Saving Lives, Saving Souls

by Abby Cavenaugh
February 2008

Betel, as Mary and Elliott Tepper call their ministry, began in 1986, almost by accident. The Teppers decided to use Betel, the Spanish version of Bethel — because in Hebrew, it means "House of God" — to name the ministry. The Teppers were missionaries through WEC International — Worldwide Evangelists for Christ, who’d just returned from a successful ministry with university students in Mexico. Now in Madrid, they hoped to start a similar ministry with university students there.

"It didn’t work," admits Elliott, co-founder of Betel, which has become an international network of rehabilitation centers and communities. "At that time, Spain, Europeans in general, were very materialistic and humanistic. They just ignored us … they ignored God, but, there was a group of people who were very interested in the gospel because they had a need."

Along with fellow missionary Lindsay McKenzie, an Australian, the Teppers began taking in heroin addicts, who were plentiful in the Madrid neighborhood of San Blas. The addicts lived with the McKenzies in their apartment.

McKenzie and Elliott would transport the addicts to and from drug rehab centers at first, but before long, the sheer numbers of addicts became too plentiful to manage in a small apartment. "It started with about 30 guys and just kind of grew from there," Elliott’s son, Jonathan Tepper, recalls.

A little more than 20 years later, more than 100,000 people have come through the Teppers’ communities.

Betels, Christ-centered communities, dedicated to restoring substance-dependent and marginalized people to productive and independent lifestyles, can be found in 15 countries: Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Germany, Britain, Greece, Bulgaria, Russia, India, Australia, America, Mexico, the Czech Republic and Ireland. Betel’s rehab centers can also be found in 70 urban areas within those 15 countries.

Betel’s philosophy is founded in mainstream Christianity. The emphasis is on the restoration of personality that is found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They believe they are following in Christian tradition and practice in providing charitable services that bring healing and enrichment to society.

Betel has always followed the approach that addicts must quit, cold turkey. There are no substitute drugs to help them slowly work their way off heroin or other drugs — no alcohol, no cigarettes, no exceptions.

"We don’t have a separate detox program," Elliott explains. Addicts trade a life of being high on drugs to being high on God. "It’s total abstinence. There’s no medication. They just have to live in the community, and they have to quit, cold turkey. Most programs allow people to smoke; we don’t."

The program is also completely voluntary — and free.

From the get-go, addicts who come to Betel have a "shadow," someone who stays with them 24/7, usually a recovered addict who’s been there, done that. When they’re ready, the addicts, or Betelitos, as they’re called, become a part of the Betel community. "The first thing is, they can sweep up, help washing dishes and other jobs around the house," Elliott says. "Then when they’re able to go out on work teams, we have thrift stores, so we have 400 trucks. People donate furniture so they can go pick it up for them, refinish it, put it up. We also move houses. We do moving for people. We have painting teams. We process scrap metal. We have a water buffalo farm; they work on the farm. We have ostriches, we have sheep in Mexico."

The Teppers, though they’ve run this multinational organization for more than 20 years, are not monetarily wealthy. Elliott has an M.B.A. from Harvard University, but the Teppers still live in the rough-and-tumble San Blas neighborhood where Elliott reports, with almost a note of pride for having survived it, "In the last 20 years, we’ve been robbed 27 times."

The pastors at Betel are almost exclusively recovered addicts. Many of them have died of AIDS or are HIV positive, as the result of years of intravenous drug use. In fact, Jonathan reckons about 25 of his childhood friends have died of AIDS. He stopped trying to keep count a few years ago, he says.

"We receive no salaries through Betel," Elliott says. "All of our support comes from churches and friends. In fact, nobody has a salary, not even the pastors. They live in the community; they have room, board and shelter. Churches support us. Even if we raise 95 percent of our income, we still need over $1 million in donations just to make Betel work."

A Hometown Connection

Many of those donations — both of money and physical labor support — come from right here in the Wilmington area. The Teppers call Myrtle Grove Presbyterian Church their home church — Mary, Elliott’s wife, is a lifelong Wilmingtonian, and Elliott has called Wilmington his home base since 1972 — and a few times a year, members of the Myrtle Grove congregation will head overseas to one of the many Betel communities worldwide to donate their time and energy.

God’s hand in the ministry is one of the many reasons that Glenn and Nancy Kling, members of Wrightsville Beach Baptist Church, have supported Betel and the Teppers almost from the beginning.

Nancy Kling first met Mary when she was a guest speaker at a missions group meeting for young girls. Nancy usually meets with the women and young girls at Betel, while Glenn, an engineer, helps get the different Betel centers up to technological speed.

"Elliott calls Glenn his MacGyver," Nancy says, "and Elliott’s place is always in need of someone to fix things and figure out ways to get things going."

Last year, while the Teppers were in Wilmington on furlough, Glenn accompanied Elliott to Betel New York, where they delivered a new truck. In May, 2006, the Klings headed to Betel India, where Glenn helped install a septic system.

"I’m sure they won’t talk about themselves, but they are tremendous," Nancy says of the Tepper family. "We in America would think that they’ve sacrificed a lot, but they don’t feel that they’ve sacrificed anything. It’s a tremendous ministry that has a far greater success rate than any ministry that I know of. They help the outcasts, the downtrodden and give them purpose in life. That’s why we just really enjoy helping them."

Growing Up On The Mission Field

Although the Teppers are highly respected today, Elliott admits that when the boys were growing up, many questioned the idea of exposing the impressionable youngsters to drug addicts and the harsh realities of what that entails — including the boys’ grandparents, Louise Prevatt of Wilmington and her late husband Freeman.

"We lived in a really problematic area," Elliott says. "They grew up in that area, and they went to the Christian missionary school but all their best friends were the addicts in the center. They lived with them, they worked with them and studied with them. Of course, people thought we were ruining our kids’ lives."

However, it didn’t turn out that way, quite the opposite actually. "Their friends were the converted addicts, creatures of God," Elliott continues. "They didn’t adversely affect our boys’ lives. They had a very positive effect on them because they grew up with a level of compassion."

Timothy, the youngest, was tragically killed in a car accident in 1991 when the family was in Wilmington on furlough. But despite the tragedy in both their immediate and extended families, all of the Tepper boys have grown up to live highly distinguished lives.

The oldest, David, 32, was a Johnson scholar, Phi Theta Kappa, at the University of North Carolina (UNC), graduating with high honors in mathematics. He went on to be an accountant for Arthur Andersen, then received a graduate degree with honors from Oxford University. He’s now the director of Betel New York.

Jonathan, 30, entered UNC as a second-semester sophomore. A Rhodes Scholar, he graduated with honors, as well, and earned a master’s in history and literature from Oxford University. He now lives in London, where he is an investor and on the board of trustees for Betel of Britain.

Peter, 29, was appointed to West Point by U.S. Senator Jesse Helms and became a captain in the U.S. Army. He served for five years before he, too, went to Oxford, and was also an honors student at UNC. Peter was elected the university student chaplain at Saint Aldates, the evangelical chapel at Oxford University. He’s the first American and the youngest chaplain in the history of Oxford University to hold a chaplaincy. Adds Elliott sarcastically, "So obviously, yes, we ruined their lives on the mission field.""It’s our identity, who we are," Jonathan says. "It was a slightly schizophrenic life in a way, where we had a lot of reading at home and debates and discussions, and my father used to give extremely long devotionals. We were constantly exposed to literature and other things at the dinner table and bedtime stories. Then we’d go out in the street and talk to people who were heroin addicts. It was quite a big contrast between our life at home and our life out in the streets."

People With Love And Empathy

While many books and articles have focused on Betel’s success stories, Jonathan says that his parents are often mentioned only in passing. "One thing I admire tremendously about my parents is that they’ve been doing this for about 20 years and there are plenty of Christian ministries in the United States and other places, which I don’t particularly like because they plaster their photographs all over the publications of the organization and do things like that," he says. "If you try to find my parents on the Internet, they’re almost nowhere to be found on Betel’s Web site. They do what they do because they love it, and they want to help people and that’s that. My parents aren’t saints. They’re just people who have love and empathy."

For more information about Betel, visit its Web site, or read these books, which tell of the testimonies of changed lives: We Dance Because We Cannot Fly, by Guy Chevreau available in English, Italian, Spanish, Finnish, Russian; Rescue Shop 2 — Sacking the Frontiers of Hell by Marie Dinnen and Stewart Dinnen available in English, Spanish, Greek; Rescue Shop Within a Yard Of Hell by Stewart Dinnen, available in English, Spanish and Korean.


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