“I long for the day when a gay or lesbian kid feels like the first place, the best place, to call or go for help is the church,” said Exodus leader Alan Chambers, in his opening remarks at the ex-gay ministry’s 38th annual convention in Irvine, Calif., Wednesday night.
To the ears of most gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, that sounds like nails on a chalkboard.
Church has in fact been the very last place for LGBT people to seek help—a claim validated by the Pew Research Center who recently found that nearly half of LGBT people claim no religion at all. Not a surprise considering that many LGBT folk spent a chunk of their childhood sitting through homophobic sermons and Sunday school lessons wondering if God really did hate and condemn them.
But, and most significantly, Chambers also delivered the dramatic news that Exodus would be shutting its doors. Earlier this year, in an appearance at the Gay Christian Network conference, Chambers admitted that “99.9%” of those in ex-gay ministries never change their sexual orientation. A short time later Chambers swore that Exodus would no longer use “reparative therapy,” or the notion that you can “pray away the gay,” in their programs.
This week, Chambers issued an apology to the LGBT community, saying he never saw it as the “enemy”:
I am sorry I didn’t stand up to people publicly ‘on my side’ who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him, I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.
More than anything, I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection. I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives.
What has emerged to fill the void is a fledgling organization called “Reduce Fear,” that seeks to offer “safe, welcoming, and mutually transforming communities.” When LGBT people hear “safe” and “welcoming” and a new organization from Exodus, it’s natural to be suspicious.
Julie Rodgers, a speaker for Exodus who has been with the ministry for ten years, since she was 17, says she understands that.
“Time will reveal as we begin this new venture,” she told Religion Dispatches. “Alan coming out with this apology and this move is already an enormous step. We’re saying that gay people matter and where we’ve caused them harm we’re going to own that and work to end that pain.”
When asked if a “safe and welcoming” place would include those who may come to the ministry and may still decide that God calls them to live fully as a gay or lesbian person, in relationship with someone of the same gender, Rodgers said, “We would walk with them toward Jesus and continue to listen together. Ultimately we believe it’s God’s job to convict and it’s our job to love.”
Indeed, LGBT people are used to the love that hopes they will one day agree that the ex-gay ministry is right and their desire to live into their sexuality is wrong. But, Rodgers is adamant that, though they readily admit they hold to a “traditional view of the Bible” on homosexuality, the new organization has no hidden agenda of “change.”
“We recognize our beliefs are not a trump card,” Rodgers explained. “We realize many, many churches hold a more liberal view on this issue and we believe it’s time for us to come to the table and value one another in the midst of our differing beliefs.”
Rodgers also noted that the new organization would probably not seek to change other ex-gay ministries that continue to use “reparative therapy” or other harmful “treatments” on LGBT people.
“We’re not interested in fighting anymore,” Rodgers said. We want to work on suicide prevention and anti-bullying causes. We’re more concerned with seeing human flourishing.”
It’s all very promising and conciliatory talk from an outfit that has done much harm to the LGBT community in the past. But if the new iteration of Exodus is truly committed to dialogue—which invites both sides to be open to changing opinions and ideas—they will be a welcome partner in fostering understanding of LGBT people both inside the church and out.
However, my own suspicion as a theologian is aroused by the new Reduce Fear’s reliance on the Prodigal Son parable as the foundation for its mission. Chambers says Exodus has, in the past, been the older brother who resented the father’s extravagant welcome of his returning son with open arms and a feast instead of condemnation. Now, they seek to be the father, who runs to greet the wayward son as he returns.
I have two problems with this. First, it paints LGBT folk as “wayward” people who have squandered the gifts the father gave them—gifts we LGBT Christians see for what they are and in no way squander. Secondly, even though the son is welcomed back, no questions asked, it’s understood that he’s not going to go out and do it again. The message to LGBT people is clear: you’re welcome and forgiven, but going back to that “lifestyle” is forbidden.
I hope my reservations are unfounded, because so much is at stake in this move. If time reveals this new organization to be nothing more than a shuffling of the Titanic’s deck chairs then it will only reinforce the LGBT belief that the church is the very last place they can turn to for support.