Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movementby Tanya Erzen
Every year, hundreds of gay men and lesbians join ex-gay ministries in an attempt to convert to non-homosexual Christian lives.
In this fascinating study of the transnational ex-gay movement, Tanya Erzen focuses on the everyday lives of men and women at New Hope Ministry, a residential ex-gay program, over the course of several years. Straight to Jesus/i>
Every year, hundreds of gay men and lesbians join ex-gay ministries in an attempt to convert to non-homosexual Christian lives.
In this fascinating study of the transnational ex-gay movement, Tanya Erzen focuses on the everyday lives of men and women at New Hope Ministry, a residential ex-gay program, over the course of several years. Straight to Jesus traces the stories of people who have renounced long-term relationships and moved from other countries out of a conviction that the conservative Christian beliefs of their upbringing and their own same-sex desires are irreconcilable. Rather than definitively changing from homosexual to heterosexual, the participants experience a conversion that is both sexual and religious as born-again evangelical Christians. At New Hope, they maintain a personal relationship with Jesus and build new forms of kinship and belonging. By becoming what they call "new creations," these men and women testify to religious transformation rather than changes in sexual desire or behavior. Straight to Jesus exposes how the Christian Right attempts to repudiate gay identity and political rights by using the ex-gay movement as evidence that “change is possible.”
Instead, Erzen reveals, the realities of the lives she examines actually undermine this anti-gay strategy.
- University of California Press
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Straight to Jesus
Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement
By Tanya Erzen
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2006 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Steps Out of Homosexuality
In 1973 Frank Worthen heard from God for the first time in years. Frank, then a forty-four-year-old gay man, had spent twenty-five years living in the San Francisco Bay Area as a businessman and participating peripherally in early gay liberation struggles. According to Frank's recollections, on May 24 he locked his office door and headed for the back entrance of his import store, planning to check out a new gay bathhouse in San Francisco. Unbeknownst to Frank, one of his employees, a young Christian named Matt, had been secretly praying for him for months. Frank recalled: "I was leaving my office and the Lord just spoke to me and said, 'I want you back.' I generally don't share that with a lot of people because they don't understand that God can talk to you." He laughed, "They think there's something wrong with you if God can talk to you. But he did. It scared the life out of me." Frank immediately contacted Matt, who met him at a chapel where he led Frank in the sinner's prayer, a prayer that many conservative evangelical Christians generally understand signifies the initiation of conversion or the promise that you will give your life to Jesus Christ. Frank prayed, "Lord Jesus, I need you. Thank you for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive you as my Savior and Lord. Thank you for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person you want me to be."
Frank confessed the sins he had accumulated over many years, and as he did, he sensed a growing release from what he characterizes as twenty-five years of rebellion. He had been a devoted member of a Disciples of Christ Church in San Jose, California, as a child, where he had excelled at the organ. However, he was molested by a minister at the church and had avoided any religious affiliation since he had come out in the 1940s. In the intervening years, Frank had built a thriving import business and tentatively embraced a gay identity. He had recently been involved with a much younger man who was married but dependent on Frank for financial assistance. Right before his conversion experience, the relationship had turned sour and ended for good. May 1973 signified the closure of his old life and the beginning of his new one. Despite subsequent years of setbacks and doubts, he never returned to what he calls "the gay lifestyle."
With Matt's urging, Frank began attending his charismatic Agape church in Marin County several times a week. Matt revealed that the church had been praying for "Matt's gay boss" and his deliverance from homosexuality for over a year. As Frank rededicated himself to God, the church sent other men struggling with same-sex feelings to talk to him, and he suddenly found himself counseling other gay men looking for a "way out" of homosexuality. After a short time, the minister at the Agape church challenged him to "reach back to his own people." Six months later, Frank recorded his testimony about leaving behind homosexuality on a cassette tape and advertised it in the Berkeley Barb, a now-defunct underground newspaper. The ad read, "FIND Homosexuality & Christianity incompatible? Send $8.00 for a new Christ-centered tape: Steps Out of Homosexuality." Initially, sixty people sent for the tape, and the "Brother Frank Tape Ministry" was born. The deluge of letters and responses Frank received provided the impetus for him to close his business and eventually form one of the first ex-gay ministries in the United States, New Hope Ministry—at the time called Love in Action.
JESUS, THE REVOLUTIONARY
When Frank first decided he could no longer live as a gay man, he turned for support to the pastors at the Agape church. The Agape church competed for members with another church called Open Door, led by Pastor Kent Philpott and Associate Pastor Mike Riley. Frank recalls that "One night the Lord woke me up and said, 'I want you to talk to Kent at Open Door.' I thought, 'No way, my pastor would have a fit if I went and talked to him.' God didn't let up. Finally I told God I'd do it." Kent Philpott considered Frank the answer to his prayers because three gay people had come to his office that week seeking help. Kent urged Frank to join Open Door and help him counsel homosexuals. Frank resisted out of loyalty to Agape, but when Agape closed in 1977, he joined Open Door permanently. In 1979 Church of the Open Door ordained Frank as a pastor. Founded in 1972 by a pastor who had a vision that his mission was to start a church in Marin County, Open Door had opened new branches in Mexico City, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and London by 1976. Pastor Mike Riley, known as "Pastor Mike," a lanky man in his mid-fifties with a boyish grin, still leads Church of the Open Door in downtown San Rafael, a charismatic nondenominational church and the only one of the four Open Door churches with a congregation primarily composed of ex-gays. New Hope is a "para-church ministry," meaning that it exists outside an official religious denomination. Even though New Hope offers Bible studies, group prayer, and worship sessions, it is not a church itself and instead affiliates itself with Open Door. Open Door is perhaps the only church in the United States for men and women who are dealing with sexual addiction and homosexuality. While New Hope considers itself a ministry for men struggling with sexual issues, Open Door provides an institutional church structure where ex-gays can worship with other people as part of a wider religious community.
Open Door's roots lie in the era of beach baptisms and mass conversions known as the Jesus movement, a movement initiated in the early 1970s, when hippies and other members of the counterculture joined charismatic and spirit-filled churches en masse. Reacting to what many conservative Christians viewed as the excesses of feminism and the gay rights and countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, evangelicals began actively seeking to convert members of the counterculture. Jorstad Erling writes that conservative pastors viewed young men and women in the countercultural movements of that period as potential converts who would expand their churches and contribute to their evangelizing mission. Rather than condemn hippies or drug users, evangelical pastors opened their churches to the younger generation and even recruited hippie liaisons to their ministerial staff.
One of the leaders of this religious revival, Chuck Smith, was a charismatic preacher in Southern California who became disillusioned with institutional Christianity. Abandoning his larger church, he started ministering to a small congregation called Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California. Despite initial disdain and even revulsion for the hippies and surfers he noticed hanging around Venice Beach, near Los Angeles, he gradually began proselytizing to them. At first, Smith and his wife allowed early Christian converts to live in their home. When the initial group doubled from twenty-five people to fifty in six months, they could no longer accommodate everyone, and Smith rented a house where the young people could make a transition from drugs to Jesus. As the movement expanded, the number of Jesus houses increased, and the conversions skyrocketed. Mass baptismal services in the ocean, exuberant prayer meetings, long-haired evangelists, and Christian rock musicians contributed to the growth of the Jesus movement in other cities. Calvary Chapel relocated to larger and larger spaces until Smith began training the zealous young converts to plant their own Calvary Chapels in their local communities.
Today, Calvary Chapel has a reported membership of approximately fifteen thousand, with "church plants" of six hundred Calvary Chapels in the United States and a hundred in other parts of the globe. The first Vineyard Fellowship started in 1974 as a result of the Jesus movement, and it now has hundreds of churches in the United States and abroad. These nondenominational Christian churches emerged at a period when attendance in mainline Protestant churches was declining and fewer people under thirty were attending church services. Liberal Protestant denominations lost much of their membership as church movements like Calvary and Vineyard tapped into the inchoate energy of the youth movement, reinventing their services and using contemporary music to appeal to a generation seeking spiritual guidance. The Jesus movement reflected a significant shift in American Protestantism toward non-denominationalism, part of a wider shift in religious organization in which liberal and conservative Protestants, even within the same denomination, split into their own churches. Many churches with similar social agendas around issues like abortion, the family, and homosexuality began connecting across denominations, leading to the rise of para-church organizations like that of the ex-gay movement. The churches like Open Door that emerged from the Jesus movement succeeded because they created associational networks and small groups geared toward all facets of a member's life. A member of a Calvary Chapel or Vineyard Fellowship church could and still can attend services every day of the week, multiple services on Sunday, Bible studies, and groups for men, women, singles, teens, addicts, or single parents. Most churches have ministries or outreach programs, which are both global and local. They might run a shelter for the homeless, a drug rehabilitation program, or a missionary program. Church members also gain the civic capital of learning communication and organizational skills through volunteering in one of the many church groups or ministries, which they can apply to their job or other aspects of their lives. Unlike many mainline churches, the laity or congregation of these churches drives the programs, and there are multiple venues for personal involvement beyond attending services.
New Hope and Open Door are part of the wider proliferation of independent churches in the United States, what some scholars have termed a postdenominational era or nondenominational movement in Christianity. In many parts of the country, the adjective "nondenominational" usually refers to a nonaffiliated community church of conservative evangelicals, depending on the background of the pastors and congregants. These churches may or may not be affiliated with an umbrella denomination such as the Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, or Assemblies of God. They call themselves nondenominational because they are not under the oversight of a denominational board and because the members of these churches often come from various Christian traditions and do not subscribe to a single creed. According to Don Miller, the United States is witnessing a second reformation in which new paradigm churches like Open Door are thriving. These new local congregations and churches began to set the agendas of larger denominations rather than be constrained by the institutional framework and theological dogma of their parent organization.
Miller writes that the characteristics of new paradigm churches like Open Door include the fact that most were started after the 1960s, seminary training of clergy is optional, worship is contemporary, and lay leadership is highly valued. Although Mike Riley is the pastor, Open Door has ordained other members of the church, like Frank Worthen, who don't have the educational or professional credentials to be considered a pastor or minister elsewhere. Members of the congregation are encouraged to participate in sermons and exercise their feelings at almost any time by giving testimony, shouting, participating in call and response, or raising their arms in the air. The ministry rejects the formalism and liturgy of traditional churches and urges people to act on their feelings. In churches like Open Door, personal experience validates religious belief and commitment, and experience and testimony supersede doctrine and scripture. Open Door and New Hope eschew many of the symbols of organized religion, and the emphasis in worship is on creating a church community that is loving and caring but also influenced by pop psychology, self-help principles, biblical counseling, and the importance of moral choices in one's everyday life.
Pastor Mike was caught up in the fervor of the Jesus youth movement, and Open Door was modeled on Vineyard and Calvary, even if it never achieved the same level of national prominence. "It was a time of revolution in our country—the late 1960s," he recalled with a bit of nostalgia. "It was another revolution. In those days it went over well to go preach on the streets." As a college student at Chico State University in California, Pastor Mike Riley wore blue work shirts with patches on the breast pocket and arm that read, "Jesus, the revolutionary." It was in college that he began a ministry to reach hippies; later he joined Church of the Open Door. He oversaw twelve Christian houses full of drug addicts by the early 1970s. For Pastor Mike and others in the Jesus movement, even the most marginalized elements of society were potential Christian converts. Whereas other mainstream denominations may have been squeamish about ministering to drug addicts, homeless people, and hippies, Church of the Open Door embraced them. The idea that anyone could be a Christian enabled Open Door to promote the possibility of converting homosexuals.
LOVE IN ACTION
After Frank's arrival at Open Door, Kent Philpott and Pastor Mike, who was only an associate pastor at the time, decided that a ministry for homosexuals would correspond with Open Door's wider calling. Frank started meeting on a weekly basis for counseling and discussion at Open Door with six people, who contacted him because of the personal testimony he advertised in local newspapers. A woman in the group suggested the name Love in Action (LIA), and Philpott and Frank agreed. As we discussed the early history of New Hope and Open Door, Frank jokingly referred to LIA as "Lots of Action," a reference to the unintended and unsanctioned dating that went on at the weekly support group. Although he appeared reserved and soft-spoken, Frank frequently surprised me with one of these trademark sardonic comments. He was not afraid to occasionally poke fun at the ministry or the ex-gay movement.
In the late 1970s, Kent Philpott became the director of Love in Action, with Frank acting as assistant director. With Frank's input, Philpott authored two books, The Third Sex? in 1975 and The Gay Theology in 1979, that presented the personal testimonies of the men and women who attended the support groups at LIA. The Third Sex? contained dialogues between Philpott and ex-gay men and women: Jim, Susan, Bob, Polly, Ted, and Eve. The stories of how these six individuals became homosexuals provided a model for how New Hope and the ex-gay movement would structure their testimonies of conversion for decades. The books also generated publicity and enabled Philpott and Frank to continue counseling. Philpott called the first book The Third Sex? to argue against the idea of the legitimacy of homosexuality as an identity: "There is no third sex! For many reasons—some known, some unknown—men and women have exchanged the truth about God for a lie and have become homosexual. Homosexuality is a choice, a choice to be and do what was not intended.... The simple conclusion is that there is no such thing as a bisexual or homosexual according to God's established order. Both distortions of original sexuality exist for the same reason man hid from God in paradise—rebellion." Philpott also established the religious basis for the LIA program: homosexuals could change not through counseling alone but through a relationship with God. It was the failure to achieve this relationship that triggered sexual falls. Philpott wrote about how at one of the first LIA meetings, a brazen man who had lived as a homosexual for six years claimed he had been converted. This man denied ever having temptations and argued that he had erased all traces of his former life. An enthusiastic Christian organization had already sponsored him, and he was counseling at prisons and rehabilitation centers. Philpott writes that less than a month after the LIA meeting, this man had "fled with a young boy from a rehabilitation house and had returned to homosexuality. The problem? This man simply wasn't honest.... God wants us to be honest with him, others and ourselves. It saves us from drastic mistakes."
Excerpted from Straight to Jesus by Tanya Erzen. Copyright © 2006 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Tanya Erzen is Assistant Professor of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University. She is the coeditor of Zero Tolerance: Quality of Life and the New Police Brutality in New York City (2001).
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