Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Free Zach ... and us all

Twenty-five years ago when I was a campus minister, one of the students in our group was determined to stop being gay. When everything else failed, he entered an aversion therapy program.

He went to a hospital several times a week. There he was hooked up to monitors to measure his vital signs. The therapist would then project erotic pictures onto a screen. When the monitors indicated that he might be having a sexual reaction (heart beat quickening and other signs of excitement), the therapist would give him a jolt of electricity -- a powerful and painful jolt.

The idea was that he would begin to associate same-gender sexual excitement with pain and it would "cure" him of being gay. I worried that it might eroticize electric shocks.

He came to see me because he felt the aversion therapy was not working, and he was in despair. He hoped for a religious cure.

I asked him to talk about why he was so determined not to be gay. It would kill his parents, he said, and it would bring great shame to the Methodist congregation he had grown up in.

He spoke again and again about his parents and his church whom, he was convinced, could not love or accept him if he were gay. All these years later I can still remember him shaking his head, teary-eyed, saying: "I can't be a homosexual. I can't be."

Last weekend a group of people from Foundry Church, straight and gay, marched in our city's Pride Parade. They handed out fans that said: "I found straight people, gay men, kids, moms, blind people, thespians, lesbians, liberals, conservatives, singles, couples, teens, seniors, infants, children of gay parents, people in wheelchairs, deaf people, blacks, whites, Latinos, African immigrants, Russian speakers, opera singers, gospel musicians, tone-deaf singers, missionaries, prayer partners, suits, jeans, writers, deep thinkers, comics, city dwellers, suburbanites at Foundry. Find yourself at Foundry!" (This list, by the way, is no exaggeration.)

As they marched in the parade, the Foundry delegation was cheered by the crowds watching the parade. The crowds especially cheered the children from our Sunday School who walked with their parents in the parade. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) folk are appreciative of congregations that try to be open and affirming.

The only group that was cheered more loudly than Foundry at the Pride Parade was PFLAG -- Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Nobody, but nobody, is more beloved by LGBT people than parents and family who choose to love, understand, and stand with their LGBT children and relatives. The cheers for PFLAG at the Pride Parade, of course, have a tender side. Some of those cheering PFLAG were cheering other people's parents so loudly because their own parents have not chosen to love, understand, or stand with them. There was a lot of pain in those cheers.

Cole Wakefield at Christian Dissent, a Methodist blog, has been writing about an internet movement called "Free Zach." Zach is a teenage blogger who came out to his parents. His parents reacted by sending him to a program called Refuge, a faith-based program that promotes itself as helping adolescents to find freedom from such additions as "pornography, drugs and alcohol, sexual promiscuity, [and] homosexuality."

According to its About Us page, Refuge is used as a referral by organizations such as Focus on the Family and The 700 Club, and is part of the "ex-gay" Exodus North America referral network.

Refuge is sponsored by Love In Action International, Inc. (LIA), a group that teaches that there is no gay sexual identity but only gay feelings and desires which are sinful when acted upon. LIA identifies itself as a missionary outreach of 14 congregations of different denominations, including one United Methodist church -- Christ United Methodist Church of Memphis, Tenn.

I am always a little cautious about internet movements, What if it turns out that Zach's story is made-up or that there isn't a Zach? But Refuge and LIA are, for sure, real. Teenagers struggling with their sexual identity are, for sure, real. Parents who choose to send teenagers to programs that teach them their orientation is sinful are, for sure, real. I am pretty sure Zach is real, too.

Teaching Zach, and other young people like him, self-hatred is very sad. Cole Wakefield thinks it is child abuse. (There are a string of comments at The Wesley Blog debating this.)

One of the realizations I have come to as a result of this discussion is that the mainline churches do not seem to be offering much help to gay and lesbian youth, so far as I can tell. I guess the topic is too controversial, and we are too divided. So we leave the playing field to Love In Action International, Inc., Focus on the Family and The 700 Club.

Some United Methodist groups ought to be offering warm, honest, accepting experiences --a week at summer camp, maybe-- for gay and lesbian youth ... or maybe somebody is doing it and I just don't know about it.

I lost contact with the student who 25 years ago so desperately did not want to be gay. I think of him often and wonder what his life has been like. I wonder if his parents and church would have condemned and shunned him if he had come out to them. Maybe, but maybe not. I have known rural United Methodist churches in supposedly conservative communities where gay sons and daughter were welcomed, loved, and celebrated when they came home for visits.

I am glad we have gotten as far as we have, but I hope we soon get past this moment of history in which sexual orientation is no longer so hidden but so many of us do not understand it well yet. There are ways this particular time in our journey toward reconciliation is especially cruel. Free Zack and all of us.


Blogger TN Rambler said...

Thank you for this post. The church (UMC) is not doing enough to support GLBT teens (or adults, for that matter) and their families. The heartache and pain that these teens must feel is enormous and I believe that Jesus weeps for them in their pain as they struggle with acceptance of their identity.

I like the idea of a summer camp experience. Thanks for the idea.

May we all remember that they "are persons of sacred worth" and are no less children of God than we are.

4:34 PM  
Blogger Douglas said...

Thanks for the interesting links and the thoughtful message.
Though I would guess there are still some out there who employ shock therapy and other extremely abusive tactics, much of the ex-gay movement has taken its cues from the little book Elizabeth Moberly produced in 1983, "Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic." In it she lays out simply and yet thoroughly the argument that homosexuality develops as a result of a lack of love from the same-sex parent. A primary element of the reparative process she describes/prescribes is experiences of non-erotic love from a same-sex mentor who is dedicated to helping one identify "properly" with one's own heterosexuality and gender identity.
Ex-gay Richard Cohen refers to that book in his "Coming Out Straight." He defines homosexuality as a symptom of a defensive response to present conflicts, a reaction to unresolved childhood trauma, and a reparative drive to fulfill unmet homo-emotional needs; as an emotionally based condition expressing the need for the love of the same-sex parent and for gender identity as well as the fear of intimacy with someone of the opposite sex; and as a "same-sex attachment disorder" (SSAD) involving detachment from the same-sex parent, same-sex peers, one's own body, and one's own gender.(p. 25) His prescription for a "therapeutic treatment plan" involves four stages: behavioral therapy involving stopping sexual behavior, developing a support network, and building self-worth and experiencing value in relationship with God; cognitive therapy, involving continuing the elements of the previous stage and adding skill building (assertiveness training, communication skills, problem-solving techniques) and beginning inner-child healing; healing homo-emotional wounds by continuing previous elements, discovering the root causes of such wounds, beginning the process of grieving, forgiving, and taking responsibility, and developing healthy, healing same-sex relationships (non-erotic); and, finally, healing hetero-emotional wounds by continuing earlier processes and repeating stage three processes in terms of hetero-emotional wounds and relationships with the opposite sex. (p. 65)
What Moberly, Cohen et al don't acknowledge is that all humans have such wounds and relational issues to one degree or another, and all need such therapies; but only a relatively small number of us develop as LGBT persons, so going through such therapies need not necessarily result in our "coming out straight" unless we go into such therapies with that intent, whether because we choose freely to do so or because someone else coerces us into taking that path through subtle or not-so-subtle social pressures and/or, as in the case of many "Bible-based" Christians, threats of eternal damnation. They are unwilling to consider the possibility that we develop our gay sexuality as a result of becoming what God created us to be, and that, perhaps, we experience our same-sex parent or same-sex peers as distant - if we do - because they truly are distant from us, since they are not created to be what we were created to be. So what they describe as a cause is really an effect, but their narrow and selective reading of scripture and their accepting of their own heterosexual reality as normative keeps them from accepting any other reality than the one of which they themselves can conceive.
I doubt I've written anything here you didn't already know, but I wanted to include this information to show how craftily the anti-gay forces in the church have reshaped their procedures to seduce LGBT persons who are troubled by the social disapprobation directed at them, and who might also be sad about other things, such as that their sexuality is not such as would easily lend itself to giving them a family to raise, since, as you know, many LGBT persons want families, and many have them.
As far as supportive organizations go, you mentioned PFLAG and Foundry's ministry, but I know you are also aware of the Reconciling Ministries Network and affiliated organizations as well as Affirmation and Dignity and other gay-affirming organizations in other denominations. Unfortunately, such organizations are not as numerous or visible or well-supported as many of the ex-gay and anti-gay organizations. We need to work to change that.
In the meantime, one of the areas in which I believe we can carry on some fruitful conversation with our more conservative sisters and brothers is around the statement from our UM Social Principles referred to by tnrambler in his/her post above, that "homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth." We need to ask our fellow Christians to reflect on what it means to be "of sacred worth," and then we need to ask them how they can possibly affirm this when, to the extent they even acknowledge it, they quickly follow it in relation to LGBT persons with a huge "but!" Being gay myself, I have the beneficial position of being able to challenge those with whom I may discuss this to help me believe that they consider me to be a person of sacred worth in a way that would encourage me to begin to trust them with my spiritual well-being. If they are going to jump quickly to the "but!", I will tend to believe they would rather change me than support my spiritual well-being by showing me the love of Christ. I don't know if this will bear much fruit, because I have just recently conceived of taking this tack. Nevertheless, I will be trying it out among my colleagues and the laypeople here in Northern Illinois to see if some new ground can be covered and new awarenesses raised.
God bless you for your continued work to bring in the Reign of God among us.
Doug Asbury

1:17 AM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...


Your report on current ex-gay theory is very helpful and informative. I have members who have attempted ex-gay therapy before accepting their orientations but have not heard the philosophy so clearly articulated and explained before. Thanks.

12:13 PM  

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