Jesus RX 

The untold tale behind Mercy Ministries' one-size-fits-all prescription for recovery

The untold tale behind Mercy Ministries' one-size-fits-all prescription for recovery

Jennifer Wynne didn't know what to make of the woman standing in front of her. For two weeks, she'd heard the other girls in the house talk about how the woman was intimidating, how she didn't put up with any bullshit, how she'd cut you down just as soon as look at you.

It was 1994 in Monroe, La., and Wynne had just turned 18. In her previous life she'd been a minor member of the Latin Kings, the gang that ruled her hometown of Queens, N.Y. The Kings gave her respite from the cramped apartment she shared with her sister, mom and mom's boyfriend, one in a line of men that took an uncomfortable interest in her.

By age 12 she was drinking. Two years later she was going to school armed with a 9 mm pistol. When her best friend tried to leave the gang, it was Wynne who delivered the punishment: a knife to the gut.

She knew where her life was headed. The signs were all around her in friends who ended up dead, in jail or trampled by dope. It was a cliché, the ending to the story that everyone saw coming, and she was living it. Until she decided not to.

At age 17, Wynne escaped to a treatment facility in upstate New York, but only lasted a month. The women there were twice her age and the counselors were unprepared to see past the manipulative charms at her disposal. Half Puerto Rican and half French, with dimpled cheeks plumped by baby fat and Betty Boop eyelashes, Wynne was the worst kind of confidence artist: the one who understands how good she really is.

Life at the center was easy but it wasn't progress, and Wynne actually wanted to get better. One day she heard about a woman in Louisiana who ran a home called Mercy Ministries. It only took in girls her age and didn't charge a cent. With $17 and a trash bag filled with hand-me-down cotton dresses, Wynne headed south.

For three days she rode a Greyhound, sleeping in bus depots and shrugging off seat mates whose heads would loll sleepily onto her shoulder.

She arrived in Monroe in the middle of the night to a room full of strange girls who thought she talked funny. The house was next to a paper mill and stunk of processed pulp. Wynne wondered if she'd made the right choice. Then she met Nancy.

Down a narrow hall walked a smiling, bleached blonde holding a sheltie. Nancy put her free arm around Wynne's shoulders. "I'm glad you're here," she said.

Growing up, Wynne's mom had barely acknowledged her presence, let alone hugged her. Now this woman she'd been told to fear was making her feel truly welcome. That she belonged.

"I felt like God had put her in my life to be that mother to me," says Wynne. "I thought she was my savior."

Nancy Alcorn grew up in Manchester, Tenn. She dreamed of playing college basketball until a serious knee injury derailed those hopes.

After graduating from Middle Tennessee State University, Alcorn worked for eight years as the athletic director at Tullahoma women's prison. She grew close to the inmates she counseled, but became disillusioned with the state's attempts at rehabilitation.

The problem, as Nancy saw it, was that Tennessee was focusing on changing behavior rather than getting to the root causes: the painful circumstances that sent girls running from dysfunctional homes. Their lack of self-worth and security was what brought them to the state's care. Alcorn thought she could do better.

In 1983, a friend convinced her to come to Louisiana. Struck by the number of kids in need and the lack of resources to help them, Alcorn bought a small home and began what she hoped would be an alternative to secular treatment. Her goal was simple: to help young women in trouble gain control over their lives using Christian-based counseling. And she'd do it without charging a dime or taking donations with strings attached. Alcorn looked to the Bible—James 2:13—for her program's name: "For judgment will be merciless to one who shows no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment." With that, Mercy Ministries was born.

Twenty-five years later, Alcorn's vision spans three continents. Mercy's headquarters on Old Hickory Road in Brentwood opened in 1996, followed by two homes in Australia, and one apiece for St. Louis, Great Britian, and New Zealand. They treat everything from eating disorders to girls suffering from sexual abuse, and they've grown entirely through private donations and fortuitous connections with music and sports celebrities.

Christian quartet Point of Grace has sold over 5 million records. But when Alcorn met them in the early '90s, they hadn't released an album. Singer Shelley Breen remembers being impressed by Alcorn's devotion to young girls. They were the same girls who came to Breen after concerts asking for help and advice.

"They'd say, 'My boyfriend's pressuring me to have sex' or 'I did drugs and I'm not sure if I should do it again,' " she says. "We were just feeling really inadequate at the time. We're not counselors; we just sing."

Alcorn provided the guidance. She and select Mercy graduates were invited to tour with the band. They'd set up a literature booth at shows. And before Grace sang "The House That Mercy Built," a tune penned in honor of Alcorn's group, a graduate would arrive on stage to provide her testimony.

In 2001, Point of Grace invited Alcorn to meet Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher and his wife Juli. Prior to the AFC devisional game against the Baltimore Ravens, Alcorn and the Titans prayed together in the team chapel. Later, Juli took a tour of the Nashville headquarters, establishing a relationship that would eventually net Mercy $10,000 for every Titans win, courtesy of the Fishers.

The full scope of Alcorn's influence in Nashville was on display in April, during Mercy's 25th anniversary celebration. Hosted by Breen and Titans' center Kevin Mawae, the show featured some of the biggest acts in Christian and gospel: Natalie Grant, chart-topping sister act BarlowGirl and headliner CeCe Winans. Under a white tent on LP Field, hundreds of guests danced the night away, sipping champagne and raising a toast to Alcorn and the program she'd started from scratch.

Unbeknownst to the celebrities that night, Mercy's polyurethaned image was beginning to stain half a world away.

A month before, Australia's Sydney Morning-Herald published an exposé of "the Mercy girls"—young women who claimed Alcorn's homes turned them from merely damaged to suicidal. Entrusting their recovery to untrained counselors barely out of Bible college, the Mercy girls said that exorcisms and speaking in tongues took the place of treatment, that expulsion was the punishment for peeing without permission, and that DVDs featuring the testimony of former gays were peddled as a cure for lesbianism.

When the Mercy girls failed to get better, they were told it was a lack of faith, not credentialed staff, that was holding them back. Moreover, Mercy was cashing their welfare checks, violating Alcorn's edict to provide treatment without charge.

A member of parliament declared Mercy "a particularly bad example of a money-making cult."

Alcorn's response was swift. She claimed Australia was a rogue operation, underfunded and running independent of her control. The home was shuttered and an oversight board formed to prevent future incidents. This was not how Mercy did things in America, she said.

But a handful of women back home disagreed. While the Australian press devoured the scandal's juiciest morsels—the money and the exorcisms—several former Nashville graduates were drawn to the familiar stories of neglect: the threats of expulsion, and the use of prayer as a substitute for psychiatric care.

The fissure created by the headlines Down Under provided a crack in Mercy's previously solid facade. It was enough of an opening for once-silent Nashville graduates to feel comfortable coming forward with stories of their own.

In 2000, Oklahoma native Jodi Ferris entered Mercy's Nashville home. She'd spent most of her college life battling bulimia, binge-eating at night and exercising six hours the next day to burn it off. A Mercy graduate suggested that Christian counseling might benefit Ferris more than the secular treatment she'd tried in the past.

Upon entering, Ferris was forced to give up her doctor's prescribed nutritional guidelines. Stripped of the tools she'd previously relied on, Ferris struggled to restrain herself during her first week when Mercy hosted an all-you-can-eat buffet for the Super Bowl. In place of her dietary how-to, Ferris' counselor—a woman she'd later find out had no experience with eating disorders—suggested an alternative to the scientific care that helped control her urges.

"She told me to let the Lord determine my meal plan," she says. "Which was hard the night we only had jalapeno poppers for dinner."

For treatment, Mercy gave Ferris a binder called Restoring the Foundations (RTF), a scripture-based doctrine associated with charismatic Pentecostalism. Her first assignment was to write down the sins of any relatives or ancestors. According to RTF, a lapse in conduct, such as premarital sex, could invite in an evil spirit that might curse a bloodline for generations.

The final step was to cast out the demons, a process that sometimes involved the bedrock of charismatic Pentecostalism: speaking in tongues.

John Altum remembers the day his daughter told him about the tongues. He enrolled her at Mercy right after the Australian story broke. She told him about some weird gibberish her housemates were speaking when they got excited. She was hoping it might happen to her one day.

"She talked about 'getting her tongues' like it was her period," he says.

Ferris was a smart 22-year-old, a rehab veteran with most of an English literature degree. This tactic—call it the exorcist method—was new. So was the secrecy.

Unlike other recovery centers, Mercy didn't allow the girls to tell each other why they enrolled. Some girls told anyway, and Ferris discovered that Mercy was a one-size-fits-all treatment program, asserting that the evil forces that kept her chained to a treadmill were no different than the ones that caused housemates to turn their arms into railroad tracks. In Mercy's eyes, a demon was a demon, no matter what you were suffering from. Ferris recalls one girl who was almost like a zombie.

"She was completely out of it," she says. "She was fine if she was sitting in one place, but the minute we had to get up and move somewhere, you'd have to hold her hand and lead her."

According to Mercy brass, the girl's soul was broken into pieces, an explanation Ferris interpreted to mean schizophrenia. One morning she saw the girl standing next to the second-floor railing. Ferris ducked into the kitchen, then heard a crunch like a car crash. The girl had jumped onto the stone foyer below.

As paramedics took the girl away, Alcorn provided damage control. She'd raced down to the home from her nearby condo to gather everyone upstairs. No one was to speak of what happened, she ordered. If anyone on the outside found out, the Devil could use it to keep her from helping more girls.

That weekend, during the hour reserved for the girls to call home, Alcorn stationed a counselor nearby to ensure her order was kept.

Rebecca was at Mercy during the same time. She says that Alcorn played favorites, indulging obedient staffers with trips to a resort in Florida and firing those who contradicted her. The joke among the girls was that there was no point in learning an assistant's name. They'd always leave after a few weeks of abuse.

"They advertise an unconditional love," says Rebecca, "but Nancy is the most conditional person I've ever met."

And the favoritism didn't end with the staff. Rebecca was close with Jenny, the first Australian girl flown to Nashville. At the time, Alcorn was hoping to open a home in that country, so it was important that everything went smoothly. Rebecca and Jenny were allowed special privileges.

On Sundays in the fall, they had an open invite to watch Titans games with Alcorn. When she dropped them off back at the home, Alcorn encouraged them to lie about where they'd been so that the other girls wouldn't get jealous. Rebecca was also one of the few people entrusted with the care of Alcorn's two shelties.

"She loved those dogs more than anyone else," she says.

But the extra duty came with a hazard. One day Alcorn called Rebecca, furious that she'd forgotten to ask an important question of the vet caring for one of her dogs.

"If God can't trust you with this," she screamed, "then you don't deserve to go to school."

Alcorn had promised to send a recommendation letter along with Rebecca' application to a Bible college. Now that Rebecca had failed her, Alcorn reneged on her commitment.

Disappointing Alcorn meant swift consequences. But sometimes punishment meant more than just a lost piece of paper.

Christy was the second Australian girl flown to Nashville. Struggles with anorexia had left her so weak doctors warned her heart might give out during the long flight over. Months after coming to Mercy, Christy was still dangerously underweight and looked nothing like the picture of success Alcorn hoped would help her open the new home Down Under. Christy's parents were concerned over her lack of progress. Alcorn came up with a temporary solution.

She told the girl she'd have to fatten up or leave. Then Alcorn put her in the care of a trusted friend for two weeks around Christmas. There she devised a strict diet of thrice daily ice-cream-and-protein milkshakes. The results were immediate: Christy returned to Mercy 20 pounds heavier. Her gain may have been short-lived—within months she was back to a sickly 70 pounds—but it was enough for her parents. They received a smiling photo of their daughter, post-milkshake diet, courtesy of Alcorn.

"I'm just amazed she didn't die," says Rebecca.

But being too skinny was a minor sin in the Mercy catalog. Looking lesbian was a major crime.

Alcorn admonished girls for wearing their hair short, despite keeping her owns locks in a shoulder-length bob. If girls got too close they were forced to sign a separation contract that prevented them from being alone together. Mercy didn't advertise itself as a gay-repair ministry, but some girls enrolled to be cured of their "disease."

One day a big donor took a tour of Mercy and thought one of the girls seeking to be "fixed" was a boy. Alcorn was so embarrassed she bought the girl a new wardrobe. By the end of the afternoon, she guaranteed there would be no more confusion thanks to the girl's new shirt: "I Heart Boys."

For the girls at Mercy, it wasn't hard to guess why Alcorn overreacted. Her speeches routinely boasted of the virginity she'd kept into her 50s. She attributed it solely to the sacrifice she'd made in order to build her ministry. But Rebecca, Ferris and the other girls had another guess as to why Alcorn remained single.

"It was a running joke," says Rebecca, "because everyone knew that Nancy was gay."

B y the time Jennifer Wynne graduated from Mercy's Louisiana home, she had the kind of relationship with Alcorn she wanted from the start. The two bonded over basketball. After a time first names were no longer necessary; mom and daughter would do just fine.

Wynne was planted firmly in Alcorn's inner circle. Her picture graced ministry brochures and she went to Bible college with help from Alcorn. She toured with Point of Grace, working Mercy's booth and bringing in thousands of dollars a night with her reformed-gangbanger testimony. When she came to Nashville she stayed in Alcorn's condo—though she wasn't the only one there.

While Wynne was in Dallas, Alcorn told her about Lisa, a nutritionist at the Nashville home. Lisa had been gay for 17 years, said Alcorn, but now she was straight. Which made it all the more puzzling to Wynne when Alcorn would shut her door at night with Lisa in the bed behind her. Wynne wasn't sure exactly what was happening. She just knew that every once in a while Alcorn could be counted on to rush into her room in the middle of the night, frantically begging Wynne to pray with her that Lisa wouldn't leave.

Thus began a pattern. Lisa would threaten to go and Alcorn would buy her something. First it was a Range Rover. Then a newer Range Rover. And finally a house in Belle Meade. When Alcorn's pastor caught wind of the relationship, he offered a remedy reminiscent of Alcorn's own prescription for preventing lesbianism: a separation contract.

Suddenly Wynne's job title changed. At 20 years old, she was already Mercy's youngest intake director, the second-highest gig in the house. Now she was also Alcorn's alibi.

Wynne was dragged along to local coffee shops to witness Alcorn and Lisa's "accidental" run-ins. They'd leave together afterward. Meanwhile, Wynne was hiding a secret of her own.

At a Point of Grace concert she'd met a girl named Marcia, who later enrolled in the Nashville home. The two began spending all their time together. Eventually they kissed.

Wynne was distraught. Mercy was everything to her, and everything about Mercy said her relationship with Marcia was wrong. Keeping it a secret was worse. Wynne felt like a criminal.

"I had disappointed God and Nancy," she says. "Which wasn't hard to do since they were basically the same person in my eyes."

Overcome with shame and overwhelmed by her double-duty in Nashville and on tour, Wynne came clean and tendered her resignation. But Alcorn wouldn't accept it. She said she couldn't quit and accused her of doing more than just kissing Marcia.

The executive director of the Nashville home gave Wynne a rubber band. She was to put it around her wrist and snap it whenever she had a gay thought. She broke it the first day.

The ax finally fell a week later, when Alcorn caught Wynne calling Marcia during a Kentucky stop on the Point of Grace tour. Alcorn was furious. She told Wynne to pack her stuff. Wynne cried the whole way back to Nashville while Alcorn berated her from behind the wheel.

"Why can't you just go to a gay bar in secret?" Alcorn demanded.

When they got home, Alcorn watched Wynne pack up her things. She threatened to call the cops if she ever returned and told her that she'd taped every conversation between Wynne and Marcia.

Wynne moved back to Dallas and tried to reconcile, sending Alcorn yellow roses for Mother's Day. The next day she got a call from Alcorn telling her she'd put the bouquet in the foyer just so Marcia would have to pass by it every day. She also had another message to deliver.

Alcorn had found Wynne's secret correspondence, a love letter without a return address she'd tried to sneak to Marcia. She'd been tipped off by the postmark from Texas. On Wynne's answering machine, Alcorn let her know exactly where she stood with Mercy.

"You're dead to us," she said.

Jodi Ferris left Mercy after seven months. The final straw came when her counselor told her she couldn't continue until she heard the voice of God inside her head. She tried for a couple weeks with no luck.

"I thought I wasn't Christian enough," she says.

For a time, Ferris kept up with Mercy. She asked for a recommendation for a church near her new home in Minnesota. She even donated money. But when she started to reconnect with old friends, those who referred to her experience at Mercy as "that time she joined a cult," her opinion changed.

Every couple months she'd check MySpace and Facebook to find girls from the program. Last year she found Rebecca. They started talking about coming out with their Mercy experience. Then Australia broke.

Ferris started a blog called "Mercy Ministries of America: Truth Will Out," one of a half-dozen online screeds against the group. The title is superimposed over a cropped photo of Alcorn, her head tilted and face frozen in Stepford Wife smile (mmoa2.blogspot.com).

"What's bothered me for so long is thinking how young some of the girls were," says Ferris. "I was an adult, but in Nashville we had girls that were 13. Mercy is medically negligent and they should know what they're getting into."

Mercy says that's just not true. Its own survey of nearly 400 graduates revealed that 93 percent believed Mercy had changed their lives for the better. Christy Singleton, Nashville's executive director, insists no one is being deceived or pressured into doing anything they don't want to do.

"Mercy Ministries is up-front about its foundation as a Bible-based Christian organization," she writes in an email. "Mercy does not encourage nor discourage speaking in tongues."

Though the group refused the Scene's interview requests and would only take questions in writing, it categorically denies that Alcorn is gay. It also relayed a terse message from Lisa claiming the allegations were "false and hurtful."

Jennifer Wynne knows better. After getting kicked out of Alcorn's condo, she dropped her given name in favor of the country in which she was conceived: India. Then she joined the Marines so that someone else could do the thinking for her. But the pain of losing a mother twice was too much.

Three times Wynne tried to kill herself by swallowing pills. After the last attempt, she woke up in a hospital room two weeks after downing a trio of aspirin bottles, unsure if she'd wrecked her kidneys for life.

When asked to describe how she came back from the brink, Wynne condenses it down to a simple moment.

"I saw my 4-year-old nephew smile and knew I wanted to live," she says, sitting in an Antioch Starbucks.

She went to therapy, found a gay-friendly church, and reconnected with her family. It took years, but Wynne finally got to the point where being gay didn't mean betraying God.

"The whole time I was at Mercy I had blinders on," she says. "For years, I was looking straight ahead, thinking I was the worst person on Earth. Then I took them off and everything got clear."

Last year, she finally gathered the strength to return to Tennessee. She knows Alcorn denies ever having a lesbian relationship or running a gay-recovery ministry. But that doesn't phase her. She saw all she needed to see on her second day back in the state.

"We go into this coffee shop," she says, smiling. "The same one where Nancy used to take me so she could bump into Lisa, right? And guess who walks through the door?"

She beams at the thought of the punchline. Nancy didn't say a word when she saw Wynne that day. Nancy didn't need to. Her face said it all.

"She was white as a sheet."

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