In the name of mercy

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Mercy Ministries’ attitudes towards lesbians who seek their help have recently come under public scrutiny. Are they running an ex-gay  program? Adam Bub investigates.

Recent media coverage has raised questions about the Christian live-in women’s program run by Mercy Ministries and their treatment of women, including lesbians.

While the program is aimed at helping young women suffering from mental illness, eating disorders and abuse,

The Sydney Morning Herald last week reported that former patients had also been subjected to watching teaching videos featuring American ‘ex-gay’ Sy Rogers speaking about his transformation into a heterosexual.

In what seems like a scare tactic, these videos have little to do with the eating disorders, anxiety and drug problems of the program’s mainly heterosexual participants, which begs the question, is Mercy Ministries similar to an ex-gay program?

According to Peter Irvine, Executive Director of Mercy Ministries, “we do not target any group, including the gay community, and do not have an anti-gay program”.

The distinction between ‘anti-gay’ and ‘ex-gay’ should first be considered. ‘Anti-gay’ implies a negative attitude towards non-heterosexuals, while ‘ex-gay’ specifically addresses the methodical outcome of converting non-heterosexuals to heterosexuality. One is thought, the other is action.

While the Mercy Ministries might display good intentions by not excluding lesbians from their programs, their stance on lesbianism may be seen as ‘anti-gay’.

“A small number of girls who have applied to come into the program have openly stated that they were confused about their sexuality,” Irvine tells SX. “We always explain where we stand on the issue but do not knock back any young women who still want to come into the program.”  Irvine also insisted that he respects his own gay friends’ lifestyles.

One of Mercy’s financial contributors, the Hillsong Church, has previously publicly denounced homosexuality as immoral. In a less contentious statement, Brian Houston, Senior Pastor of Hillsong, responded to SX concerning the Mercy Ministries allegations: “God has created each of us as sexual beings, and I do not believe it is His will for it to be complicated.

However, I recognise that people face very real issues in regards to sexuality. I have seen this both in my wider family, our church and society more generally”.

This conveys a mixed message to lesbian women considering entering the program. Perhaps certain issues such as lesbianism are subject to the golden rule that underlines Mercy’s ‘holistic approach’. A holistic approach is meant to consider the social, physical, psychological and spiritual elements that contribute to a patient’s problem.

This approach is obscured by the religious framework that purports to solve these problems.

In her article, ‘Religious Issues in Counselling: Are Australian Psychologists ‘Dragging the Chain’?’, Nola Passmore, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Southern Queensland, claims that a ‘holistic approach’ “ensures that the counsellor considers the whole person, rather than compartmentalising different aspects of the individual”.

Where religious-based therapies are concerned, there are holes in the holistic. In the SMH’s interviews with former patients, some revealed that no medical or psychological help was given to them, aside from supervised visits to officially-sanctioned GPs.

Ex-ex-gay survivor and former Assemblies of God preacher Anthony Venn-Brown believes that this is the real issue facing organisations like Mercy Ministries. “Duty of Care should be paramount above a belief system,” Venn-Brown tells SX.

This brings us back to the question of Mercy’s methods, which bear a resemblance to the now defunct ex-gay programs run in Australia, including Hillsong’s disbanded Living Waters program. Venn-Brown says that the ex-gay program he attended in Sydney in the 1970s, the first in Australia, featured similar methods of prayer, discipline and exorcism.

The rehabilitation centre placed homosexuals alongside drug addicts and prostitutes, just as Mercy’s application form listed questions about same-sex relationships among questions about past sexual abuse, prostitution and witchcraft.

According to the SMH, Mercy’s program also includes ‘separation contracts’ to prevent girls from close personal or physical contact. While these measures may have been taken to prevent the girls from providing advice to one another, they may also be seen as preventative measures against lesbianism.

Earlier this week, in the SMH, Irvine officially responded to the criticisms of Mercy Ministries, affirming the program’s Christian commitment to an ‘unconditional love’ of all participants.  Irvine confirmed that prayer is one aspect of the program, yet he rejected the former patients’ claims that exorcisms were part of the program. Hillsong have also claimed to have “no prior knowledge” of the media coverage on Mercy Ministries.

Nevertheless, it is understandable that some see Mercy’s programs  as having clear likenesses to ‘ex-gay’ programs. Internationally, ‘ex-gay’ programs are becoming phased out as survivors of reparative/conversion therapies, such as Venn-Brown, tell their stories.

Earlier this month, Alan Chambers, the current president of the American umbrella organisation of global ex-gay ministries, Exodus, announced the organisation’s plan to remove themselves from the political arena, signifying a shift toward dialogue with the gay community.

It was a move that builds on progress from last year when three American former ex-gay leaders, Darlene Bogle, Michael Bussee and Jeremy Marks, publicly apologised for the harm brought to former participants and their families.

Three Australian former ex-gay leaders, Vonnie Pitts (Veronica Canning), Wendy Lawson and Kim Brett, have since added their names to the apology.

In light of this progress in Australia, Venn-Brown tells SX, “there are encouraging signs that this is slowly changing in some circles but in the meantime we have a trail of people who have been damaged by well-meaning Christians. The enemy we are fighting is ignorance.”