Karen Wheaton put her music career on the back burner and did something radical – She moved home to Alabama and launched one of the nation’s most effective outreaches to teenagers.
Christian vocalist Karen Wheaton hasn’t been a teenager since the early 1980s. But today she spends a lot of her time dancing on a stage with a rock band surrounded by kids with tattoos, body piercings, dreadlocks and multicolored hair. The 44-year-old singer could have stayed on a predictable career track, but she followed her heart to a tiny town in northern Alabama where she now runs one of the nation’s most unique outreaches to troubled teens.
For more than 20 years the small-framed Southerner has performed and led worship for Jimmy Swaggart, Charles and Francis Hunter, Marilyn Hickey, Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes and other evangelists, and she is a frequent guest on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. So why on earth would this woman relocate her ministry to Hamilton, Alabama, a town of less than 7,000?
You just have to know Karen to understand this odd career move. Deep down, she’s much more than a stage performer or a professional worship leader. She’s a mom who cares about kids.
“I didn’t think I was cool enough to work with young people,” Karen admits. “Kids would tell me that their grandmother loves my music.”
The music that vibrates inside her new youth center isn’t granny’s music, nor are the songs part of Karen’s normal repertoire. The sound grew out of her struggle to help seven teenagers at a local church.
By teaching the teens what she knew–how to worship God with passion–a revival was sparked that has put Hamilton on the map and caused some upheaval in the city. Her twice-weekly meetings now attract 600 teenagers, and 1,200 attend her frequent youth conferences that feature rock-style worship bands and plenty of dance and drama.
Many of the teens’ lives are marked by broken homes and drug addiction–problems foreign to a country girl raised in a strict Pentecostal denomination that didn’t allow people to wear wedding rings. Yet Karen relates to the heartbreak the kids face.
She sees herself as their spiritual mom. “A mother who wants to teach them all I’ve seen in the Spirit and how to get there,” she adds. “As I’ve done that, they’re pursuing places I’ve never been.”
A Rough Road
Karen has had her share of losses on this road to spiritual fulfillment. Her life almost derailed because of a failed marriage. Her first husband, Dwayne Wheaton, was her road manager, booking agent and constant companion. His infidelity came to light in their first year of marriage.
“I couldn’t eat or sleep. I felt like a zombie,” she told Charisma. Searching for direction, she let her Bible flop open. The first thing she read was Mark 11:25: “If you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”
Karen whispered to God: “That’s the first thing You have to say to me? I want a verse about breaking the teeth of the ungodly.”
Still, she knew what she had to do. In the middle of the night, Karen put out a chair in the middle of her living room and imagined each person who had hurt her sitting in it, one at a time. She knelt before the chair and said aloud: “I choose in my heart to forgive you. I tell you right now, I drop the charges.”
Then she looked up and screamed: “God, I don’t feel this! I’m angry. I’m hurt. I even hate. But since you tell me to do this, I am, as an act of my will.”
“An amazing thing started to happen,” Karen recalls. “As they were walking out of my prison of anger, I was walking out behind them. What I was doing for them, God was doing for me.”
Her husband’s infidelity continued through much of their 13-year marriage until one day Karen felt hope leave her. Then the Lord intervened and told her to stop fretting over the mess that her marriage had become.
Says Karen: “God said to me: ‘It’s over. Stop talking about it. Stop calling your mother and going over every detail. Stop eating out of a dead carcass. I didn’t call you to be a buzzard, but a soaring eagle.'”
Her fresh focus is what she now advises others to adopt. She tells audiences: “Turn your anger on your real enemy”–meaning, the devil. She believes she’s experienced vengeance on Satan because “what he meant to use to destroy me and my ministry has drawn me closer to God.”
Karen has been married for the last nine years to Rick Towe, a trucking company executive. He lives in a small house 4-1/2 hours away in Chattanooga, Tennessee, during his workweek and sees Karen on the weekends.
Karen says Rick has brought healing to her and her two daughters: Lauren, 20, and Lindsey, 18. “Rick’s very consistent and full of integrity,” she adds.
He’s also a homebody. He’s content to be in his La-Z-Boy with their dog Tinkerbell watching reruns of The Andy Griffith Show. Karen relaxes by hiking the bluffs on her grandparents’ farm across the road. With all that’s happened since they started their two-house arrangement six years ago, Rick and Karen’s quiet time together, even if just over a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal, has become a precious commodity.
Called to Reach Kids
Karen’s move to Hamilton seemed illogical at first. She and Rick had a beautiful house in Chattanooga near Rick’s work and the convenience of a major airport for her weekend ministry engagements. Still, she wanted to have her daughters near her sister and aging parents. Rick agreed to the shift.
It was while she was passing through the little town where she grew up at 1:30 one morning that it occurred to her that the move was the start of a new ministry. “The kids [of the town] were driving the same quarter-mile loop that we used to drive when I was their age,” she says. “They were bored. They were ignorant of God and that He had a purpose for their lives.” She went home determined to do something to reach the youth of her community.
Hamilton is wrestling with big problems. Drug abuse is rampant. Methamphetamine, also known as “crank” or “ice,” with its adrenalinelike rush, has been killing as many as six Marion County residents a month from overdoses. The Marion County Drug Task Force says 85 percent of their arrests involve barging into dangerous labs or catching people purchasing or possessing lab-making materials.
If that isn’t enough, though, Marion is a dry county and alcohol isn’t readily available. So drugs, including marijuana and OxyContin, have become convenient alternatives.
Karen was at a loss about what to do. She started by helping with a youth group on Wednesday nights at Grace Christian Church, a storefront congregation pastored by her brother-in-law and sister, Skip and Janet Alexander. Just seven kids attended when she began her work.
“I didn’t know the latest gimmicks,” Karen admits, “but they responded to love and to a real encounter with the presence of God. It was the only thing I knew how to take them into.”
She didn’t have a music group–not even a guitar player–in the beginning. “But still teenagers started coming from out of the woods!” Karen says. “I just poured into them that there was more to live for.”
Her mission soon became clear: “To raise up a generation of young people. To awaken them out of spiritual death and religious complacency into their individual purpose and corporate responsibility as an offensive army imposing the kingdom of God.”
Not wanting to compete with other churches, Karen put the growing youth meeting on neutral ground. The perfect spot was a vacant Big Star grocery store across the street from Grace Christian. Karen mortgaged her house and everything she owned to buy it, gut it, and add 40 feet on the front and 20 feet on the back.
The concrete, pillared face of what is now called The Ramp stands out like a gothic monument among the fast-food restaurants and stores nearby. Inside, tiled floors are entrances to a window-encased bookstore that sells T-shirts and Christian books, videos and music.
To the right is a chic café that serves croissant sandwiches, smoothies and cappuccinos. In the center of the building is the 120-by-75 meeting room used for youth services on Tuesday and Saturday nights.
The services are unpredictable. “I go in knowing what band is going to play–the Worship Band or Eddie James–and I usually determine what songs they’ll sing first,” Karen says. “After that we pretty much don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t have worship and then two special songs. We don’t know if worship will last for 30 minutes or three hours. Sometimes it does last for three hours.”
The last time youth pastor Garth Bowman came to a Ramp conference, one of his youth-group members went home and destroyed more than $6,000 worth of rocker Kurt Cobain’s music and memorabilia. Bowman brought 21 teens to last December’s conference.
“This generation wants an experience, and 15 minutes of worship just isn’t enough,” Bowman says. He thinks the intensive rock worship sessions at The Ramp were used by God to do work that would have been impossible for an army of pastors. “If you took an intensive survey of all the needs in the 1,200 kids at this conference, no one could minister to all those in 2-1/2 days of meetings. But by stepping back, worshiping together, you let God do whatever He wants to do.”
The theme Bowman hears at The Ramp is straightforward: “Don’t make kids codependent. Encourage them to have a relationship with God of their own. They need to learn to hear His voice.”
Karen has expanded on that idea by handpicking 30 young people between the ages of 16 and 25 to minister with her. They’re called Chosen, and their dramas and dances are so popular they’re now offering workshops to teach others. Their live broadcasts on TBN and on the Internet have brought positive responses from around the world.
Many involved in Chosen are locals such as Samuel Bentley, 23, who started drinking at 13 and was an alcoholic by 17. “When I was 19 I got a girl pregnant. After that I had some decisions to make,” Bentley told Charisma.
Karen’s ministry changed his life. “I found an atmosphere that showed me something bigger. Most of my generation will say, ‘If you give me something big enough, I’ll give my life for it.'”
Now in college and a proud father of a 4-year-old daughter, Bentley drives an hour to be at The Ramp twice a week.
Some teens have moved to Hamilton from other cities. Sheila, a young hairdresser from Phoenix, is one. She says she’s spiritually fed by “something that’ll last–versus the mall.”
Randa has blonde streaks in the front of her black hair. She came to The Ramp and went back to drug use. After she compared the experiences she chose to convert to Christ. “Before, I was lonely and rejected. Here I’m happy and full of life. I fit in here more than anywhere else,” she says.
Karen says she’s strict about the lifestyle choices of those in Chosen. “If you’re going to share my platform,” she tells them, “you’re going to share my convictions.” She and Damon Thompson, a traveling evangelist who ministers beside her at conferences, counsels each Chosen member to set spiritual goals.
“They’re not perfect,” Karen says, “but when they’ve fallen, we pick them up and clean off the mud. I’ve noticed lately that their falls are getting way far apart.”
The formation of the youth ministry has stirred some controversy in Hamilton, which is in the heart of the Bible Belt. Eddie Davidson, pastor of Hamilton’s First Baptist Church, has publicly opposed Karen’s outreach because he objects to some of the charismatic speakers she features in her meetings. (Benny Hinn, for example, was a guest at the opening service in 2002.)
Karen has lacked the support of town officials as well, but to turn the tide she spoke at a recent Kiwanis Club meeting. She told them she sees herself like Nehemiah, who returned to his hometown and marshaled an effort to rebuild the city walls.
“If The Ramp is not of God, I want it to fall. But if it is of God, you’re fighting God,” she told town leaders. A few turned their chairs so their backs faced her.
Her prayer before city council and mayoral elections last fall was a desperate one: “Change ’em or move ’em, Lord!” Voters turned out every incumbent seat during the election.
“For the first time in six years we have a crack in the door,” Karen says. The new mayor, Ray Harper, is one of her biggest supporters.
“I’d rather have my kid down there [at The Ramp] than in some parking lot doing God knows what,” Harper told Charisma. “Besides, when you bring 1,200 kids in who buy pizzas and tacos, go to Wal-Mart, and have to have somewhere to sleep, it brings a lot of money into a little town like ours.”
Although Harper is Baptist, he says he is cheering on this Pentecostal woman’s work. “I’m doing everything I can to help her. I’ve been to The Ramp and I think it’s fantastic. I might not understand it, but they can worship the Lord any way they want to,” the mayor adds.
Karen is grateful for Harper’s support, but she gets the biggest boost from her kids. They are the best advertising for this small-town miracle.
Joe Reeser, sporting bushy dreadlocks, plays guitar in The Ramp’s worship band and is one of Karen’s 14 employees. “We’re different not because somebody told us we needed to be,” he says, “but because a Savior so affected our lives we couldn’t live any other way.”
That’s the kind of encouragement that will keep Karen’s work growing until she reaches an entire generation. As she looks out over a sea of raised hands at the close of a worship service at The Ramp, her dream expands.
“I believe we are to build a ramp through our love, prayer and teaching,” she says. “It will take this generation from where they are and launch them into the destiny God has for their lives.”
Marsha Gallardo is a writer based in Spring Hill, Tennessee, near Nashville. She and her husband have four children, three of them teenagers.