removed the one boy to [a] psychiatric facility in a squad car.” A third boy was taken from the office by his mother, who worked at People’s Baptist Church and had heard that something terrible had happened at the Grace of God.
Most, though not all, of the other parents were contacted by DHS officials but were not told exactly what had happened or exactly where their boys were, only that if the parents wished to retain custody of their children, they had better get to Corpus Christi right away and enlist the services of an attorney. Many arrived only to find that their boys were not in Corpus Christi. Several of the mothers were in hysterics. What had happened to their boys? Why wasn’t the state telling them anything? In the meantime, the Provorses were fanning the flames. They were burning up the phone lines, spreading the word all over the nation. “The state has come in,” Nancy Provorse told one mother, “and kidnapped your son.”
Eventually each parent was told by DHS officials that there had not been enough shelter space in Corpus Christi to accommodate all of the boys, that many of them had been transferred to shelters in other South Texas towns. The parents went off to retrieve their boys. Some asked their children about what had happened. Others did not, for they didn’t completely trust their sons’ word, just as they placed little trust in the bureaucrats who had given them the runaround for the past few days.
These sentiments were echoed by Nueces County law enforcement officials, who didn’t altogether respect the gatherers of the evidence. The caseworkers weren’t real cops, after all. Who was to say they didn’t ask leading questions? Who was to say they didn’t swallow every lie the boys fed them? These weren’t little angels; as one officer on the case pointed out, “They weren’t in there for singing off-key in choir practice.” True, each boy had been interviewed in isolation by different caseworkers. True, their affidavits were remarkably consistent, though not so much as to suggest that the stories had been rehearsed. Maybe the boys were playing it straight; if only some of the officers could interrogate the boys and hear for themselves. But now that was virtually impossible: DHS had scattered them all over South Texas. To Nueces County officials, that diminished the possibility of criminal charges against the missionaries. With no physical evidence of abuse and none of the punishment devices found, who were they going to believe?
In declining to pursue a criminal investigation, the county officials were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the Provorses, who did seem a little overzealous but whom many of the parents had met and found to be sincere, dedicated Christians. To the county, and to the parents, it looked as if the state was still nursing its grudge against Roloff: DHS was punishing the Provorses and Brother Kurt Gross for refusing to succumb to state control. And as if to dramatize their martyrdom, the three missionaries finished up their phone calls on the evening of Sunday, August 25, and then packed their belongings and rolled out of town, not to be seen in Texas again.
THEY WILL NOT RETURN, NOT as caretakers of troubled children. The state attorney general’s office saw to that this past October, when the Provorses and Kurt Gross were permanently enjoined from operating in Texas. The injunction represented the end of DHS’s interest in the Grace of God. But others have not forgotten the three missionaries.
The boy who was slapped around while his hands were cuffed behind his back is reportedly a Christian now, as is the boy who was swatted 32 times. Mitchell, who says he spent a week in stocks and a month in leg-irons, has “turned his life around,” according to his mother. He still shows signs of aggressiveness, but he also spends a great deal of time in church, where he assists in printing pamphlets on matters such as the evils of Halloween. Another mother reports that her boy, who was “headed for prison,” is now on the honor roll and goes to church. “What they did for him,” she says, “is unbelievable.”
A mother in Euless says that her son now makes A’s in school and can recite Bible chapters by heart, but she stops short of saying the boy is saved. He still has lots of problems, she says, and already he has run away from home. It is this, says Thomas, that is especially regrettable about the state’s closing down the Grace of God. “Some of the kids were ready to go home, but the majority of them weren’t,” he laments. “They’re going to go right back out, and they could get killed and go to Hell, because they didn’t know Jesus Christ.”
But Brother Kurt has not given up on his boys. He still writes them letters, exhorting them to pick themselves up when they fall. The postmark on some of the letters is from Austin, and the return address is that of the Roloff farm. For now, the Provorses are in Arcadia, Louisiana, working at the New Bethany Baptist Church.
The Provorses have told a few of the parents that they are planning a new facility. Whether the parents, having now heard the stories of stocks and chains, will feel so inclined to return their children to the Provorses remains to be seen. It is uncertain if Brother Kurt will be there when they arrive. His senior pastor at the First Baptist Church of Pine Hills in Florida, Brother Gene Pritchard, has ordered Brother Kurt to disassociate himself from the Provorses and move on to other holy tasks. “There is plenty of good to be done out there,” the pastor told his missionary, “without getting in trouble with the law.”
And so dissolves a curious family, the 25 of them scattered across the country, each now plodding through a world of sin and beauty. At the old Yorktown convent, there is little to remind us that they were all here, under the same modest roof. There are only a few apple cider jars by the side porch, with the name “Provorse” written on them in felt-tip pen. And on a back window of the dormitory, the handwritten names of four boys still somehow remain, the letters shining like ghosts through the soot.
And then there are the chains on the fence, fastened there by padlocks. On the back of each padlock are two little blots of paint, red or yellow. Somewhere out in the world beyond 715 Yorktown Boulevard are 25 people who know that there were similarly color-coded keys that matched the padlocks and that these were used to ensure that the black sheep could not stray into the wilderness. But to the next tenant of this building, the little beads of color on the padlocks will be a matter of trivial mystery, like old candle wax or the bones of forgotten dogs.