Alan Chambers interview – the final hours of Exodus

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Alan Chambers interview – the final hours of Exodus

The final Exodus conference was coming to a close and Alan Chambers had promised me an interview. I’d already been bumped back several times as every conceivable media outlet had their piece of Alan over the last four days. The term “media frenzy” comes to mind. Most of the leading newspapers around the world and TV networks along with Christian media outlets got the story first hand from the man himself. I was pretty well the last.

The media in Australia seemed to miss the news and significance of the oldest and largest ex-gay/conversion/reparative therapy organisation shutting down after 37 years.. The Sydney Morning Herald published a small article titled “Gay Cure Therapy will continue” The article was poorly researched as evidenced by not only Alan’s age being misquoted (37 was how long Exodus had been in existence, not Alan’s age) but also comments from those the journalist had contacted. For example Peter Stokes from the Salt Shakers saying ” “It’s very sad to see a good organisation being ripped apart by one individual,” If Mr Stokes had actually listened to the address that was available on the internet then he would have know this was not one individual (Alan Chambers) but an entire board decision laboured over for at least 12 months. The SMH article headline should have read “Gay cure’ therapy will continue ….(to disappear)”

Maybe I’d been too successful in creating my Secret Mission and people didn’t realise I was actually there. I was already blogging about events and my newsletters where keeping subscribers updated. I’m sure Mr Google could have helped a few Aussie journalists track down a reliable source for their story. Noel Debien, from the ABC Radio National did his homework and tracked me down in the hotel in West Hollywood. The interview aired a couple of days later.

I walked into the media room and sat down . Amy, in charge of media, reminded me that I had twenty minutes. I was hoping  for more. What I had really wanted was not so much an interview but a conversation as we’d had in the emails but over a meal, bottle of wine or cocktail. One of those “in-depth” things.Alan entered the room. This is a very different man who greeted me warmly four days earlier. He’s spent. The emotional toll of the last few months, the gruelling schedule of the last few days and tackling opponents from both the LGBT community and the church because of the apology and closure was plain to see. He’s exhausted.

Alan sits in the chair opposite. It doesn’t feel comfortable for me…..too formal…almost confrontational. 

Listen or read below.

AVB: You must be exhausted? 

AC: I am exhausted 

AVB: How many interviews have you done in the last three days? 

AC: Dozens, dozens

Thinking I’d like to not do a standard interview getting the standard answers Alan has been giving for days. I attempt to get Alan to open up with some deep thinking first. 

AVB: So I guess maybe we could start with how many elephants do you think are in the room? 

Alan laughs 

AC: I have no idea 

AVB: You are tired aren’t you? 

AC: I am tired

Well that attempt clearly didn’t work. I move on.

AVB: Yeah, ok, so we’ll forget the elephants 

AC: Yeah just go straight into the things 

AVB: So what do you think have been, looking at first of all the apology, the announcement, that you’re shutting down, the three main factors that have contributed to that happening and you coming to this place? 

AC: Yeah, you know I think as far as the apology goes, I don’t know if there are 3 or more or less, but its undeniable that there are people who have been hurt and who have shared that hurt.  And when people share trauma and they share specific things that they have been hurt by, you have a choice to either ignore that or to say you’re sorry, and we/I felt there was no other thing to do but to apologise because I was sorry, we are sorry, though, you know so many of the stories I hear might not directly relate to me, but I am the President of Exodus International and if we were looking at this as an organisation, where we’re all in this together that’s, we have to own that together and on behalf of the organisation I did and certainly there are things that I can look back at and things I have said, and words I have used and situations that have come up where I personally have needed to apologise for  and so I felt like it was absolutely important for me to issue this apology, not to qualify anything, to be as specific as I could and to share that and you know it is never easy to admit wrong, but it’s necessary and it heals and you, allows people to move on and I hope that will be truly something that happens for people who have been hurt.  As far as closing Exodus, that is something that when I became the President of Exodus or when I was being hired, or going through the hiring process in 2001, the Board of Directors and the hiring committee asked me one final question before they went into their deliberations and it was “What does success look like for you at Exodus, as the leader of Exodus?”  and I said quickly “Success looks like Exodus going out of business, because the church is doing its job”.  And that’s been our goal every day for 12 years, under my leadership.  We started a church, an Exodus church association, trying to build relationships with churches so that the number one place people would call, or the first place people would call for help when they were in crisis would be the church.  Whether they wanted to live a life like the one I have chosen to live, whether they were married and wanted to find help for their marriage or whether they wanted to pursue celibacy or even gay and lesbian people who simply want to know that the church is there for them, is a resource for them, is a community for them as well, that’s been our goal for 12 years to help the church become that safe place for people and what we had begun to realise is, it’s not that many churches aren’t doing their job because I think that there are tremendous amounts of churches they’re doing wonderful things that are so welcoming to people,

Knowing that churches have not been places of safety for LGBT people but actually places of harm, I fear for gay and lesbian people belonging/going to an evangelical/pentecostal church. I particularly fear for these young people at the conference because Alan has said it’s now the church who must do this work and I know that many will return to churches whose mentality, culture and leadership are forty years behind the times.  If they come out in their local churches will be they be set on a self-destruct projectory that too many 1,000’s have gone on before. How much longer will they find a ‘gay’ church in order to feel safe. I ask…..

AVB: But for gay and lesbian people?

AC: I think there are churches out there that are welcoming for gay and lesbian people, and I believe there are churches out there that may differ in their opinion about sexual expression that are still welcoming for gay and lesbian people to be a part of their community, or at least places that provide refuge and support and don’t qualify it with “we only support or help people that we agree with”, I believe that there are those spaces out there.

AVB: It is changing isn’t it in some circles but it’s slow.

AC: It is changing

AVB: I see churches go through a process of, you know, they say “we’re welcoming, we’re accepting, we’re affirming” and that’s actually quite a process for them which can take several years for them to go through.

AC: It’s true and I think it’s a hard place for churches to be, but that’s been our goal to move out of the way for the church.

AVB: But you never expected it to end like this?

AC: I didn’t.  You know recently we have kind of modified that phrase to Exodus has to go out of business so the church can do its job.  It’s time for the church to step up to the plate and while I appreciate the fact that the church has trusted us all these years with people, at the same time I think there have been churches that have used Exodus as the scapegoat “We don’t want to be messy like this, we don’t want to deal with these issues, we don’t want to go through the backlash that you people go through so we’re just going to send people over here”.  And I think we need to deal with this in the church.

It feels a little less formal becoming more like the our times over meals at the conference. I think it’s time to have more of a conversation than an interview. It certainly feels more natural to me. So I share my thoughts. Re-emphasizing some of the content of our email communications.

AVB: I’ve often said that I haven’t seen Exodus or ex-gay ministries as the enemy. The way I see it is that Exodus has often been the symptom rather than the cause It’s the cause/effect principle.  The cause is actually ignorance, Exodus has been the symptom/effect. The root cause exists within churches is ignorance and misinformation about sexual orientation and gender identity. The average pastor is so uneducated or ill-informed about these things. So the way I see it is  we’re going through stages., Like in Australia, we’ve been through phase one. You’re closing Exodus down but we’ve seen over two thirds of these organisations close down. For me now it is about phase two  which is educating Pastors and church leaders so they are more informed, particularly about the impact their words have on people, When a young person comes to you and says ‘I’m gay, or I think I’m gay’, your response will either drive them on a course which will lead them into depression and thoughts of suicide, or you can provide a space for them to work through that process without judgment or an agenda. How much easier would that be and they can become more accepting of themselves.

AC: Yeah you know I think there will always be differences of opinion when it comes to how we steward our sexual expression as believers and I think we can do that very, very carefully.  You know for me if someone comes, you for instance, this is your life, this is your story, you are a Christian every bit as much as I am and you’ve come to a very different place with regards to what you believe about sexual expression.  I’m not going to doubt your salvation and we can have a robust conversation maybe about the differences in what we believe, but at the end of the day our common ground, the thing that links us together and that is more important than anything is our relationship as brothers in Christ and I think that that’s, for me, I believe and I hope this is true of you and others for people who have differences of opinion, we’re very, very careful how we exercise our beliefs, and so for me to talk to someone who doesn’t believe as I do, who is in that vulnerable, or early stages of making a decision for themselves how they’re going to steward their sexuality in relationship to their faith, I have to be very careful, if they ask me my opinion what I believe, I’m going to share what I believe about how I live my life, recognizing there are people like you and so many others who have come to a different conclusion and allowing for that difference to be something that might be a place where we don’t agree, but that’s not a deal breaker, that’s not a deal breaker for God.

AVB: So our main concern should be about safety for the individual?

AC: Yeah I think that should be, I think not causing shame for the decision that they make.

AVB: Right

AC: Not causing them grief or imposing our belief on them, but respecting that everyone has to come to their own conclusion because God’s given us the freedom to decide for ourselves, how we are going to live this out.

I know this is going to be incredibly challenging for many of the pastors and church leaders I know but time is limited so I move on.

AVB: One thing that I find interesting for some of us, I know for me, I have been hearing the stories of harm and I’ve known those who have taken their own life and I’ve walked through so many of these things myself, so you must have been hearing those stories for some time.  I mean I’ve been hearing them for, since 2000 when I started my first ex-gay survivor group So for thirteen years I’ve been hearing these stories. You must have been hearing those stories as well, so when did the shift start to happen that those stories had an impact on you?

AC: You know I think they’ve always had an impact.  You know what “what was it that caused their depression, what was it that caused all these things”,  and you know, it’s not that they haven’t had an impact on me, it’s wondering what else could have been going on, was it all this issue, was it all related to something that we have said or we have done, and I think we all have to own our part in the stories of people who take their life if we were implicated in that for sure and we have to be careful with our words and I realise it’s as you said the symptom of something or the root of something much, much deeper, that we have wielded the sword of our truth, and our opinion related to our theology that has caused people who are vulnerable, shame and guilt, I know that those things have caused and contributed to people feeling depressed and feeling like there was no other way, you know  I lived that myself, you know when I heard as a teenage boy that there was no other option but for me to be gay, that caused me to want to die, as a Christian kid to think this is my only option, that’s a huge jump for me and I’m very thankful for the ministry of Exodus because of that, because I credit it with saving my life.  Where people will say it caused them tremendous harm, it was something that changed my life and saved my life.

AVB: That was something I was going to ask you about, actually, because people are very, very familiar with the horror stories, shall we say, and the trauma and the tragedies, but you’ve been saying that Exodus actually has done some good work, and I remember I wrote to you an article about that, so what do you feel has been the good things Exodus has done?

AC: Well you know I think that we’ve provided a space for Christians with a biblical conviction about sexual expression.  We’ve provided them a safe place; we’ve provided them a community we’ve provided them with encouragement.  You know it was unbelievable to me as a 19 year old kid to find out there was any place I could go and just share everything, imperfect as it was, there was a bunch of human people and it was this amazing community of people who didn’t look at me like I was crazy, who understood because they were there themselves, so I think that we’ve provided that type of community and resource for people for 37 years, it has literally in my opinion saved lives, and I think we’ve provided an opportunity for parents to come and our message to parents has always been ‘you’re relationship with your kid is priority, don’t kick your kid out of the house, invite them in, love them, love the people that they love. You can live in a relationship even if you disagree on any number of issues.  This isn’t the only issue you’re going to disagree on.  Don’t make this the focus of your relationship.’  So I think that has done tremendous good and there won’t ever be a shortage of failures in anything that’s 15 minutes old let alone 37 years old.

AVB: Through the apology and now closing down Exodus it’s interesting that you representing former Exodus president and me as a gay community leader in Australia, I find it interesting that you and I now have the same “enemies” although I rarely use that term……opponents is better..

AC: It’s unbelievable how many people who are Christians hate us, hate me, I don’t want to put words in their mouth, they haven’t said they hate me, but they certainly hate a lot about me.

AVB: Oh they have. I have read some vile and cruel things over the years.

AC:  And I think that’s

AVB: They feel betrayed

AC: They feel betrayed and they feel like I’m a heretic and I think that that’s

AVB: You’ve lost faith

AC: That’s the difficult thing in all of this that we treat the Christian life as if it is a war against people in our culture and when someone dares to think for themselves and wonder for themselves and question things for themselves and not follow what the high priests are saying or the people who have placed themselves in the position of high priest are saying, then you are labelled and branded and you become a focus of the culture war yourself. We need to put down our weapons in the church; God didn’t call us or bring us to planet earth to be culture warriors.  He called us to be peace makers, He called us to bring the good news of the Gospel and the good news is good news for everyone.  I don’t see much good news being shared out there when it comes to the culture wars that we’ve gotten ourselves involved in.  I see a lot of people being hit by the cross fire, it’s time we do something different and that’s what we want to do.  We want to be part of a new conversation, with the beliefs that we bring to the table and sitting down with people who may have different beliefs and saying you know what there’s something we have in common and there’s something we want to do better, ending bullying, finding a place for and resources and homes for gay teenagers who are homeless, there’s so much good we can do.  That doesn’t cause anyone of us to compromise the beliefs that we have, its common good is something we have to do, the church has to care about these things.

AVB: Yeah I guess that’s a good segue into the next question which is, I’m here, and you said ‘I’d love you to come,’ so that’s probably intriguing for a lot of people as to why would you want Anthony Venn-Brown to be attending that conference and so what was all that about?

AC: Well we’re brothers in Christ, why wouldn’t I want you to attend? You have been kind to me.

That response just flawed me a little and  get lost in my thoughts for a moment. Could it really be that simple? Could we progress this conversation and bring about change by simply showing kindness to others? God knows there is a lot of hate and anger out there. The impact of kindness has definitely been underrated…. Alan continues to elaborate.

AC: ….and these days kindness is hard to come by, so it means a lot to me, and you’ve wanted to have a conversation though we disagree on some things, that’s what I want to do and it’s amazing to me that here I am, saying very clearly what I believe and yet creating this new space, what some are calling this wishy washy space, my gay friends and my gay activist friends haven’t doubted for a minute what I really believe and yet they have been so welcoming and so warm, and so receptive and so desirous of relationship with me.  And there have been so many people on my quote, unquote, “side”, of all of this who say they don’t know what I believe any more, even though I’m clear about what I believe.

AVB: Are they saying that you no longer believe at all because you no longer believe what they believe?

AC: Maybe, and so it’s just, of course I would want you to be here and I want you to be a part of all that’s going on and see what we do and experience the stories that are here which probably some have been stories that would be resident in your own conference, and so that’s why I invited you to be here because we’re going to spend eternity together, why not spend a few minutes here on planet earth.

Time for some humour

AVB: Yeah, and find out about your great shoe collection and how much you love cocktails. (Private joke)

AC: Exactly

Amy walks over from her desk, stands behind Alan and gives me the wrap up signal. OMG that twenty minutes vanished like a vapour. 

AVB: What would you like to say, in closing, because there are these two worlds which are happily fighting each other almost like they need each other to exist?  The victim and the persecutor. What would you like to say to the conservative Christians and what would you like to say to the LGBT community at this point in time?

AC: Well the conservative Christians the message is easy, what’s in this culture war, let’s stop treating people in ways that Jesus wouldn’t treat them.  We have an example of how Jesus treated people with whom He disagreed or with whom were living a different life than He was living – well everyone was living a different life than He was living (laughing).  He was the only perfect person that ever lived, but let’s put down our weapons, let’s present a gospel of peace, let’s find some common ground. Keep your opinions, nobodies asking anyone to give up their opinions or change their beliefs, those are what make us who we are and I think we can learn from each other in those things. But for Christians let’s put our weapons down, let’s end this culture war, let’s find something we can do in common, let’s have a conversation with each other and let’s find ways that we can help people and work together.  You know World Vision, and I’ve said this a couple of times, in interviews and maybe in my talk the other night, but World Vision is doing something astounding in Bangladesh and many other places in the world.  World Vision are Christian, a decidedly Christian organisation with Christian values and whatever, I don’t know all that they believe, but they’re Christian

AVB: Yes

AC: Evangelical.  They have partnered in Bangladesh with the Muslims, the Hindus and the Buddhists.  A deep partnership where they have a day care that they are running together for the children of the sex trade workers in that area.

AVB: That’s Christianity

AC: While the mums are next door prostituting themselves these religions have decided ‘were going to put aside our differences, ones that people are waging war over in the other countries, were going to put aside our differences and we’re going to care for the needs of these children that otherwise wouldn’t be cared for.  That is the embodiment of Jesus Christ and the ministry that He wants us to do on planet earth.  And I want to be part of that, maybe I’ll have to go to work for World Vision, but that’s what I want to see happen.

AVB: And what would you like to say to the LGBT community – that’s a good message for the Christian Church.

AC: The LGBT community.  What I would say is we want to work with you despite differences, here’s our apology, we’re sorry, we have our beliefs we can’t apologise for those, but we are going to exercise great care and great concern when we share those beliefs, but we want to find some things we have in common, we want to work together, and there are plenty of causes that you care about that we care about too.  We’re here on  planet earth together and we want to be in relationship with you, and we want to find some common ground and want to have some conversations.

“we want to find some things we have in common, we want to work together, and there are plenty of causes that you care about that we care about too”. This needs to be explored in-depth. What might that look like? What things do we have in common? What specific causes?….. but Amy is now walking up and down behind Alan. I know I’ve already exceeded my twenty minutes. 

AVB: Can I just ask one more question?

Alan looks over at Amy who is running the tight timetable. I know it’s only hours till 37 years is about to brought to a close. I have no doubt there is much to do. I get the agreement to go ahead even though we are now up to 30 minutes. I’m glad …..it’s an important question.

AVB: The reaction out there – there’s lots of anger and of course we know where that comes from, but it’s not very helpful and when people say to you “the apology is not enough”, how do you respond to that?

AC: You know I’m thankful that I serve Jesus Christ, because forgiveness is always there and to say that the apology is not enough, I can’t argue with them……

I saw Alan become emotional a couple of times during his opening address where he had to compose himself in order to continue. It happens again now.

AC: ….. this is all I have to offer, and I’m sorry it’s not enough, it’s all I have, to be genuinely sorry and to pledge to work together.  That’s all I have to offer.  For a lot of people I think it, there are a lot of people out there who it is enough for and I hope we can work together and get the work done and I hope someday the bitterness and anger and all of that will heal for the people that it isn’t enough for now.

AVB: Great thanks Alan I do appreciate you giving me this time.

AC: You’re welcome.

© Anthony Venn-Brown

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About the Author:

Anthony Venn-Brown

Anthony Venn-Brown is one of Australia’s foremost commentators on faith and sexuality. His best-selling autobiography ‘A Life of Unlearning – a preacher’s struggle with his homosexuality, church and faith‘, detailing his journey from married, high profile preacher in Australia’s growing mega-churches, such as Hillsong, to living as an openly gay man, has impacted 1,000’s globally. Anthony was the co-founder and former leader of Freedom 2 b[e], Australia’s largest network of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people from Christian backgrounds. He is also an educator and consultant on LGBT/faith issues and leader in deconstructing the ‘ex-gay’ myth. Anthony is the founder and CEO of Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International and has been twice voted ‘One of the 25 Most Influential Gay and Lesbian Australians’ (2007 & 2009).

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