Exodus Conference Day Two: A Move To the Gray
June 21st, 2013
Exodus International’s apology and announcement that it was shutting down is still provoking commentary all over the news media and Internet-o-sphere. That chatter got an additional boost with last night’s airing of Our America with Lisa Ling on OWN featuring a group of ex-gay survivors confronting Exodus president Alan Chambers with stories of the traumas that they experienced as a result of their trusting Exodus and other similar orientation change programs’ promises that they could change.
I haven’t been able to keep up with all of those reactions very well, as I’ve been continuing attend the Exodus Conference in Irvine, California which, despite Exodus’s demise, is still continuing through Saturday. This conference is shaping up to be very different from years past. I would describe the those prior conferences as a cross between a lively contemporary praise revival and a convivial summer camp. But this year, Chambers’s somber opening night talk on Wednesday, with its surprise revelation that Exodus was going out of business, seemed to really take the wind out of the audience’s sails yesterday. The worship services were somewhat more subdued and the chatter in the cafeteria was quieter than normal. There’s a kind of grieving taking place here, with some people feeling abandoned and perhaps a touch betrayed, although I don’t think I’ve heard anyone use that particular word. While some are encouraged that Exodus has finally taken the steps that it has, others are not on board and are sorely disappointed. To understand that latter reaction, I think it’s important to remember that the people coming here, unlike many who have left the ex-gay movement, don’t feel they’ve been harmed by Exodus (not yet, anyway, and some perhaps never will), feel that they have a home and community here, and turn to Exodus as perhaps the only place where they feel safe, surrounded by other people who understand them. Some of them are taking the news rather hard.
And if things weren’t somber enough, the tough Thursday morning sessions only added to the discomfort. The morning plenary was given over to Rob and Linda Robertson, Seattle residents, avid recyclers, their car had a “Hate is Not A Family Value” bumper sticker on their car in support of Linda’s gay brother. They are parents of four children including a son, Ryan, who came out to them as gay when he was twelve years old. As is true with many parents, their live-and-live attitudes crashed straight into their religious principles when they were confronted with the reality that Ryan was gay. Their reaction, which was perfectly in line with what Exodus had taught, was:
We love you. We will ALWAYS love you. But if you are going to follow Jesus, holiness is your only option. You are going to have to choose to follow Jesus, no matter what. And since you know what the Bible says, and since you want to follow God, embracing your sexuality is NOT an option.
Basically, we told our son that he had to choose between Jesus and his sexuality. We forced him to make a choice between God and being a sexual person. Choosing God, practically, meant living a lifetime of loneliness (never to fall in love, have his first kiss, hold hands, share intimacy companionship, experience romance), but it also meant the abundant life, perfect peace and eternal rewards. So, for the first six years, he tried to choose Jesus. Like so many others before him, he pleaded with God to help him be attracted to girls. He memorized Scripture, met with his youth pastor weekly, enthusiastically participated in all the church youth group events and Bible Studies, got baptized, read all the books that claimed to know where his gay feelings came from, dove into counseling to further discover the “why’s” of his unwanted attraction to other guys, worked through painful conflict resolution with my husband and I, and built strong friendships with other guys – straight guys – just like he was told to. He even came out to his entire youth group, giving his testimony of how God had rescued him from the traps of the enemy, and sharing – by memory – verse after verse that God had used to draw Ryan to Himself.
The Robertsons did everything that Exodus taught them to do, or, as Linda told the crowd yesterday morning, “We did everything right.” But as she emphasized the word right, it was as if she had uttered unspoken scare-quotes around the word. What came next was tragic: Ryan became disillusioned and exhausted with trying to change, dropped out, started self-medicating with pot, cocaine, heroin. He left home and disappeared completely for eighteen months, cutting off all contact.
When he finally resurfaced and called home, he asked if they could still love him after all he had done. Could they still live him even if he had a boyfriend. Linda responded, “We’d love you even if you had fifteen boyfriends, just come home.” They reconciled, met Ryan’s boyfriend Devon, helped Ryan through rehab, but when things were going well, Ryan one night decided to go and visit his old friends — his old, still using friends — for a movie. That night, he O.D’d, went into a coma, and died.
And we lost the ability to love our gay son… because we no longer had a gay son. What we had wished for… prayed for…hoped for.. that we would NOT have a gay son, came true. But not at all in the way we used to envision.
I had the privilege of meeting the Robertsons the night before they gave the talk. They said that they were surprised to be invited to the Exodus conference, let alone invited to speak. They spoke on the condition that they could say whatever they wanted, which was important because the lesson behind their story was unmistakable: following Exodus’s advice led to a tragic end. This is the kind of story that never would have been told in prior Exodus conferences.
The round table discussion that followed was similarly impressive. The Robertsons were joined by several Exodus and affiliated ministry leaders and pastors. The consensus that emerged was that people need a safe place to work out their beliefs, rather than having “truths” thrown at them. Julie Rogers, who works with inner city kids in West Dallas, put it this way: “So many young people are getting ‘truth grenades’ thrown at them from afar from the church. But truth grenades don’t change people. It’s been relationships that affect people. If we want people to meet Christ then it’s going to have to be through relationships. Because if people treat me more as a project than a person, then I’ve been left, alone. It leads to a lot of shame and heartache.” Rogers also emphasized that the need was not to change people but to be “restorers”. “We need to be more concerned with kids being bullied, entering into their pain and being with them rather than just telling them what we believe.”
Jill Rennick, of Milwaukee-based Grace Place ministry, described the unorthodox (for Exodus) approach she took in her ministry. She emphasized that their approach was not to try to coerce people’s behavior. “It’s easier to run a ministry like that” without taking on the burden of that responsibility. She encourages people to explore the Gay Christian Network as well other more traditional resources. She summed up her approach this way: “The Gospel has no asterisks.”
All of this is to say that the conference on Tuesday morning took a much more serious, thoughtful turn. Contrary to prior conferences, there is a lot more willingness to dwell in the grey areas. If that’s an uncomfortable position for almost everyone, you can imagine how difficult that is for an audience that had been raised in the black-and-white. Exodus International’s message had always been about change — about changing sexual orientation or identity. Exodus’s reason for existence was in the acknowledgment that the process of change that they had been talking about was very difficult. It seems kind of fitting to me to observe that now that Exodus itself is now going away to become something else (and what that will be exactly is still not clear) — in other words, undergoing a profound kind of change of a different kind — the conference’s attendees are exhibit A for how difficult change really is.
So yes, yesterday was, in many ways, a rather somber day. We still have two more days to go.