Dave Telker has never been any good at finishing things.
He never finished college. He never finished chasing his music dreams. He never finished the hot rod he promised to build for his dad.
So when Dave walked up to the front of the gymnasium to receive his graduation certificate, he was not smiling because of the piece of paper. He was smiling because he finally finished something.
What he finished was Teen Challenge, what is officially known as 'a faith-based drug and alcohol rehab program.' In short, Teen Challenge helps addicts get their lives back. With some help from Jesus.
I first met Dave at a Teen Challenge choir practice a few weeks back, after watching him
rock out on his guitar. He's blonde, not quite short, with glasses and a gray t-shirt. He gives off a country rockstar sort of vibe. He has tattoos on both arms. They're themed. The right arm, with its ________: music. The left, with its red flames: hot rods. His two passions. He catches my attention because he seems a little more into this choir business than most of the guys.
Two of the guys have microphones and are singing. Their names are Mike and Joe. At the risk of sounding cliche, I will describe them quickly.
Joe is quiet. Mike is not.
After the band breaks up to join the group practice, Joe walks back and joins Shawn at the sound board. Shawn is the sound guy. He is tall and dark and doesn't like to sing. He wrangled himself a job running sound for just that reason. Some of the guys are still a little sore about it. He is my first friend here and I am sitting, or hiding, by him in the back so as to stay out of the way as much as possible. Joe sidles up to Shawn and starts fishing.
"Did it sound okay?"
"Yeah. I mean, I'm no musician."
"Was my voice loud enough?"
Pause. "You could put a little more into it."
-->quote about the dave show<--
The practice is not quite what I expected. I decided to write this story after the teen challenge choir came to my church on a Sunday morning. They were neat and tidy in white collared shirts, ties, and slacks. Sure, they had scars and tattoos on their faces and hands and everywhere else imaginable, but they were well-behaved. Practice is a little bit of a different story. It's not that it's pandemonium, or even close. But it's definitely borderline rowdy.
They are being directed, or more accurately corralled, by Nona Harkness, a middle-aged woman with white-blonde hair and a pink suit coat. She doesn't look very street-savvy. She actually looks pretty churchy. I met with her a couple days before the practice to get the scoop, though, so I already know she's tougher than she looks.
-->church girl quote from nona<--
According to every single TC worker that I've talked to so far, she's being modest.
-->miracle worker quote<--
Voices begin rise from the run-down, oval-shaped gymnasium as Nona has them warm up. They are not quite in perfect pitch. They are shaky. They are all singing the melody with only one or two attempting a harmony. These are the voices of the users. These are the voices of the dealers. These are the voices of the alcoholics.
They are shifting from foot to foot. They are elbowing each other in the ribs. They are someplace they never would have expected to be: choir practice.
After the warmup, as the last of the stragglers walk in, Nona raises her voice.
"Let's just go ahead and pray."
Two of the men talking in the corner don't hear her. They keep talking. Only when everyone starts laughing do they realize that they're being watched. They stop talking a little bashfully.
The laughter fades and then everyone bows their heads.
Nona prays to bless their choir practice. She ends with "We ask that you would consecrate these songs, that they may bring blessing to our lives and to the people who hear them."
Shawn starts the accompaniment cd and the magic starts. Nona becomes a choir director. She bounces. She floats. She mouths the words. She paints an invisible masterpiece with her hands.
You are stronger, you are stronger
Sin is broken, you have saved me
It is written, Christ is risen
Jesus, you are Lord of all
Nona says "Could you show me some confidence and stand up?"
The men all stand instantly. All fifty-something of them. With this standing motion something seems to happen with their singing. Simply put... it gets better. They go from shaky and uncertain, off-pitch and diversified, to one strong voice. It swells and grows and fills the gym and takes on a life of its own and whoever is listening feels something funny happen in their throat.
This must be the voice of recovery.
This must be what TC director Paul Harkness calls "Giving them their song back."
This must be why Dave decided maybe he could finish something.
-->quote from Dave about how a lot of the guys aren't into the choir<-- Dave would know. He spend twelve months with the choir, and now he is graduating-- finishing-- tomorrow. He sits comfortably on the couch with his legs crossed. He has a cup of Caribou coffee in his hand, now his only addiction as far as beverages go.
Dave didn't always drink coffee. He used to drink beer. Lots of it. Dave drank so much, in fact, that he couldn't get out of bed in the morning without a drink. So much that he couldn't make his music career stick. So much that he never could finish building that hot rod he promised to his dad. He drank so much that his family begged him to go to rehab. Thirty or sixty days oughta do it, they thought.
Well, he one-upped them.
He signed up for twelve months. And a choir.
-->quote about the choir<--
But how does music fix an alcohol addiction? Or for that matter, a meth addiction? That can't be all it takes. What's the secret? Why does Teen Challenge have a 74%(?) success rate while every other court-ordered rehab program falls behind?
In Dave's opinion, it's not the music, although he'll be the first to say that it helps. But in Dave's opinion, it's something a little bit more... spiritual.
-->quote about how faith has helped him<--
Mike _______ has always had trouble saying no.
-->still have to get the interview<--
When they ask Mike to do solos at choir practice, he says yes. When they ask him to help varnish a door, he says yes. When they ask him to help with an Easter play at a local church, he says yes. Mike calls this a problem.
-->quote about how he can't say no<--
At least now Mike is saying yes to choir solos and church plays, which most would argue is better than what he was previously saying yes to.
At choir practice Mike sits in the very last row, leaning back in his chair with his legs spread, looking like he owns the place. He appears to be one of the troublemakers of the group. He sings "mi mi mi" loudly and off-key. He yells to his buddies from across the room. He says things like "This goes out to all my native friends" and "that was worse than my best day drunk."
A new song begins and Dave is conducting with his flaming arms.
He was pierced for our transgressions
He was crushed for our sins
The punishment that brought us peace
Was upon him
And by his wounds, by his wounds
We are healed
The song then goes into a well-known hymn.
What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
The voices fade out and when I finish frantically writing the words to the song in my notes, I scribble in the margin. "It's hard not to get emotional."
When the call goes out for the day's soloists, Shawn calls out from the back. "Mike ______, get up there."
Mike puts up a pretense of refusing with an embarrassed "oh my gosh." He is already getting out of his chair.
He stands with two of the other guys at the front. Nona hands him his mic and almost hits him in the face. Mike, never one to miss an opportunity, stumbles back and says dramatically-- and loudly, might I add-- "It's all right! I'm okay."
The song begins and we seem to be having trouble getting the right pitch. Mike raises his eyebrows and says "Whew!" into his mic. He continues singing but now he's holding his mic further away from his face. Maybe he's uncertain. Shawn motions for him to hold it closer. A minute or two into the song and we've found our groove.
Name above all names
Rescue for sinners
Ransom from heaven
Lord of all
Now the choir breaks into two parts, with Mike and the other soloists singing that same chorus and the rest singing something new.
All our hope is in you
All our hope is in you
All the glory to you, God
The light of the world
After the song's over, Nona decides she wants to do it in a different key.
"Shawn!" Nona directs her attention toward the back. "You have to go get that cd from the garbage that we threw away."
Shawn leaves, presumably to dig through the trash, and just like that I am left to cover sound. He comes back a moment later rubbing the cd on his shirt and laughing.
Nona needs three more soloists.
A young man in the right-hand section starts to get up, then sits back down. It's too late to change his mind, though. The guys all start chanting "Come on, Darrell!" and he stands up again and walks hesitantly to the front.
Darrell stands behind a mic stand with one hand in his pocket and the other holding his sheet music. He stares intently at the piece of paper as the music starts. Darrell has a shaved head and an over-sized red t-shirt. He's pretty goofy when he's sitting with the group but up front he seems to feel out of sorts and doesn't really have an expression on his face. The two other soloists are standing on either side of him, angled slightly to face him, and holding their mics instead of using stands. The overall effect makes Darrell look like a kid reading a monologue in a school play.
After practice, Nona and I search for a place to sit down. We pull a couple chairs up by the window in the room adjoining the gym. There's a pool table right next to us and this seems to be a popular point of transit.
Nona collects her thoughts about the practice. "That was a little off. A little bit unfocused."
She thinks that may have something to do with the urine tests everyone had to take yesterday. A few of the guys were caught with tobacco, which carries the consequence of 30 extra days in the program. Everyone is still a little on edge. After all, there's nothing worse for the ego than a urine test.
Nona finds a cd player and brings it back to play us some of the new songs she'd like to start doing. We're soon joined by Dave and Joe.
"I'm kind of on a quest to find something with a little more kick."
The songs she begins playing for us are gospel, through and through.
"I've tried to go that direction before," she explains, "but have gotten some resistance from some of the guys who are a little sensitive to that."
She says it carefully and I'm a little surprised at the insinuation. We are interrupted by Paul Harkness, the Duluth TC director and Nona's husband. He brings her a cup of coffee, a spring in his step, singing. "I'm smelling coffee, doo-doo-doo-doo..."
Nona and Dave, who is now perched on the edge of the pool table, bounce comments back and forth as the music plays.
It's almost disappointing to listen to such a tightly canned thing as a recording, after the beautiful chaos that was just the Teen Challenge choir practice.
"That's how an electric guitar was meant to be used," Nona says almost dreamily.
Dave does an air drum solo as he listens.
"It's over the top, but that's kind of the point," he comments.
After a few minutes, Nona, Dave and Joe seem to forget I'm here and start discussing the practice again.
"I felt an attitude today. That wasn't my imagination, was it?" Nona asks the guys.
"Hmm-mm," Joe answers immediately.
"No, there's an attitude," Dave says. "It was a lot of peripheral stuff, what with the tests today and the heat goin' bonkers. There's something for you," he says, now turning to me. "When you got fifty-five guys living together and singing together, sometimes choir practice is tense for reasons having nothing to do with choir."
"You didn't get set back yesterday, did you?" Nona asks Dave hopefully, referring to the tests.
Dave begins to talk about his plans after graduation. Nona interrupts with "We need to find you a girlfriend!"
"I'm going back to college and we'll worry about that later," Dave says with admirable determination.
Joe is already married with kids. Being in the program keeps him and Joanie apart a significant amount.
"Yeah, it's not an easy thing, being here," he says. "[Joanie] lives in Cloquet."
Suddenly the subject changes and we're back to talking about Dave's departure. The conversation is much like a pool game, with trains of thought bumping into each other and bouncing off the walls.
"It's gonna stink when Dave and the other guys leave," Joe says.
"I'm trying to work with Dustin, get him worked in," Dave says, referring to the second guitar player.
Dave's imminent departure seems to loom over everyone who is invested in this choir, and for good reason. He's the guitar player, student director, and in all honesty, whatever he needs to be.
"I get doin' too many things up there, I start to feel like it's the Dave show," he says with humor.
"It was a little over the top last week when you went over to the drum set with your guitar," Nona agrees with her familiar raised-eyebrow smile.
"I was just gonna keep a bass drum beat!"
Nona begins to round up guys to give their testimonies for the next choir performance. She snags a guy named Rich. He's wearing a Vikings jersey and a black Ecko United sweatshirt.
"Did I do all right last time?" He asks uncertainly.
Her response is warm. "Yes you did. It was perfect."
"It was my first time doin' it."
"It was a blessing," Nona assures him.
Another guy in a gray sweatshirt walks up. His name is Mike. He has the same troublemaker vibe as Mike ________. "Next time I give my testimony," he says, "I'm gonna drag on and on. 'Well, it all started when I was little. And I learned to talk. And then I had trouble with boundaries...'" He trails off and everyone laughs.
The next practice I visit is a week later, on a Tuesday. The choir is getting ready to perform at a car show on Friday. They just found out about it recently-- a few minutes ago, to be precise.
The Tuesday practice is for the more dedicated part of the choir, and it's only ten or fifteen people. Mike is present but not paying much attention-- he's in the back with his work gloves on, sanding a door. He has a bright orange shirt on and a razor blade in his pocket. A power drill sits on the door. Sawdust is everywhere.
Nona plays a new song for the guys. It's Carrie Underwood: "Jesus Take the Wheel." Not the most predictable choice for this crew. For the car show, though, it seems appropriate.
Mike is now varnishing the door. His gloves are covered with an oozing brown liquid. It looks a little horror film-esque.
In the front, Nona is trying to arrange everybody. "If we could take this configuration and make a..." She spreads her arms to indicate that everyone should make a semi-circle. They begin to drag their chairs to accommodate, and the resulting noise sounds eerily like Saruman the White declaring war.
Nona wants to try something with a little soul. She's convinced Darrell, who happens to be the only African-American in the choir, to solo again.
The Easter play ran the two weekends leading up to Easter Sunday. Mike had to be at every single rehearsal and every single performance. He spent hours helping build the sets (??? check on time???). He had one line.
-->Mike's line... something about 'Jesus, if you say you are God, tell us this...'<--
He pulls it off pretty easily. He is jauntily self-assured as he delivers the line. He uses sweeping hand gestures. He's wearing a robe and has a braided rope around his forehead. From my seat it looks like he has eyeliner on. It's a transformation, indeed.