Share this article

print logo


The 15-year-old boy, wearing his red Lancaster Redskins jacket, calmly recited the low points of his former life:

Beer at age 10. Whisky and hanging out with older girls before he became a teen-ager. Marijuana and steroids. Arrests for shoplifting and burglarizing his family's home after he had been kicked out. Grades plummeting from the high 80s to a 39 average at Aurora Middle School in Lancaster.

By his own admission, Chad was an alcoholic headed for more trouble.

Now, the young man is enrolled in Freedom Village U.S.A., a Christian boarding school and ministry. Located 130 miles southeast of Buffalo, on the west side of Seneca Lake, between Geneva and Watkins Glen, Freedom Village attracts as much as $100,000 per year in Buffalo-area donations.

Chad, whose last name is being withheld at the request of Freedom Village officials, believes the school has saved him.

"I've been here 10 months, and I don't want to leave the place," he said recently at the school. "I didn't see what alcohol was doing to me until I talked to people here, the staff members and some of the kids."

Chad represents the plus side of Freedom Village.

On the minus side, Freedom Village is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy; its critics claim it lacks financial accountability, and its founder-director, Pastor Fletcher A.Brothers, has been criticized for heavy-handed preaching that targets homosexuals and feminists, among others.

Mr. Brothers can be heard on his "Victory Today" radio program three times every weekday on Buffalo's WDCX-FM. The three half-hour programs include a sermon, usually focusing on young people's problems, and a brief pitch for money at the end.

According to WDCX's published rates and industry sources, Freedom Village spends anywhere between $3,000 and $9,000 monthly for the daily 1 1/2 hours of air time. Assuming the show is profitable, it raises more than $100,000 each year in Western New York for the ministry.

Mr. Brothers also knows how to get a headline. Last month, he sent a letter to Saddam Hussein, citing the Iraqi president's effect on oil prices and asking him for a donation toward Freedom Village's estimated winter heating bill of $360,000.

"Mr. President, I come to you today as a daddy fighting for his children," Mr. Brothers wrote. "For many of our 150 children, this is their only home. If they have to leave, it's back to the streets."

Chad's problems -- drinking, drugs and minor crimes -- would have made him almost a choirboy compared with some of the entering students.

"We've got (former) drug pushers, prostitutes, gang members, and we've had a boy who shot a parent," said Paul J. McCandless, vice president of Freedom Village. "The common denominator is they're all going downhill fast."

Chad was headed in that direction early this year. Designated a "person in need of supervision" by local Family Court officials, he expected to be sent to a youth facility until his family suggested Freedom Village.

Not thrilled by the prospect, but having little choice, Chad went to Freedom Village on Feb. 20. Three weeks later, he was "saved," he said.

"I got to know Christ," he said. "He opened so many doors to me that I didn't even know could be opened."

Freedom Village's 125 students spend a couple of hours a day in Bible class, prayer meetings and church services, McCandless said. That, he believes, helps explain the school's success.

"It's so simple that we look right by it," McCandless added. "The bottom line for us is Jesus Christ."

Chad's plans for the future include Freedom Bible College, a football career at a big-time university and and then work as a social worker or teacher.

Financial realities may threaten those plans. No one is sure how long Mr. Brothers can keep the financial wolf from Freedom Village's door.

Last August, Freedom Village's parent company filed for Chapter 11 protection, citing $21.6 million in liabilities and assets in $12.8 million. Freedom Village officials, however, say the debt is exaggerated.

One of Freedom Village's creditors gets special blame for the financial problems. The organization owes the PTL ministry about $400,000 for previous air time on the PTL network.

Once the PTL's Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker fell from grace, observers believe, other radio and television ministries suffered, including Freedom Village.

"Did Jim and Tammy hurt us?" McCandless said. "Of course they did, but to say they're the reason for our problems isn't fair."

Several people, including a retired widow from Hamburg, have sued Freedom Village to recoup loans they made to the facility, at 12 and 14 percent interest.

Attorney Randall Hilderbrandt of Rochester described his client's loan as "ethical investing."

"She thought she could do some good with her money," he said of the woman who declined to be identified publicly.

A Yates County court ordered Freedom Village to repay the Hamburg woman more than $44,000 in June, but the bankruptcy action has frozen such payments.

How would Freedom Village answer these creditors who loaned the money in good faith?

"First of all, I'm sorry," McCandless said. "If we've made errors, I can't go back and undo them. What I can offer is a commitment, that I will see that every person gets every penny. That's a commitment before God, as well as before man."

One Western New York parent of a student in Freedom Village criticized Mr. Brothers and his financial dealings. Mr. Brothers has been involved in two previous bankruptcies, a personal one in 1971 and the 1982 bankruptcy of a church he had headed in Rochester.

"He doesn't have the gold-plated faucets or the air-conditioned dog house," said this parent, who refused to be quoted by name. "But I'd like people to stop giving to him until he gives an honest accounting of where he's putting all the money."

Freedom Village officials replied that they receive no tuition and no government or foundation money and that they have cut back substantially on the Freedom Village ministry since their budget woes surfaced.

The budget has been cut from about $1.2 million per month in mid-1989 to about $500,000 per month now, McCandless said.

The cuts include closing a school in New Mexico and a ministry for Hispanics in Texas, cutting the number of television stations airing "Victory Today" and laying off 35 out of 140 staffers.

"We went from a Ma-and-Pa variety store to a supermarket in such a short time that we didn't build the proper support structure," McCandless said.

Several Western New York ministers who have dealt with Freedom Village gave a mixed, but largely positive, review of the facility and its practices.

"What is the alternative to Fletcher Brothers?" asked Phillip Morris, former youth pastor at Evangel Assembly of God in Amherst. "A halfway house in downtown Buffalo? A reform school? There is no alternative. The teachings and lifestyle Fletcher Brothers provides are much better than anything the government offers that I'm aware of."

The Rev. Thomas H. Stiles, pastor of First Baptist Church of West Seneca and superintendent of West Seneca Christian School, said that he has had a positive experience with troubled youths who have spent a year at Freedom Village. He has found that Mr. Brothers has a great love of teen-agers, takes good care of them and helps them solve their problems through his biblical teachings.

"I'm uncomfortable about criticizing another ministry, but I have some reservations about the operation at Freedom Village," Mr. Stiles added. "I think he spends more money than he takes in, (although) I don't think he's a Jim Bakker. I don't think he's a fraud. I think he lives very frugally."

Mr. Stiles also said he thinks Mr. Brothers "comes across negatively in his preaching."

While his radio messages are laced with pleas for a return to moral values, Mr. Brothers doesn't miss a chance to deride homosexuals and feminists.

In a Nov. 27 program, for example, on the forces killing teen-agers today, Mr. Brothers said:

"We've got so many feminized sissies in America, I can't stand it: gutless, spineless wonders. . . . I'm so sick and tired of fems, I don't know what to do. I'm so sick and tired of homosexuals running everything, it makes me sick. . . . I want to throw up."

On Dec. 5, he told his listeners: "By the way, any man who's ever picked up Gentleman Quarterly magazine, (it's) got to be put together by the homosexuals, just has to be. Nobody in their right mind could put a magazine together like that with so many feminine clothes. . . . Son, you want to dress like some fruit loop?"

In repeated attempts over a two-week period, Mr. Brothers could not be reached to comment.

McCandless said people should listen to the message, not the messenger, adding that the message comes straight from the Bible.

He also was asked what he would tell a gay person offended by such remarks.

"Sir, I have no desire to offend," McCandless replied. "I'm standing at the edge of a chasm with a warning flag, and I desperately want to get your attention. I think what you're doing is wrong, but God loves you, and God will save you like anybody else."

Mr. Brothers preaches continually about the nation drifting from its morality and about its teen-agers dying, both literally and spiritually.

"Yeah, I'm old-fashioned, but I think it's time to get back to some good old-fashioned family, child-rearing and preaching," he said on one show. Addressing adults, he added: "I can tell you, whether it's your granddaughter, grandson, son or daughter, there's an answer, and his name is Jesus Christ."

While Mr. Brothers often reaches a high pitch in his preaching, his plea for money is fairly low-key.

"I'm asking you to send a special gift," he said on his Nov. 27 program. "We have just four days to raise thousands of dollars before the end of the month. We need a miracle.

"You can give your gift on a credit card."

There are no comments - be the first to comment