MERCY MINISTRIES – SY ROGERS – HILLSONG
Now there are three potentially controversial headlines. Put together, as they were in the Australian press recently, they could be explosive. Many people think these are all one and the same but they are actually separate identities, although there is inter-relatedness. People have been asking for my opinion and insight about the recent revelations about Mercy Ministries and I thought this would be a good time to discuss all three and say some things I’ve been holding back for various reasons.
Mercy Ministries really hit the press Monday with personal allegations of girls being mistreated.
They sought help, but got exorcism and the Bible March 16 2008
The business of giving Mercy March 17 2008
No mercy for transgressions March 18 2008
Mercy Ministries, an American based rehabilitation program, as far as we knew, worked with young women on the issues of eating disorders, unwanted pregnancies, substance abuse and self harm.
I’ve met a number of Mercy graduates personally who had all benefited from their time going through the program. No-one had spoken to me of abuses or concerns. And I defended the program when a boycott was planned on Gloria Jeans (who supported Mercy Ministries financially) by the GLBT community, because it was believed Mercy Ministries were also providing ex-gay therapy. When I asked questions, I was told this was not the case and Mercy Ministries issued a media statement stating that it did not work with sexual orientation issues. I apologise for that now, I was mislead. It’s not good to lie at any time but for a Christian organisation to do that is – well I’ll let you decide about what that means.
We now know that a number of girls went into Mercy Ministries specifically to change their same sex orientation. More about that later.
From the allegations made in the press recently, for Mercy Ministries to regain credibility in the church and gain any credibility in the wider community several things must happen. Following these principles will ensure that the beneficial work will continue and previous abuses will become non-existent. Also, it will bring them in line with other health care facilities that are required, under law, to provide a certain level of duty of care.
- Only fully qualified, professional staff should work with Mercy Ministries clients.
- Methodologies of treatment should be clearly explained to potential clients before they enter the program and that it has a Pentecostal theology.
- There should be more accountability and openness about the program. If they are doing the right thing there shouldn’t be anything to hide.
- When a girl who has not completed the program leaves Mercy, mechanisms should be in place to ensure those girls have the support they need. Having been through a similar program myself, I know the sense of failure and shame one can experience when leaving and how that could contribute to a potential suicide. You are usually pretty fragile when you leave and certainly not feeling empowered.
- An independent body should get honest feedback from former clients which will ensure the girls can talk freely about concerns. Feedback from clients is standard practice. I do that all the time, with my coaching clients and people who attend my seminars. I want to improve. A number of successful graduates have also shared concerns they have with me, but currently there is no mechanism in place for those to be voiced without being labelled ‘rebellious’ or ‘trouble makers.
- Any attempts to take in girls to change their sexual orientation should cease. Nearly four decades ago mental health professionals agreed that homosexuality was not an illness or caused by upbringing or sexual abuse. From the pool of research now available on ex-gay ministries, we know that these programs are potentially harmful and mental health professional organisations advice of the dangers. In 1999, The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Counseling Association, American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American Psychological Association, American School Health Association, Interfaith Alliance Foundation, National Association of School Psychologists, National Association of Social Workers, and National Education Association endorsed “Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation & Youth: A Primer for Principals, Educators and School Personnel”
The primer says, “The most important fact about ‘reparative therapy,’ also sometimes known as ‘conversion’ therapy, is that it is based on an understanding of homosexuality that has been rejected by all the major health and mental health professions: homosexuality is not a mental disorder and thus there is no need for a ‘cure’. Health and mental health professional organizations do not support efforts to change young people’s sexual orientation through ‘reparative therapy’ and have raised serious concerns about its potential to do harm.”
To tell anyone these days that they are sick or evil because they are orientated towards the same sex instead of the opposite is not only archaic it’s cruel.
Up until last Wednesday’s article, God’s cure for gays lost in sin, I felt it wasn’t necessary for me to be involved.
To quote the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) article. “In particular, there was an ongoing teaching video series by Sy Rogers an ‘ex-gay’ – now reformed – married Christian,” she said.Rogers – an American who conducts speaking tours on Christianity and sexuality- spoke at Hillsong Church’s Sense and Sexuality Workshop in Sydney last September and is due to address its Colour Your World Conference next year. Sy will bless you with his insights into identity and the heart,” the Hillsong website says.
So when the sexual re-orientation side of Mercy Ministries was made public I felt it was time for me to comment.
Those who know me, know that I always try and create a respectful dialogue with people. I was persistent in seeking the opportunity to meet with Sy while he was in Sydney. I went to his seminar and also met with him personally for about 30 minutes. I wished it was longer and that Sy actually lived in Sydney as I’m sure we would have many interesting chats. I went into the meeting with lots of preconceived ideas about Sy that I’d formulated from my research. I found Sy to be extremely pleasant and respectful of me. He commented favourably about my recent interview on Australia’s 60 Minutes. Dads coming out Part 1 of 2 & Dads coming out Part 2 of 2, which he’d seen the weekend before.
I’d already felt that Sy had had a shift from his previous thinking and asked him the question. “What are we going to do Sy about all these wonderful young people who are gay and lesbian and don’t see any conflict between that and their Christian faith”. His answer took me a little by surprise. “I no longer preach a re-orientation message” he said.
Problems with the Sy Rogers Story
To listen, in length, to the Sy story is to realise that it is not a simple story. Firstly, Sy is transgender/transsexual. That cannot be changed and remains with a person throughout life. It happens in the womb. Sexual orientation is a totally different wiring however. Sy lived as a woman for some time and was in the process of seeking gender re-assignment surgery when he was converted. Throw into the story years of sexual abuse, a self destructive lifestyle (experienced by heterosexuals and homosexuals alike) and a dysfunctional family upbringing (mother was an alcoholic) then it becomes a maze of issues. Probably the miracle in Sy’s life is similar to mine: he is still alive today.
A problem happens when he speaks to an audience who are relatively uneducated about sexuality and transgenderism. I’m sure there are still people in the churches Sy speaks at who genuinely believe that all homosexual men deep down want to throw on a frock and live as a woman and that all lesbians wish they could be men. If you know gay men or lesbians you’d know there is nothing further from the truth. But when you hear Sy’s story you could assume that. Many words appear in Sy’s story, homosexual, gay, transsexual, all mixed together that are hard for the average person to separate, let alone someone in church who has only ever heard negative things about gays and lesbians, has read nothing on the topic except biased Christian authors and doesn’t know any personally.
My assumption is that Sy would not actually say that he is a heterosexual today, although many would try and tell us that because he is married to a woman. I’ve yet to meet an ex-gay who can tell me that their orientation, instincts and desires are totally heterosexual. That means that they think and function like a normal heterosexual male. I was also married to a woman and had children but it didn’t make me straight. Sitting in a garage doesn’t make you a car. You can change behaviours, control thoughts, resist temptations, lessen same sex thoughts and opportunities but you can’t change orientation. In other words he has chosen to be in a heterosexual marriage. I have to respect Sy and his wife’s choice in that. At the age of 40, like so many, I could no longer live with that inconsistency. From there I won’t make any more assumptions. Only Sy can answer the deeper questions.
The Ambiguities – Questions that need an answer
Let’s see if we can sort these out. Probably only Sy can though. If you are reading this Sy and I have any of my facts wrong then please let me know and I’ll change them. The truth is more important than my assumptions.
- Ambiguity No. 1. Sy has not been on the board of Exodus for quite some time. Possibly not actively involved at a board level for 15 years. He has spoken at some Exodus conferences though. He is last mentioned on the history page of their website in 1996.
- Ambiguity No. 2. The Sy Rogers website makes no mention of homosexuality or ex-gay ministries.
- Ambiguity No. 3. The Choices ex-gay ministry established by Sy (I believe), at the Singaporean Church of Our Saviour in 1991 still exists, but Sy is no longer involved and his name is not mentioned on records of its history. I founded Youth Alive in NSW and when my name was removed and another preacher took the title, it was upsetting to know that I’d been so easily written out of the history.
- Ambiguity No. 4. Sitting in the Sense and Sexuality Seminar at Hillsong, I only heard Sy speak about holiness, purity of thought life, addictions, sexual abuse and wholeness without ever identifying heterosexuality as being more wholesome than homosexuality. From memory, I can’t really remember the word homosexual being used at the seminar. (Although he did mention those words of course when he told his story at the Sunday services). At the Sense & Sexuality Seminar, he spoke only of human experience and allowed people to apply it their own lives. Was that because I’d been sitting with him in the front row of the church? I tend to think not.
There are still Sy Rogers videos on youtube and stories out there on the internet which tell a different story though and people promote him as an ‘ex-gay’. I’m not so sure he would use that term.
So you can see that there are lots of questions that need to be answered. If Sy’s current thinking is that it is possible to be a gay or lesbian person of faith and live a moral life, like so many of us have found, then I think it’s time for him to come out and say that. Australasia’s former Exodus leader has. If there has been a shift in Sy’s thinking then his videos have been and are currently being used to teach people a falsehood. I know a lot of gay and lesbian Christians who are quite angry at him for his previous teachings and their wasted years trying unsuccessfully to change their sexual orientation.
The problem for Sy I’m sure, is that, if I’m correct and he shared what he really believes deep down in his heart, it would have a dramatic impact on his ministry and livelihood. (my assumption entirely of course). It’s a huge ask, but an honourable response. Knowing what I know today, I’d trade everything for integrity having lived a lie for so many years.
Hillsong & the Australian Pentecostal World
The SMH article said “In line with the Hillsong Church’s strict doctrines teaching that homosexuality is an affliction that can be cured, Mercy Ministries is keen to ensure there is no lesbianism under its roof. It issues “separation contracts” to young women who make friends with each other and prevents any form of physical contact between residents.”
There used to be strict teaching in all Pentecostal Churches that being homosexual could be cured but as I mention in my book, ministries, like “Living Waters” were closed down at Hillsong. Certainly gay and lesbian people are not affirmed at Hillsong yet or allowed places of leadership but let me share some facts with you and you can make up your own mind as to whether things are slowly changing or not.
- I attend Hillsong as an openly gay man. I don’t wave a rainbow flag but I’m sure most people know who I am. I’ve never been spoken to in a derogatory manner, told I should change or asked to leave. In fact, when a person said something negative about me when I was absent from one of the fortnightly breakfast meetings, people came to my defence saying that even though they didn’t agree with all my beliefs they respected me. I interpreted this as a small step of progress.
- Hillsong would have the largest gay and lesbian population of any Pentecostal church in Australia, particularly the City campus. (I wrote about this on my blog in 2006 but I think it slipped under the radar). How do I know? I’ve met them or they have emailed me. “They are all in different stages of resolution. Some still hate that part of themselves, some have married believing it will fix their “problem”, others have resolved the perceived conflict but are fearful to come out, while a handful of us have come to a place of total openness. We know there is nothing to be ashamed of if we happen to be attracted to the same sex instead of the opposite, its just the way we are”. The young man’s experience of rejection, quoted in The SMH article, sadly, is not uncommon. Hillsong is still not a safe place to come out, although a small number have done it successfully. I’ve tried repeatedly to engage the leadership in a dialogue about this but so far I’ve been unsuccessful. I’m not going to go away or give up though. There are too many young lives at stake. This is what drives me. We have to create a safe space for our gay and lesbian young people in churches as we are trying to do in educational settings.
- High profile singers who attend Hillsong have spoken positively about their gay friends and said they no longer accept the outdated conservative Christian view that homosexuality is a sin. Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian & Brooke Fraser
- People in the congregation now believe that homosexuality is a sexual orientation not a sin. I don’t have numbers on that but I’ve spoken to or received emails from people who have gay men or lesbians as friends and relatives and know, without a shadow of doubt, that homosexuality is not a ‘lifestyle choice’. They would not expect them to change who they are and its it’s offensive to them to even consider such a thing.
Australian Pentecostal Churches Will Welcome Gay and Lesbian Christians
It’s inevitable that Australian Pentecostal Churches will welcome gay and lesbian Christians. Let me say that again. It’s inevitable that Australian Pentecostal Churches will welcome gay and lesbian Christians. It is not a matter of ‘if’ but of ‘when’ and ‘how’. I base that belief on the changes that have already occurred. I keep reminding church leaders, who are prepared to dialogue with me that it’s about how we manage the change and that we can learn from other denominations that have made the shift successfully and also those who are splitting at the seams, like the Anglican Church. What aided the transition? What caused the damage?
The Way Things Were
If you can find someone who was a part of the Pentecostal movement back in the 60’s they will tell you exactly what Pentecostal Christianity was like then. I set foot in my first Pentecostal Church, Petersham Assemblies of God, in 1969. This is the way things were then.
- Everyone dressed conservatively. Men wore suits to church, women wore hats, no jewellery, no makeup. The bible says dress modestly, women cover your heads and no jewellery.
- Women were not allowed to wear slacks or jeans as that was men’s clothing. The bible says that you can’t wear the opposite genders clothes.
- Any form of music apart from Christian music was banned. No one was allowed to go the cinema. The bible says don’t be conformed to the world. Later on rock music was considered demonic and secret messages had been implanted.
- Men and women swam separately. The bible says that it was not good to cause your brother to stumble by placing temptation in front of them.
- Long hair was out for Pentecostal young men. The bible says that demons came out of the pit of hell with faces of men and hair of women.
- Everyone abstained totally from all alcohol. The bible says not to be drunk and one glass could be the first step on a slippery path to debauchery.
- Going to dances was banned. The bible said to not put yourself in a vulnerable position of temptation and two people holding each other closely could incite sexual arousal.
- Women were not allowed to preach. The bible says not to let a woman teach of have authority over a man.
- Women were not allowed leadership positions. The bible says that women are more susceptible to spiritual attacks as demonstrated by Eve in the Garden of Eden.
- No tattoos or piercing. The bible banned them.
- Once divorced you could never remarry. The bible says so. Some wouldn’t ever get divorced because of the shame
There’s more, but I think you get my drift. Within the space of 40 years the Pentecostal world in Australia has shed every single one of these rules. The verses are still there in the bible but the old interpretations are now considered irrelevant. So if there is any denomination in Australia that has the potential to transition or re-invent itself then Pentecostals are much more likely to do that than Catholics or Anglicans. I wholeheartedly believe that in the end, sanity will prevail and the Pentecostal world will be educated enough to know the interpretations of six passages in the bible, assumed to talk about homosexuality, were written in another time and culture and not talking about same sex orientation as we know it today.
A Shift in Attitude Has Already Happened
Australian Church Life Survey 2001
It’s not that long ago that if you asked anyone in Australian Pentecostal churches these two questions the answer would be a resounding non-equivocal NO.
- Should homosexuals be appointed to leadership positions in the church on the same basis as heterosexuals?
- Should homosexuals be accepted as members in the church on the same basis as heterosexuals?
In 2001 a survey was conducted by the National Church Life Survey, across a number of denominations, to gauge congregant’s attitudes towards homosexual people. In that survey 21% of Pentecostals said YES to the first question and 54% said YES to the second question. Things are no longer as they were.
2. Five Pentecostal Ministers Signed the 100 Revs Apology to the GLBT Community
This would have been completely unheard of even five years ago before my book came out. I didn’t know one Pentecostal minister at that time who had a belief different from the traditional view of homosexuality and now we have five who are brave enough to say.
‘As ministers of various churches and denominations we recognise that the churches we belong to, and the church in general, have not been places of welcome for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people. Indeed the church has often been profoundly unloving toward the GLBT community. For these things we apologise, whatever the distinctive of our Christian position on human sexuality – to which we remain committed. We are deeply sorry and ask for the forgiveness of the GLBT community. We long that the church would be a place of welcome for all people and commit ourselves to pursuing this goal’.
If we look at history we see that every time a new level of awareness is reached there is no going back to the old way of thinking. This has already begun to happen.
Why am I so passionate about seeing change? In all honesty it’s because I don’t what to see another person go through the unnecessary suffering and internal conflict that I experienced and the trauma that my family went through as well.