Was S.E.P. a mind-control training camp to facilitate teens into becoming Ambassador College1 students and followers of the Worldwide Church of God? I want to recount to those that weren’t there what actually went on during those weeks at “God’s camp.”
Preparation for S.E.P.
S.E.P. (Summer Education Program) was depicted to church kids as a wonderful, life-changing adventure that every teen needed to attend at least once. To parents it was described as “enriching lives and developing the whole person”; “quality training for the pioneers of the wonderful World Tomorrow.” S.E.P. was only available to kids that were children of members in the WCG and monetary assistance seemed to always be available for families that couldn’t afford it. The recommendation was that the teen not be too young so he/she “would get more out of it.” Those that did attend at a younger age, say thirteen, commonly attended twice.
The Camp Staff:
The camp administrative staff at S.E.P. was made up of Ambassador College faculty members and the dorm counselors were all AC students. They made sure we felt like we belonged to a “little family” while we were there. As a child who was away from home for a month, it was comforting to have those feelings, but it was very difficult to break those bonds when it was time to leave.
There are some things that I thought were strange at the time, but I didn’t question. You didn’t normally question your counselors on camp procedures. You were expected to cooperate and be a “happy camper.” I recall being told during a Friday night Bible study in our dorm that we were to be “teachable.” Actually, it really wasn’t a Bible study. We didn’t study the Bible. We studied WCG literature written by HWA, such as “The Seven Laws of Success,” “The Ten Commandments,” and “The Wonderful World Tomorrow – What It Will Be Like.”
Something that bothers me now is the “prayer closets” we had in each dorm. One for each wing of the building. They were actual closets with a chair and a light, which were to be used by the campers for praying. What I remember is that you were encouraged often to go in there, and during dorm meetings those who made use of them were named and praised. Then, anyone who hadn’t made use of them was admonished. The matter of discussing prayer and a relationship with God was not the focus. It was the act of being seen using the prayer closets that brought recognition. This trained us to recognize those who outwardly showed their works. In spite of all this, I have to wonder if maybe they could have had video or listening devices in the prayer closets. There was just an overall feeling of being monitored somehow.
There were many rules to follow as a camper that were almost military style. You had bed check (where they actually checked your hospital corners and bounced a quarter on your blanket), there was locker check (where your locker had to be sorted a certain way and you were made to do it over if it was incorrect). Each dorm had to take their turn cleaning up the dining hall; wiping tables and benches, etc. and sweeping. Also, there was a large bathhouse for the girls and one for the boys’ area. Each dorm had to take their turn cleaning their bathhouse, scrubbing sinks, toilets, the shower and mopping the floor.
Dining was done mess hall style in the dining hall. You marched together as a dorm to meals and were not allowed to sit at another table with someone else you were friends with. We had to sit family style at one large table and stay in our own group. We even had contests between dorms as we marched to and from mealtimes or activities to see who could sing the loudest. We were taught these little marching songs like you hear people singing in the Army.
All activities had to be done with your group only and you were expected to participate. No “opting out” allowed. I remember being terrified the day we went rock climbing because I am very afraid of heights. I went up the cliff and rappelled down it though, because I didn’t want to be singled out as having a bad attitude and not willing to try. Effort was very important.
We also had “service projects” and we didn’t get a choice whether we wanted to do them. We had to work around the grounds and a particular service project I remember was helping to make the new softball field. We had to move sand with shovels. What comes to mind now is slave labor.
Before you left for S.E.P., you were given a long list that showed what you could pack and what you should leave home. After you arrived at camp you were supposed to wear a sort of uniform consisting of a camp tee shirt (blue or white) and khaki or denim shorts (mid-thigh). When HWA changed the makeup doctrine, makeup was not allowed and neither were two piece swimsuits. Boys couldn’t have long hair, low-cut trunks or muscle shirts and could only go shirtless when they swam.
On Saturday you had to dress up for church (dresses and pantyhose; suit and tie) even though it was really hot in the summer. You stayed dressed up all day until after dinner. Then you could change into whatever you wanted to wear to the dances that they had every Saturday night. But no dress lengths above the knee and no low-cut dresses.
There was occasional free time; however, the days mostly consisted of a busy and highly structured schedule, which, many times, we had to rush to meet. We reviewed our schedule in the morning before breakfast and we marched from one activity to the next.
Free time was scheduled every couple of days in the evening and on Saturday after church services. You would have an hour or so to walk around (within parameters), write letters home or make a phone call home from the phone booth. We would have a movie once or twice in the gymnasium on a weekday evening. You had to sit in rows of chairs with your particular group. There was no television or outside newspapers, magazines or local radio channels. Actually, they had their own camp radio station with approved music and WCG broadcasts. We were allowed usually only one trip into town to pick up souvenirs or treats. We went together in our group and had about an hour to shop. We had a group discussion before we left to be careful of our behavior because the townspeople were always very impressed with our manners and polite attitude.
The proper S.E.P. attitude was “happy, smiling, teachable and cooperative.” You made an extra special effort to be happy and not to be a troublemaker and to act like the other kids in your dorm. Those who were not cooperative were sent home. I recall a girl who was probably 16 or 17 who was sent to camp as an “attitude adjustment exercise” by her parents because she had been caught smoking at home. The idea was to address her smoking habit by having her learn the “yes ma’am and no ma’am” or “yes sir or no sir” WCG way of life away from home. She was treated very sternly by the dorm counselors from the beginning. They had been informed of her problem and they actually monitored her attitude very closely and reported on her behavior periodically to the camp administration. They, in turn, reported her behavior to her local minister. When she resisted being monitored she was actually sent home in tears. She came in and got her things together and was taken by our dorm counselors to the administration building to await transportation home. She was not allowed to say goodbye to any of us in our dorm.
HWA made an appearance during camp sessions by doing a flyby in his Lear Jet. This was a much anticipated event by the S.E.P. camp staff and was played up as much as possible. Campers and staff were assembled outside the dining hall. We had to stand out there for a good hour waiting for the main event and were told to wave and smile when HWA flew by. This was WCG training to view HWA as our leader. It trained us to smile and show our WCG cheer. He did seem larger than life and kind of untouchable as he came out of the clouds and tipped his wing at us while we gazed up expectantly. The sun glinting on the airplane gave it a shimmery, streaky quality and they told us he flew several hours out of his way to at least fly overhead to say, “Hello.” As HWA was sighted we all clapped and cheered, smiling and waving as he graced our presence for a few seconds. Later, we were told by our dorm counselors to write home about the wonderful event of seeing HWA. Whether or not you considered watching his airplane flying by as wonderful had no bearing. You were supposed to be inspired, therefore you wrote home about the “inspiring event.”
They always did bring you into the family structure at bedtime. We were told by our AC counselors to look at them as “big sisters” or “big brothers.” When everyone was tucked in for the night they would come around and kiss and hug each camper and ask if they’d prayed for HWA and his ministry. Never, did they ask if you prayed to God and thanked Him for Jesus’ sacrifice. Never a word about Jesus, only HWA and his calling. They talked a lot about HWA and his “end-time work,” but never once discussed Jesus or being saved by grace. It was always about being “teachable” enough to be baptized and become a member. Also, a lot of encouraging to “check out” the benefits of going to AC — all the while letting you know it was a “tough” selection process and you had to “measure up” to AC standards to be considered as a prospective student. I believe now that much of S.E.P. camp was a selection process in itself to identify kids with the right attitude and encourage them to look to AC for college. And from there they would become tithe-paying members in the Worldwide Church of God.
Culture Shock Back Home:
Sure, the activities and meeting new people were a lot of fun and the camp staff friendly. I left with lots of good memories from the kids I met there and wouldn’t have considered it a terrible experience. On the other hand, I remember having a really strange feeling of culture shock when I got home. It lasted the rest of the summer — this feeling of not quite fitting in at home. My attitude was different somehow and I wasn’t comfortable anymore with my place inside my family. I remember having strong feelings of alienation when any of my siblings had any kind of a disagreement, no matter how slight, because they weren’t happy and cooperating with the authority of my parents. I remember not knowing what to do with myself with all this free time on my hands the rest of the summer. My life wasn’t scheduled anymore. I kept having “yes ma’am and no sirs” slipping out to my parents or at WCG services and it shocked my family. I was also meticulous with keeping my room neat the rest of that summer. I did my youth correspondence courses (Y.O.U.) on my own without my mother having to make me study. I prayed daily for HWA and his ministry. It was such a strange feeling to not feel like I belonged in my own family anymore. The feeling didn’t wear off until I returned to school in the fall and got back into my normal routine. I was a different person when I went home. I was now thinking about wanting to go to Ambassador College and join the “end-time work. Had I, and thousands of other teens, actually undergone mind control programming during their stay at S.E.P.? I’m sure that we did.
By Sandra – Child survivor of WCG
Footnote by ESN:
1 While Ambassador College was founded by Herbert Armstrong to specifically train men for the ministry (“Who May Attend Our Schools?” Good News, March 1958), young women who attended usually ended up marrying someone from the college.