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Friday, June 21, 2013

An open letter to Alan Chambers

In case you hadn't heard, the head of the nation's largest "ex-gay" ministry, Exodus International, announced that they would be closing its doors and offered an apology to the LGBT community for the damage they caused. You can watch the video below if you haven't seen it. 

For those of you who don't know, a friend of mine committed suicide after six months in a ministry affiliated with Exodus.  After mulling it over for two days, I felt the need to speak. I originally wrote this for an acquaintance, and now I am passing it on here.


Dear Mr. Chambers:

 Last night I read your apology after Exodus International shut its doors, and I was surprised at my ambivalence. For almost seven years I wanted to have this conversation with you. I have screamed at you in my mind in church. I have sparred with your shadow in my prayers and fought with you in my sleep. In the face of all the things I thought I would have wanted to say in this moment, I find that my anger is gone. The Lord, ever the reconciler, has long since settled the cold war between you and I; you are no longer the bogeyman I made you in my mind, and that has left me confused.

Instead of all the things I once wanted to say, I feel I have to tell you about James-- lean, lonely James, with the ice blue eyes and Jude Law good looks. His nervous, ecstatic energy, an infectious smile and irresistible charm. Manic as hell. An addictive personality that clung to things like static, cracked blue sparks at a touch. Like everything else in James' life, he craved God in ways only drowning victims comprehend: the cold, burning logic that says fill your lungs, swallow in the breath of Life or die. He was something to behold.

We were both in graduate school when we met, I at the little state college studying dead, white theologians while he dissected cadavers at the medical school down the street. James came to know the Lord some months after he first started attending our church. He had a magnetic charm that drew people to him like a lodestone: his painful self-awareness, his total spiritual innocence and dependence, the way his hands in church were never quite still, even when raised in worship or held in prayer—he was captivating.

One night our Sunday school class took him to a movie, and we all went for ice cream afterwards; James got an enormous waffle cone, a solid linear foot of dripping mayhem covered with every kind of sprinkles he could find. We couldn't help but laugh—he couldn't stop laughing—at the sight of him trying to devour it before the southern heat piled it all onto his shoes, but he never lost a single bite. My husband and I drove him home, and he sang rapturously (if a little out of tune) to his favorite song on Christian radio:
You're beautiful, and I am weakened by the force of your eyes
So shine bright, separate the truth from the lies
I'm gonna show you love...
I'm gonna show you a love in every language,
I'm gonna speak with the words that need no form
I'm gonna show you what you never had before.
Oh Lord how I loved my friend. Everything he did was like that—always beautiful, a tad excessive—but never a drop wasted.

Never wasted, that is, until six months after he moved north for a new job and enrolled in one of your affiliated ministries. The only thing that burned hotter than James' need for God, you see, was his self-loathing, and the false hope of killing the thing that made him shrink from God's love drove him into your arms.

Granted, James had problems long before he walked in the door seeking your brand of "therapy": he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (no shock to those who knew him) after he moved. He had wild breakouts of addiction which eluded his control. He also struggled with deep, terrifying scars from childhood trauma. But none of these mattered to him as much as smothering the part of him that he was convinced God hated, and the longer he struggled to kill the man that Christ had made alive, the more desperate he got. Finally undone by the inner conflict between his insatiable need to take in the breath of Life and his loathsome fear of God's anger if he did, James chose to stop breathing altogether. He killed himself in September of 2006. How, I never learned. Nobody bothered to even tell me.

I'm not sure why I so urgently need to tell you all this now. To what purpose? There was a time I blamed your mission for James' suicide. I don't feel that way anymore, or at least not as much as I used to. The truth is much more complicated than that: he died from a systemic failure to get the right kinds of support, and without any foundation he could lean on, he spun out of control.

We're all to blame in some capacity.  His family failed to give him support for his childhood trauma because his abuser was a relative. He failed to properly seek help for his addiction issues because it would jeopardize his professional license; he failed to get treatment for his bipolar disorder until the last month of his life because he, like the rest of us, naively assumed that his bizarre behavior and repeated collapses of self-control were "normal" for someone of his sexual preference.

 Most importantly, however, he failed to get love and support he craved from us, his church family, because he was gay. This is the one thing that still haunts me.

When James informed our church he was a homosexual and he didn't want to be, I asked for help from my pastor. His advice was to treat James like an incontinent pet rather than a child of God: withhold approval, withhold affection, until he "behaved" better. Withdraw from him until he comes back to the fold on our terms. I was perplexed. Then he gave me an address for the ministry James had contacted, and I got the same cold, "tough love" advice from them, too. I didn't have the stomach for it, but many of us did as we were told. Unsurprisingly, whatever safety net James had built for himself at church just... evaporated. It no longer surprises me that James killed himself; rather, I'm amazed that this beautiful, sick young man lasted so long after we collectively pulled the rug out from under him-- all because of the belief that his eternal well-being hinged upon his sexual preference, and that your people could help him change it.  What an incredible waste. 

 There was a time that I wanted to wield James' death like a tire iron against you in accusation. I no longer wish to dishonor my friend that way. Instead, I want you to understand what your apology has to mean. It has to mean that you claim as your children the suicides, the apostates, the broken hearts you never healed, and that you owe them a ponderous debt. For nearly forty years, your organization has helped generations of God's children to treat their own brothers and sisters in Christ as something less than fully human, and with a clear conscience; you must acknowledge that. It has to mean that you truly grasp what it is you've let out of Pandora's box into our culture—not just the belief that culture wars should be fought, but delusion that they can be won; that gays and lesbians needed "deliverance from" something more than they needed deliverance into the arms of Christ. It means that you own up to the fact that more men and women like James are going to be hurt by the same lie that once deceived you-- for a time, deceived me-- and that you can do little now to stop it. You have to come to grips with the fact that your deep compassion and good intentions all these years are exactly what made this all so destructive.

It is time for the culture war to end, we both realize that. Thank God that this day has come. But now that the trenches are empty, look for a moment at these broken bridges, the sour dust and fractured earth. Take a look at our losses: what now? To leave things in this state is almost as bad as having started the war in the first place. The onus is on us to become Repairers of the Breach. You've fought the war and lost; but will you now fight for reconciliation with your gay brothers and sisters with the same energy? That's up to you, and The Lord, to answer-- and those actions will answer for us whether your apology has any value to us beyond mere words.

I have waited for seven years for your apology, and now that I have it, I don't even know if it is mine to accept. I would rather you apologized to James if he were here; for James' sake, though, I'm willing to try. But we will all be waiting to see what value your apology ultimately holds. I hope that it will be worth the taking.

Your sister in the Lord,


[You can see Chambers' full apology below. The Lisa Ling show of this looks well worth the watching.] 

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