Saturday, September 8, 2012

Exodus International Equipping Event: Part II

(To read an introduction to Exodus International, click here. To read part I, click here. To Read Part III, click here.)

After Jeff Buchanan's talk, the Exodus International equipping event featured testimonies from two Christian speakers: Julie Rodgers, a high school mentor coordinator for Mercy Street Ministries, and Christopher Yuan, an instructor at Moody Bible Institute and author of Out of a Far Country.

Julie Rodgers was raised in a conservative Christian family, admitting that her parents homeschooled her to "shield" her from the outside world. Rodgers described a childhood filled with unhappiness, in which she was plagued with self-doubt and she and her brother were expected to meet her mother's emotional needs. This, combined with sexual abuse she endured from her brother's friends, resulted in feelings of loneliness, worthlessness, and vulnerability. In response, she sought to be tough rather than stereotypically feminine, having come to believe that being a girl was to be weak.

During her high school years, Rodgers was mentored by an encouraging female principal, who one day asked Rodgers if she had accepted her lesbianism. The principal, who attended an LGBTQ-affirming church, introduced Rodgers to queer theology and helped overturn her belief that homosexuality was a disgusting sin. Rodgers quoted Proverbs 27:7 -- "to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet" -- to describe her hunger for attention and encouragement at the time. She also quoted Proverbs 14:12 -- "There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end leads to death" -- to describe her lesbian identity during this period.

Around age sixteen or seventeen, Rodgers came out to her mother, who became emotionally upset. Afterwards, Rodger's mother put her in touch with a Baptist minister who preached to her about "God's design" for sexuality, insisting that homosexuality is outside of that design. Although Rodgers was initially hostile, she missed Jesus and kept talking to her minister. Rodgers said that she couldn't be part of a gay Christian church anymore because it allegedly wasn't preaching the accurate Gospel or making Jesus paramount.

Some time later, Rodgers was sexually assaulted by a different pastor, leaving her heartbroken and angry at a God who had betrayed her. After a bout of self-injury, drug abuse, and drinking, she opened her Bible for the first time in years and found Deuteronomy 30:19, a passage that urged her to "choose life." As she watched the sun rise the next morning, she felt Jesus comfort her in her "mess."

Rodgers insisted that she did not go from lesbian to straight, but from a mess to someone walking with Jesus. Before, her worth rested in whether she was attractive to other women, but now her worth lies elsewhere. While she admitted that she still has "same-sex attraction," she claims that her heart has changed profoundly.

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The next testimony came from Christopher Yuan, who shared a story of family heartbreak, crime, incarceration, and religious conversion. Yuan told the audience about how he lived as a gay man, eventually coming out to his parents. Horrified, his mother told him that he must choose between his homosexuality and his family. Later, Yuan's mother spoke with a minister, who gave her a pamphlet. Afterwards, she and Yuan's father converted to Christianity and reconciled with their son.

Meanwhile, Yuan became a fixture in the gay club scene, immersing himself in drug use and drug dealing. On the screens at the front of the room, he shared photos of his old life from gay clubs, where shirtless men were prominent. Eventually, Yuan was expelled from graduate school. His mother insisted that Yuan converting to Christianity was more important than earning his doctorate, but he was uninterested.

After the doctorate debacle, Yuan moved to Georgia, where he continued to indulge in promiscuity and drug dealing. Although he was distant from his parents, his mother would frequently send him Christian-themed cards, which he threw away. When they visited him in Atlanta, he kicked them out of his home for "radiating Christ." Before he left, his father gave him a Bible, which Yuan promptly threw in the garbage.

Yuan's mother was undeterred. She recruited one hundred "prayer warriors" to pray for Yuan, while she herself beseeched God to do whatever it took to lead her son to God. Additionally, she fasted ever week and interceded on her son's behalf in her prayer closet. The lingo Yuan used -- "prayer warriors," "intercession," and "prayer closet" -- sounded like New Apostolic reformation language, leading me to wonder if his mother was an Apostolic Christian.

According to Yuan, God intervened in a harsh but effective way. One day, Atlanta police and drug enforcement agents intercepted a drug shipment and arrested him. He was eventually sentenced to six years in prison for his drug-related crimes. Tragedy befell Yuan when he learned that he was HIV positive from the prison nurse.

While in prison, he passed by a garbage can, thinking that the garbage represented his life at the time. Sitting on top of the garbage was a copy of Gideon's New Testament, which reminded him of the time he threw his father's Bible in the trash. Interpreting this as a meaningful portent, Yuan took the New Testament with him to his cell and read it. As he continued his study of the Bible in prison, Jeremiah 29:11 became a meaningful passage for him.

Yuan felt conflicted about the Bible's stance on homosexuality, but eventually stopped identifying as gay after an exchange with a prison chaplain went sour.
"The last thing that I was holding onto was my sexuality. As I was reading the Bible, I couldn't get around the fact that God loved me, but I also came across those passages which seemed to condemn that core part of who I thought I was, my sexuality. So I went to a prison chaplain and asked him his opinion on this issue, and to my surprise this prison chaplain actually told me that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality, and he gave me a book off his shelf and he said, 'This book explains that view.' So naturally, with much curiosity, I took that book in the hopes of finding Biblical justification for homosexuality. I had that book in one hand and the Bible in the other, and let me tell you, from a purely human perspective, I had every reason in the world to accept what that book was claiming to justify the way I had been living, but God's indwelling Holy Spirit convicted me that those assertions from that book were a clear distortion of God, his word, and his unmistakable condemnation against homosexual behavior. I couldn't even finish that book. I gave it back to the chaplain."
Yuan concluded that he could either live as a gay man or as a Christian, choosing the latter and adopting a life of abstinence. God's unconditional love did not equal unconditional acceptance of supposedly sinful behavior, he argued.

Eventually, Yuan's prison sentence was shortened from six years to three years. After his release, he enrolled at Moody Bible College, where he is now earning a ministry doctorate. As he concluded the story of his long journey, he defined "change" in vague and noncommittal terms, much like other Exodus International voices had.
"As confusing and controversial as this issue is that affects people, there's only but one answer, and that's the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It's the Gospel that is going to bring lasting change, maybe not change the way that we expect or hope of just having no problems in life ... but it's a hope that is not of this world. It's a hope that even through difficulties, it's a hope that even struggles and temptations that we can still have joy and we can still have power."
Yuan's ending words may have been intended as reminders that Exodus International will not necessarily cure LGBTQs, and that the path they offer to LGBTQs will not be pleasant.

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Rodgers and Yuan's testimonies contained many of the same elements I've heard in other "ex-gay" personal stories: family dysfunction, sexual trauma, promiscuity, drugs, and crushing unhappiness. While neither speaker claimed that said traumas caused their homosexuality, the implication seemed to be that homosexuality was entangled in pain and unsavory behavior. The idea that one could be LGBTQ and live a happy, healthy life was not considered.

I want to be absolutely clear. I am not necessarily disputing that painful things happened to Rodgers and Yuan. I wish them both healing and strength in confronting the painful events of their pasts. Rather, I'm arguing that said traumas have been woven into an anti-LGBTQ narrative in which healing is equated with rejecting one's sexuality.

As with other Exodus International voices, Rodgers and Yuan framed homosexuality and Christianity as diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive. LGBTQ status is imagined as a spiritual impediment, a false identity, and an anchor in sin. Not only does such an approach make it impossible to envision healthy sexuality for LGBTQ persons, it also makes it impossible to reconcile spirituality and sexuality into wholeness. In short, Rodgers and Yuan propose an unhealthy version of Christianity that ignores the need for personal wholeness.

Stay tuned for part III. To read additional commentary about Rodgers and Yuan, visit the following links.

Broad Recognition: The Nonsense of Christopher Yuan

Truth Wins Out: Exodus Ex-Gays Charge Ahead with Plan to "Transform" Gays


  1. That's a shame that both speakers encountered those who would help them from a stance of acceptance and love, with no "God will change you" on the side--yet both stepped out of that path. Heart-breaking, really.

    I agree, these Exodus folks and their ilk always seem to promote the idea that homosexuality goes hand in hand with destructive behaviors. I hate that the speakers have been convinced that unsafe sex, drug abuse, sexual abuse, and gay identity all go together, when of course they could separate themselves from the unhealthy stuff and embrace a healthy gay life and sexuality.

    "Prayer closet" is a huge red flag for me! When I hear that phrase, I brace myself!

    1. Michelle -- It's definitely heartbreaking. They both found people of faith who respected them for who they were and tried to lead them down an affirming path. And yet, they chose a homophobic version of Christianity instead.

      Tell me more about the rhetoric you've heard regarding prayer closets. I'm intrigued!

    2. Oh, gosh--I don't really have any stories with great punchlines, but this phrase almost always has preceded some...oddity, shall we say? for me.

      I will say that I've heard this term used in a sort of metaphorical way just meaning a set aside place for prayer, or any private place where you go to be alone and meditate or whatnot. However, most of the circles I traveled in back in the day included those who would use the phrase, and I slowly started to realize that they literally meant that they went into a closet and closed the door. Some people I knew had little spaces in a closet where they would kneel and there was a little table and a bible and a candle they would burn as they prayed and read (dangerous, if you ask me! What if they forgot to blow out the candle with clothes hanging around?!).

      A friend of mine went to a Catholic college, which was 90 plus percent Catholic, of course, with a few fundamentalist stragglers from a nearby school of that nature that would sometimes fill up too fast to include everyone who wanted to attend. Students would go to the nearby Catholic school, either hoping for later openings in the other school, or erroneously just figuring, "Meh. Close enough."

      Anyway, he had classes with some such students, who were always aghast that the classes were taught by priests and nuns and from a Catholic perspective (what did they expect?). In one of his classes, there was a girl of this type, and she would talk very openly in class about going into her prayer closet. They all thought it was a little weird, but they thought about it as I described above--"oh, she means her bedroom, or a little cozy spot in a corner of a living room where she does devotional reading, etc." At some point, she said something very specific that made them realize that she spent lots of time in a closed closet praying, and even the nun teaching the class went wide-eyed and quiet. The student clearly was throwing this idea around thinking that everyone practiced prayer this way.

      I don't have any great stories, but like I said, that term makes me a little nervous as to what's coming next!

  2. Also, the need for parental approval is incredibly strong, profound, and perhaps even primal. Parents who love their children only on conditions of compliance with the parents' beliefs are often powerfully destructive motivators.

    One of my good friends is gay and moved several hundred miles away from his Mormon family so he could be himself without disappointing them. He still calls his mother once a week and they have maintained a "close" relationship -- to the extent that is possible while he pretends to be someone he's not and she maintains her blissful denial of something that is pretty obvious to anyone paying attention. My heart goes out to him. He's a good person yet knows deep down his parents will reject who he really is.

    I agree with your take, Ahab. At the same time I feel both Rodgers' and Yuan's pain. It's not easy to come to grips with the fact that it's not possible to have a healthy relationship with people -- even family -- who can't or won't love you for who you are. It's hard to break out of the habit of trying to win our disapproving parents' approval.

    1. Cognitive Dissenter -- It must be very tough to be LGBTQ in a family (and a community) that doesn't accept that. I can see why someone might try to leave that part of themselves behind -- the need for love is very strong.

      I'm sorry to hear about your friend and hope that he finds happiness.

  3. Oh man! My comment just disappeared. The gist of it was that the need for our parents' approval is a profound and perhaps even primal one. A good friend of mine who is gay moved several hundred miles away from his Mormon parents so he could live his life without them knowing who he really is. He calls his mother once a week and pretends to be someone he's not (straight) while she maintains her blissful denial of something that is pretty obvious to anyone paying attention.

    It takes a lot of courage and insight to create healthy boundaries with parents who love us only on the condition that we comply with their beliefs. So I feel for Rodgers and Yuan.

    1. Cognitive Dissenter -- No, it just went into the moderation queue. No worries.

  4. So sorry that these two defined getting saved as denying themselves. I hate that people are forced to this in order to find acceptance from family.

    1. Sherry -- It must create a lot of inner pain. No one should be forced to choose between their sexual orientation and their family/community.

  5. Great series so far Ahab. It seems like Rodgers and Yuan just lack a little perspective. For them, I get the sense that it was not necessarily feeling like they were forced to choose between sexuality and salvation, but more like that this was a way for them to cope with the great personal difficulties which they have had to endure. Giving up the sexuality was maybe more like giving up all of the problems of their "old" lives, and thus a way to start again.

    Even if the message is myopic, at least it does not seem to be manipulative, but rather their honest feelings of what has helped them (sort of) accept themselves. For some people, I guess that can work, but I would rather they get a more complete, more healthy perspective.

    1. Wise Fool -- Given what we know about survivors of such programs/ministries, it's not always clear if it works (at least for the long term). I too hope they find a more complete perspective as times goes on.


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