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

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