By Joel Warner
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Donald's parents didn't have to worry about driving him to and from his activities--the church took care of that. Older high school students and college students picked Donald up and took him to church. Friday nights were "fun nights," when all the students played ping-pong or watched movies, like National Lampoon's Vacation. At first the amount of time he was spending at church didn't seem strange to Donald, a young man whom his stepfather describes as "one of the most upright fourteen-year-olds I've been around" and who, at the age of nine, took it upon himself to get baptized in his parents' church.
Donald wasn't worried about his grades suffering, either; in fact, they improved. "They told us we have to get good grades so our parents will let us stay in the church," Donald says. "They said if our grades got bad and we got grounded, the first thing our parents would take from us is the church. They told us all of our time had to be devoted to God, and they said the people in the church are our family. They used an example from the Bible, from when Jesus told his disciples that they are his family.
"They told us to give up things. If we had a soccer game on a Sunday, we needed to give it up to go to church. They said we have to come to church and that if we didn't, we'd fall away," he remembers.
That's when Donald started wondering if he wanted to stay in the youth group. "I missed the time at home with my family," he says sadly. "My parents always ate dinner before me. There was food on the table when I came home."
The youth minister told the students they needed to be baptized in the church in order to be saved. But the kids had to complete a certain number of Bible studies before they could be baptized, and they were urged to finish them as quickly as they could. "They would say, 'What would happen if you were doing a Bible study and Jesus came right now and you weren't done with it? Would you go to heaven or hell?'"
Donald had finished eight Bible studies when the church leaders started pressuring him to get baptized. "I kept putting it off because I didn't want to go against my mom's wishes," Donald says. "She didn't understand what the point was of getting baptized again."
The church leaders also told the kids they needed to be "fruitful" by inviting their friends to Bible studies. "Every time I didn't bring people, they asked why," says Donald, adding that on Sundays the church leaders posted charts detailing how many new members the adults and teens in each of the city's four quadrants recruited that week.
It wasn't enough to just believe in God, Donald says; they had to bring in new members or they'd risk losing their salvation. But pushing his church on friends was uncomfortable for him. "I'm not a person who wears a big cross around my neck and tells people what they should believe," says Donald. But he is the type of person who asks questions. "Why do I have to be baptized again? Why do I have to go to church so much?" For every question he asked, Donald says, "they always had an answer that sounded right."
They even had answers for him to give his mom when she asked questions--he would answer that his salvation was dependent on being baptized in their church. Donald also began to wonder why he had to confess his sins to the youth minister, to whom he was to answer until he got baptized and assigned a "discipler," another member of the church who would hear all of Donald's confessions and give him advice. Donald says the youth minister used his confidences against him, like the time he mentioned that his stepdad used to smoke pot and that both of his parents smoke cigarettes. "They said my parents are impure and that they're leading me astray," Donald says. "I thought it was weird when they said we were the only ones going to heaven and that everyone else was going to hell. I couldn't accept that."
Well, maybe, he thought, they still considered good Christians worthy of salvation, so he asked about his great-grandmother, a Baptist who devotes all of her time to God. Donald lowers his eyes and softens his voice when he recalls their answer. "They said she's not going to heaven."
On the front lawn of his house, Steve Salley fixes the seat on a training bike while his youngest son looks on expectantly. It is on this lawn that Steve and his wife stood many nights between January and March, anxiously waiting for Donald's church group to bring him home. "I didn't buy it at first," Steve says. "No kids spend that much time at Bible study."
Debra asked her son for the name of the church that was sponsoring his youth group, but Donald didn't know. She asked the students who were picking him up, but they didn't know, either. And when she asked where they were meeting, they just told her it was at some church in Littleton. One night she asked Donald to call her at nine o'clock. When the phone rang, she checked the caller ID; it read "Littleton Christian Church." They finally knew where their son was meeting, but the Salleys still made him call to tell them when he'd be coming home. Some nights when he said he would be home in thirty minutes, it would be more than two hours before he'd get back. When the car finally arrived, the driver dropped Donald off at the top of the hill and sped away.