Where churches fail to reach out to homosexuals, ex-gays are setting up their own ministries and seeing results.

Like a river at its source, homosexual tendencies may develop out of tentative, disconnected tributaries of emotion, learning, and circumstance. “If [those tributaries] don’t meet one another, they’ll evaporate,” says Hal Schell, coordinator of a ministry to homosexuals at College Hill Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati.

In Schell’s life, those random streams converged with a vengeance. He was the fifth boy born to parents who desperately wanted a girl. Photographs in the family album show him outfitted, at two and five years of age, in frilly girl’s clothing with white anklets and black patent leather shoes. Other factors during boyhood and puberty combined to lead him into patterns of homosexual behavior lasting into his 50s.

In 1977, a neighbor invited Schell to a Billy Graham crusade in Cincinnati, and he agreed to go. “There was a rumor going around the coliseum that Graham was going to give the sermon at College Hill Presbyterian Church the next morning,” he says. So Schell paid his first visit to the church.

Graham never showed up, but Schell was riveted by the sermon College Hill senior pastor Jerry Kirk had prepared: “Jesus Loves a Sinner.” Halfway through, Kirk closed his Bible and began to ad lib, saying, “Jesus loves a homosexual.”

For 10 minutes Kirk described how Jesus would minister to a homosexual. Schell was overcome. “I just couldn’t believe I was hearing it,” he says. “Tears streamed down my cheeks.” He made an appointment to see Kirk that week, beginning a gradual process of change that took four years of “love, mercy, grace, and lots of counseling by my pastors, lay counselors, and a social psychiatrist.”

Since 1982, Schell has set the same process in motion for other homosexuals through a church-based ministry called Spring Forth. It is part of a growing network of evangelical organizations based on the premise that there is no such thing as a genetic condition of homosexuality.

The opposite belief—that homosexuality is an innate tendency similar to left-handedness—undergirds the gay rights movement and is widely accepted by church organizations for gays. However, a measure of uncertainty about this is evident among even the most progressive mainline groups. At this year’s United Methodist General Conference, participants turned down a statement in support of civil rights for gays, voted to continue a ban on funding gay groups, and barred the ordination of homosexuals. The National Council of Churches last November put off deciding whether the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, most of whose members are gay, could be admitted to membership. The Roman Catholic Church, as well as Eastern Orthodox and Orthodox Jewish bodies, remain staunchly opposed to homosexuality. Meanwhile, secular researchers have produced no conclusive evidence that homosexuality is a natural trait.

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People like Schell believe their view is in accord with the Bible. They see homosexuality as a complicated, compulsive behavioral disorder binding individuals to a sinful lifestyle. Yet they are careful to separate sin from the sinner. “The practice is sinful, the condition is not,” says Alan Medinger, president of Exodus International, a coalition of about 25 ministries to homosexuals. “The practice requires repentance and change, the condition requires healing.”

Former gays who share this understanding of homosexuality emphasize that the inclination may always linger. It should be refused just as resolutely as any other sort of temptation, they say, adding that people who call themselves “homosexual Christians” are tragically deluded into accommodating behavior the Bible classifies as sin.

Many who minister to homosexuals believe gays need to learn ordinary patterns of friendship with people of the same gender in order to break free of the homosexual lifestyle. “A false belief about homosexuality is that it is a difficulty in relating to the opposite sex. No. The difficulty is in relating to one’s same sex,” Schell says.

Medinger, Schell, and about 120 like-minded evangelicals—most of whom are former homosexuals—met in Baltimore in June for worship and training sessions on ministering to gays. Exodus International sponsored the conference. Unlike the College Hill effort in Cincinnati, most of the groups affiliated with Exodus operate on a parachurch basis. Many are affiliated with independent, charismatic congregations where acceptance, confrontation, and inner healing abound.

They rarely draw attention to themselves through advertising or public events, concentrating instead on meeting the needs of gays who come to them for help. It appears that increasing numbers of homosexuals are seeking a way out, and these groups provide the first passable bridge between the church and a community detested by many Christians. Love in Action, in San Rafael, California, receives about 200 requests for information each month. In New York City, a LIFE Ministry seminar on “Overcoming Homosexuality and Becoming New Creations in Christ” drew a crowd of 270.

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In Seattle, a ministry called Metanoia has organized five Homosexuals Anonymous (HA) chapters that involve more than 60 counselees. In 10 other U.S. cities and two Canadian cities, HA chapters, patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous, are rapidly expanding their work. Daniel Roberts, director of HA Fellowship Services in Reading, Pennsylvania, anticipates 700 chapters nationwide by the end of the decade. The program offers 14 “steps out” of homosexuality, including an affirmation that “our identity is heterosexual by creation and that God calls us to rediscover that identity in the person of Jesus Christ.”

Among Christians, these ministries are neither widely known nor accepted. Medinger says traditional evangelical groups remain largely “ignorant and fearful” of the problem. He says most mainline churches “are not sympathetic with our approach. They see it as laying a terrible burden.”

Doug Houck, who directs Metanoia, says his Christian Reformed congregation supports his ministry avidly. Yet when his former gay lifestyle becomes known, he says, some fellow church members visibly recoil. When Houck accompanied a friend who wanted to broach his problem with a minister at a different church, he says the clergyman’s response was all too typical.

When the subject was brought up in general terms, Houck says, the pastor “was totally resistant. He said ‘I don’t want to hear about it, and I don’t want to deal with it.’ ” Only when Houck’s friend confessed his own homosexuality did the pastor respond and agree to attend a local seminar on the issue.

But that attitude may be changing. Several leaders of renewal movements in the Presbyterian Church (USA) met with Exodus board members to discuss ways to expand and publicize the type of ministry College Hill operates. Like many denominations, the Presbyterian Church (USA) finds itself torn between gay-rights activists and people who merely declare homosexual behavior a sin, and who do not express compassion. Some, like College Hill psychologist and lay minister Gary Sweeten, want to offer a third alternative by demonstrating a scriptural way out of homosexuality.

Homosexuals often encounter hostility from Christians. Frank Worthen, director of Love in Action, was approached by a church leader who was in California raising funds for an anti-gay cause. When Worthen described Love in Action’s goal of reaching homosexuals for Christ, the curt reply made it clear that evangelism held low priority. “We want to see them fired, evicted, and jailed,” the church leader told him.

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On this issue, evangelical Christians tend to be poles apart from society at large, where acceptance of homosexual behavior is increasingly commonplace. “Most Americans now view homosexuality on the part of consenting adults as a personal and private matter,” announced a Washington Post editorial.

This year’s Democratic Party platform embraces gay rights more completely than ever, pledging to oppose discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace, in the military, and in immigration policies. Popular culture advances the notion that gender confusion is “in,” with rock star Boy George and similar androgynous figures attracting a large following among young people.

The widening chasm between social acceptability and church rejection makes it difficult for gays to alter course. When that happens, it is often because of a chance encounter with the gospel or through a trusted friend.

Nick Terranova, part of a traveling witnessing team from LIFE Ministry in New York City, described the life he left behind when Christ became real to him. He had discovered “acceptance and admiration” for the first time ever at a gay bar in California, “and I needed it like a junkie needs drugs.” He became a male prostitute, “getting into cars with strangers and doing whatever, if the price was right.” To preserve his sanity, he imagined himself acting out roles in a play.

He specialized in sado-masochism—acts of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse—and developed his own clientele. “Life became a roller coaster of very high highs and very low lows. My evenings were spent partying with wealthy celebrities and my days spent battling severe bouts of depression,” Terranova told the audience gathered at the Exodus conference.

As he watched television one day, he heard evangelist Jimmy Swaggart deliver a message he desperately needed. He recalled Swaggart saying, “You poor homosexual, don’t you know how much Jesus loves you? Don’t you know he can change you?” That was Terranova’s turning point, and LIFE Ministries in New York was ready to receive him.

But in most American cities, including major centers of homosexual activity like Chicago and Washington, D.C., no such group exists. Most churches would not know what to do with a newly reborn Terranova. “A trust relationship must be built between pastor and ex-gay,” Worthen wrote in his book Steps Out of Homosexuality. “This takes time to develop and cannot be forced. The ex-gay needs the counsel of his pastor. He needs care, compassion, and understanding. The pastor represents Christ, and the ex-gay’s view of the Lord will largely depend on the treatment he receives.”

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Lori Thorkelson, a counselor with Love in Action, says she dreams of the day churches commit themselves to this ministry because “individual relationships within the church body is where people receive healing.” Until more churches learn to address the acute spiritual and emotional needs of homosexuals, groups that are part of the Exodus coalition intend to fill the gap. Staffed by people who have endured the pain of passage out of homosexual behavior, these ministries offer authentic models of change for men and women still struggling with a misplaced sexual identity.

Ministries to Homosexuals
A referral list of evangelical ministries for people who want to change their homosexual behavior is available from Exodus International, P.O. Box 2121, San Rafael, California 94912. Organizations mentioned in the preceding article can be reached at the following addresses:
Love in Action
P.O. Box 2655
San Rafael, California 94912
Metanoia Ministries
P.O. Box 33039
Seattle, Washington 98133
LIFE Ministry
P.O. Box 353
New York, New York 10185
Homosexuals Anonymous
c/o Quest Learning Center
P.O. Box 7881
Reading, Pennsylvania 19603

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