Aleck Lee Bledsoe's empire went on the auction block this month. His church, with its congregation of fundamendalist Baptists. His school, with its pious, strictly disciplined children. And his 56 acres, where he had hoped to build a Bible college that would turn out hundreds of dedicated servants of the Lord.
As Bledsoe sees it, the Marumsco Baptist Church and Christian School were killed by controversy--victimized by bad publicity and deserted by disloyal followers. At a time when conservative Christian schools are flourishing in Northern Virginia, his has failed.
Three years ago, the Marumsco Christian School in northern Prince William County was sued for racial discrimination after Bledsoe, who doubles as school principal and church pastor, expelled a white girl for dating a black student at the school.
That was the beginning of the end for the 10-year-old school and its 16-year-old parent church.
"We got sued in March 1979," said Bledsoe. "By the time school let out, it was very apparent nobody was going to come back. By the time it went to court in August, you couldn't find anybody who'd admit they were members of the Marumsco Baptist Church."
Within weeks after the suit was filed, the congregation, which had boasted a membership of 250, plummetted to about 25. The school, whose peak enrollment topped 200, plunged to about 75.
This month, the school and church were seized by a federal court and auctioned at a bankruptcy sale. On June 6, the church and the school, stripped of their names, will be bolted shut.
Many of those who fled the church and pulled their children out of the school branded Bledsoe a racist. A community newspaper depicted Bledsoe in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood in one of its editorial cartoons.
"People reacted emotionally," said Bledsoe. "I lost most of the black families right off the bat. They said, 'You're racist.' They were gone."
When school opened in the fall of 1979, only two of 17 black students were back in class, according to Bledsoe.
White families deserted the pews and desks, also.
Some left because they said Bledsoe went too far when his opinions began trampling the constitutional rights of students. Many students enrolled in neighboring Christian academies, according to Bledsoe and officials at nearby schools.
"They (the Marumsco school) have gone through a rough struggle," said Dave Perdue, administrator of the Bethlehem Baptist Christian Academy in southern Fairfax County, where some of Bledsoe'students enrolled. "I don't agree with the way things were handled."
Bledsoe looks at it differently.
"A lot of people don't like to be associated with anything controversial," the 40-year-old pastor said. "I am a controversial individual."
Many parents at Marumsco say they pulled their children from the classrooms because of reports of impending bankruptcy. They didn't like the uncertainty of not knowing if the school would still be open next month, or next year.
"I lost 25 kids on one headline that said "Marumsco Christian Schools May Not Open Doors Next Year," Bledsoe said.
But a small core of followers stayed. And for three years the church and the school managed to limp along with sparse Sunday morning turnouts, half-empty classrooms and mounting debts, which by this spring totalled more than $1 million.
This year the school enrolled 78 students, including 11 black and other minority pupils, and the church has a membership of about 70, Bledsoe said.
The struggle for survival ended when the federal court took over the building and property and put it up for sale. The single bidder put up $320,000 for the buildings and wooded acreage, about a third of what the church paid for the properties in 1975. The purchaser was J. V. Elrod, a real estate investor, who said he would like to sell or rent the land and buildings to a church or school.
For seven years the Marumsco Baptist Church and Christian School were as successful as any of the new Christian academies that have sprung up in the last decade across Northern Virginia. The school opened with 10 students in 1972 and had 200 students by 1979.
"We didn't have any problems until that girl," Bledsoe said bitterly.
That girl was a 14-year-old white student, Melissa Fiedler. She befriended a black classmate, Rufus Bostic III. The friendship infuriated Bledsoe, who said he "harped" on the evils of interracial marriage in his sermons at the church.
Bledsoe said he repeatedly warned Melissa against continuing the friendship. One night, however, some church members said they saw Melissa and Rufus holding hands at a McDonald's restaurant after a school basketball game. This in a school that preaches against going steady, holding hands and interracial dating. A school that puts all the boys in the back of the bus and girls in the front with chaperones in between on school field trips.
The next day Melissa was expelled. Two days later her father, Raymond, sued the school and Bledsoe for racial discrimination. Bledsoe retaliated by kicking out Melissa's younger sister, Charlotte.
After two years of court battles, the Fiedlers won $18,000 in an out-of-court settlement.
A federal court said Bledsoe had no evidence to support his claim that interracial dating violated the tenets of his church, and determined that the prohibition against such dating was merely Bledsoe's private conviction, not that of the church. Bledsoe, according to the court, had no legal grounds for expelling Melissa because the action wasn't based on written policy.
The lawsuit didn't change Bledsoe's convictions on interracial dating and marriage. But it taught him the legal techniques to avoid another lawsuit while still imposing his opinions on the school and its students.
For instance, all school policies, on everything from profanity to dating, now are "down in black and white," Bledsoe said, flinching at the unintended choice of words. And the regulations are even tougher than before the lawsuit.
Take Rule 17 of the Marumsco Christian School Handbook:
"There is to be no interracial dating. Students who become partners in an interracial marriage will be expelled. . . . Students who date outside of their own race will be expelled."
Bledsoe added an even stricter regulation, known among students as the Six Inch Rule:
Boys and girls are to stay six inches apart in their relationships. Hugging, kissing, holding hands, etc. is forbidden.
The school also will not admit any student whose parents have sued another Christian school. "They might do the same to us," reasoned Bledsoe.
And even though Bledsoe blames the controversy surrounding the lawsuit for destroying his school and church, he claims that he wouldn't hesitate to confront controversy again.
He's already making plans to assemble a new church and school. He says about 50 students already have signed up for classes next fall, even though he hasn't even found a location or the money to start the school. Bledsoe said he has found a building to rent for Sunday worship services.
"I've got a chance to start over," boasted Bledsoe. "It will probably take a while for people to attack the new organization. But we'll be in the newspapers again; . . . controversy comes to me."
Meanwhile, Bledsoe readily admits he is glad to be rid of the financial burdens of the Marumsco church and school. And even though the sale of the property gave Bledsoe the right to finish out the school year before closing the buildings, he is impatient for the term to end.
"I have to finish out my duties here," said Bledsoe. "But I'm really more interested in getting the new church and school started."
But until graduation day on June 4, the school will be operated just as it has for the last decade. The students--kindergarten through 12th grade--will come to class each morning with their pencils, notebooks and Bible. They will start each day with prayer, begin lunch with prayer and end each day with prayer.
The Marumsco Baptist Church and Christian School is a hulking, green steel building tucked in the folds of the rolling countryside of northern Prince William County. A neon sign near the road declaring "Visitors Welcome" contradicts the two signs at the driveway entrance that warn "No Trespassing."
It is a school where "golly" is a profanity, kissing is forbidden and prayer is mandatory and frequent.
"I run this school like a drill instructor would run it," said Bledsoe, whose own three children attend the school. "What I say goes. There's no back talk, no criticism. I am the general, they are the troops."
Rule 11: Griping and complaining. This will be dealt with. We appreciate suggestions, but they must be made in the form of suggestions--not a complaint. Read Proverbs 6:16-19.
The strict discipline and stringent rules, which may seem archaic to students who don't attend Christian schools, are the main attractions for many parents.
"With a teen-age boy, I like the discipline," said Barbara Jarrett, whose son, Chip, is one of three seniors who will graduate next week. "Chip will look you in the eye. Most teen-agers just shuffle their feet and stare at the ground."
Roger Barrett, a quiet, soft-spoken tenth-grader at Marumsco, said he transferred from a public school because "it seemed like the teachers didn't care about you." His education at the Christian academy, he said, has convinced him he wants to be a preacher.
The students are properly obedient and when on campus adhere to Rule 1:
Improper speech--profanity ("gosh," "gee," "gee-whiz," "golly," "darn," "heck," etc.), vulgarity, and swearing.
Girls must wear dresses or skirts. Boys in grades 7-12 must wear coats and ties. Most of the older boys wear close-cropped hair.
All the teachers at the school must sign statements that they have been "saved" before they will be hired. "We drill the Bible into these kids," said Bledsoe, and his teachers are required to have the background to do that drilling.
Drained by the stress of the controversy surrounding the lawsuit, none of the school's present teachers will follow Bledsoe to his new school, he said.
The school has graduated five students, including the three graduates this year, since its first senior was admitted in 1975. It is not accredited by the Virginia Board of Education, a deficiency that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for graduates to enter a state college.
But that doesn't bother Bledsoe, whose daughter is one of this year's graduates and plans to attend a Christian college next fall.
"We don't recommend that our students go to state schools," said Bledsoe. "We recommend they go to Bible colleges. State schools serve to undermine our Christian teachings and the students often become a detriment to society."