To These Kids Whose Folks Are in Prison, There's Only One Reverend Ike—whom They Call Uncle
PREVENTING CRIME BY PRESENTING CHRIST, reads the sign just outside the front door of the Bethel Bible School in Hixson, Tenn. That plaque serves as an unnecessary reminder to the resident children as to how they came to Bethel—in every case, one or both of their parents are in prison.
“We’re helping children,” says Bethel director Ike Keay, “whose mothers and fathers have been involved in everything from nonsupport to alcohol, drugs to robbery, sex crimes to murder.” The 42 children, who range in age from 17 months to 18 years, are bused to schools in Hixson. So Bethel is not really a school. Because of his own desolation as a boy, Keay doesn’t consider Bethel a “children’s home” either. With his father a suicide and his mother hospitalized for tuberculosis, Keay was sent to a children’s home in New Jersey at age 10. “It was an earth-shattering experience,” recalls Keay, now 46. “If you’ve ever read Lord of the Flies, you’ll understand what our existence was like. Kids in a children’s home are mad at the world. They’ve been dealt a dirty blow, and they’re full of hostility.”
There is little hostility among the children at Bethel, despite the trauma most have experienced. Each afternoon as they pile off the school bus, they hug and tug at “Uncle Ike” and then scurry off to one of seven large, well-kept cottages. Each residence has four bedrooms, a playroom and houseparents, mostly in their late 20s or early 30s.
Bethel was started in 1954 when a Murfreesboro judge put six brothers (the father was in prison, the mother in a mental institution) in the custody of the Rev. Floyd Hipp, a prison evangelist. Fifteen years later, with Keay as director, the school moved from a crowded 50-bed dormitory at the foot of Chattanooga’s Signal Mountain to a 67-acre tract of land in nearby Hixson. “We had no money to buy the house and land or to build cottages,” Keay remembers. “But God had said ‘Go,’ and in obedience to his command we stepped out on faith.”
Born Izat Swanney Keay (“You can see why I’m called Ike”) in Scotland, he came to the U.S. at 6. After his unhappy years in the children’s home, Keay turned to Christ when he was 21. He met his wife, Carolyn, while studying at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, and they both worked at a children’s home in Hazard, Ky. He got the Bethel directorship in 1964.
The other day Keay was standing in a big grassy field on the Bethel campus. He pointed out one building that he hopes to turn into a vocational training center. “And someday,” he mused, “we’ll have a gym, a library and music room here in this field. Maybe even a swimming pool.”
Devotions are conducted every evening, but Bethel is nondenominational and gets no church, government or social agency support. Every year Keay must raise $288,000 in donations and gifts for operating expenses. Most of the cottages have been given by wealthy businessmen. Country music star Tom T. Hall stages an annual benefit golf tourney. “The game warden,” Ike laughs, “knows we will welcome any venison and fish he can provide.”
Almost all of the Bethel children have suffered harrowing experiences before their arrival. Five were there because their alcoholic mother, deserted by her husband, put them in a shack and set fire to it. Some of the children have severe speech defects and almost all are behind their age group in school. In most cases, what has been missing is love—and that is what all the adults at Bethel try to provide. A smiling Coco Pier, 54-year-old housemother of eight girls, says, “The most important thing I do all day is tuck them in and kiss them goodnight.”