On May 4, 2003, a high-intensity storm system ripped through southwest Missouri, significantly damaging several communities. In Cedar County, an F-3 tornado touched down and destroyed many businesses and homes.
After the storm, students and staff at Agape Boarding School surveyed the damage. David Patterson, 15 at the time, remembers walking through the cafeteria and looking up and seeing the roof gone.
A staff member told the students they needed to call home.
“They were passing around a cellphone,” Patterson, now 33, recalled. “And staff members weren’t paying attention.”
It was the first time that no one was listening.
By then, Patterson had been at Agape for nearly 11 months — forced to perform hours and hours of manual labor, restrained by staff a few times and feeling deep isolation because students weren’t allowed to talk to each other.
At meals, if students didn’t eat everything on their plate, staff would save what was left and serve it cold at the next meal.
“All because the Bible says we shouldn’t be wasteful,” Patterson said. “They validated everything they did with the Bible.”
He ended up at Agape on Father’s Day 2002 after two strangers woke him around 4:30 in the morning in his California home.
“‘Hey, swing your legs over the side of the bed, don’t stand up,’” one of the men told him. “They said, ‘We could do this the easy way or the hard way.’ They picked out my clothes for me. They put my belt backwards.”
The pair showed him handcuffs and told him they could put those on him if they needed and with his belt on backward, they could connect the cuffs and keep his hands behind his back. They also put a “transport boot” on him.
“That was so you couldn’t run if you did run.”
Hours later, the soon to be 15-year-old — a varsity pole vaulter with a 3.5 GPA — was at Agape.
“I didn’t have academic issues,” he said. “ I ditched school a couple of times. I smoked pot and drank once in the same night. It wasn’t like I was a bad kid.”
Patterson still believes that he was sent to Missouri after he came out as gay his freshman year. It was tough for his dad, he said, to take that news and his son’s choice to explore religions “that were more accepting to being gay.”
At Agape, staff members made their attitudes toward homosexuality known.
“I remember them preaching: ‘Don’t burn the American flags, start burning fags,’” Patterson said. “That was the rhetoric used a couple of times. Then you are sitting there thinking, ‘Do these people know?’”
He just waited for the day he could get out and go home.
In the hours after the tornado, he took the cellphone and eventually heard his mother’s voice.
“Mom, this place is crazy, you’ve got to get me out of here.”
Soon after, his parents went through a custody hearing to see who would be responsible for the teen. Patterson recalls speaking with the court mediator for four hours, telling him what life was like at the Christian boarding school.
That mediator, Patterson said, “told the judge it would be detrimental for my mental health to go back to Agape.”
Three to four months after the tornado, he was back at home in California with his mom. And the two soon learned that getting back to normal wouldn’t be so easy.
One morning, she flipped on his bedroom light as a way to wake him up. Just like they would do back at school in southwest Missouri.
“I put on my Agape school uniform and stood by my door with my Bible — in my own home,” Patterson said, his voice starting to break. “That’s when we realized there was probably a big issue.”
For the next 10 years, he would wake up in the middle of the night, sweating and gasping for air. In his dream, he was back at school, in the cafeteria, wearing his “Agape shoes,” the ones with the tongues cut out and no laces.
And he was always trying to run away.
“Getting out of the cafeteria was the hardest part,” he said, referring to his dream. “First you had to get past the door guy. … Each time I’d get further and further.”
But he never got away. And the night terrors continued.
One night, he “commandeered a car” in his dream. In another, he beat up a staff member. And it was after that one that he had a breakthrough.
“The dreams quit happening,” he said. “They stopped.”
He was 26 years old.