In an unprecedented move the opening address was being live-streamed.
Alan was introduced. He mounted the stage to the applause of the audience. The enthusiasm in the applause could mean several things. Honouring, respecting or please give us hope. Or maybe a combination. It was genuine, they all liked this man……a lot…..to some he was a hero.
I’d never heard or seen Alan speak publicly before. There was no Evangelical/Pentecostal “rah-rah-rah” hype…”God’s here! He is going to do a miracle for you. God’s here to meet your every need. Amen?” Alan was mellow, thoughtful, and considered, like every word counted. I listened intently as he shared his own journey. Much of what he said I’d read before. Like his recent letter in February 2013 “Messy Story, True Story“.
Alan’s childhood was troubled, he was bullied, he had some same-sex experiences but felt lost and lonely and unable to connect with the gay scene. Had he connected with the LGBT community it may have been a very different story. But alas, if you are in an Evangelical/Pentecostal culture you know nothing about “the tribe” only about the small tip of the iceberg referred to as the “homosexual lifestyle”.
As a relatively young Christian man of 19, he reached out for help and that’s when he found Exodus. Alan went on to talk about how supportive and helpful it was to find people who understood and would help him. It became his sole support mechanism away from condemning church people, bullying world and a gay scene he never felt he could fit into. Not an uncommon experience when people pluck up the courage to reach out for help. Alan believed that Exodus had literally saved his life. He went on to speak further of how his positive experience had been the experience of many but over the years Exodus had lost its way and become something it was never meant to be. Certainly not to be high-jacked by the religious right and Christian conservatives for their own anti-gay political agendas as it once had. Alan admitted he’d lost his way too.
Where is this going, I thought for a moment in the midst of my note-taking. To me, it was pretty obvious that Alan was preparing the audience, gently leading them along a journey for a reason. But what was the destination? The punch lines!!!!
“In January 2012, after spending a lot of time with other leaders, we got together for a leadership conference and came with an agenda. We’re at a crossroads. We have only 4 options:
- Stay the same. For us that wasn’t an option.
- Re-brand, which is common. Let’s put lipstick on the pig. This wasn’t an option. When they changed Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC, they still sold fried chicken.
- Modify, the goal we’d tried. But to completely modify, it’s risky and potentially deadly. Exodus has suffered, been ridiculed, maligned, scorned. Life has been incredibly difficult. I begged God to let me be a decorator. He said “no” What we realized was that God does not want us to modify Exodus further.”
Then the bombshell.
“We are at option 4, to shut down”. Even though the audience had been quietly listening the entire time there was something about this moment where it felt like there was a collective holding of breath.
“I knew this option would come to pass. It’s the fulfilment of what I was hired to do”.
“We have decided to close Exodus down and this is our last conference”
At that precise moment, unbeknown to any of us, Vice President Randy Thomas, seated in the front row, pressed the publish button on his laptop and the announcement went up on the Exodus website for the whole world to see.
It was done. The service closed with prayer, a melodic worship song and it was over. I looked over at Jim, who was feverishly typing away on his computer. I thought he was taking notes but he had been minute by minute live blogging the entire proceedings. When he looked over at me I mouthed the only word I could think of at that moment “FUCK!”. I can’t believe it. It’s over for Exodus and I’m here to witness it. A surreal moment when something you have wished for and worked towards for a long time has finally come to pass. Alan had alluded to this in his email he’d written only six hours earlier “it’s almost over” but I wasn’t completely sure what he was trying to tell me. Even though I’d reported on the progressive white-anting of the ex-gay message twelve months earlier……sometimes I’m a bit thick.
I did know something though. I’d been in a confidential online group leading up to the conference with several Exodus leaders as well as ex-gay survivors. This had been created at Alan’s request and I was invited to participate. The Exodus leaders were hopelessly outnumbered, and it was definitely not a space for the faint-hearted. For all that others might criticise Alan for, one thing I believe we should give him some credit for is his courage. I’m not sure I would have willing placed myself in some of those spaces.
A number of the ex-gay survivors became a part of the Lisa Ling, Our America show “God and Gays” on the Oprah network. In this show, Alan and his wife Leslie were seated in dark church basement with about a dozen ex-gay survivors who, through tears and anger, confronted them with their stories. It was here that Alan first apologised, but it had not yet been made public. “God and Gays’ was aired the second night of conference after Alan had officially closed Exodus down.
Are you seeing what’s going on here?
This was a planned and well executed closure or was it just an evolution? Possibly over twelve months before, seat belts were fastened, and the lever pulled on this roller coaster ride. It began clanking slowly with a change in position statements, more nuanced blog posts, reaching the peak with Alan’s written apology to the LGBT community in the afternoon before the conference, racing off that same night with the official close down. The opening address was live-streamed so that as many people as possible could get the information first hand. From there on it just bolted and rattled on a crazy ride. I am sure there were times they thought it would run totally off the tracks. I’d even emailed Alan encouraging him not to quit, concerned that if he did the role might be taken over by someone else who had not made the progress Alan had. That could set things back another ten to fifteen years.
With the service now over, most people remained seated. Stunned. A few got up and hugged other people. A time of ministry and prayer was offered for those feeling the need for comfort. I didn’t really know what to say myself. I mean “what now?”. We are here for another three days at the conference. Places were provided for the various groups like youth, parents and married couples to have supper together after the meeting. I didn’t go to those. Not that I wasn’t welcome, but it was like the family needed some private time to talk about the implications of what they’d just heard. I felt that intimate space needed to be respected.
I did immediately wonder about the wisdom of making this announcement at the opening address. Possibly there was no perfect time.
Looking back, I see the first night was best and not the final night as it gave those attending a safe space to talk, share and process the implications of what they had just happened. I hate to think what terrible consequences it would have had on some attending the conference had they heard this last.
This was not a “they won – we lost’ moment. Exodus was closed with a level of dignity…. certainly honesty and authenticity.
But what about the next three days?
Copyright © Anthony Venn-Brown