UNLIKELY HERO OF THE DAY…Alan Chambers.
Today, for deeply personal reasons, I bow to the unexpected grace of a man named Alan Chambers. For years, Mr. Chambers has been the president of a Christian organization called "Exodus International", which has spent the 37 years of its mission purporting to "cure" homosexuality in others, through prayer.
Alan Chambers, only yesterday, officially announced that Exodus would be closing its doors forever. He also renounced the notion that homosexuality can or should be cured. But that is not all. He also issued an apology to the gay community that is as elegant and brave a piece of writing as any I have ever read.
I know more about Exodus than most, because 20 years ago, when I was a journalist for Spin Magazine, I went undercover to a camp run by this organization. I posed as a young woman who wanted to be cured of her homosexuality. I was a cocky kid and I went out there to California, to be honest, to mock the hell out of this whole ridiculous business. What I found, though, left a mark on me that has never gone away.
I found a camp filled with several hundred adults — men and women alike — who were in more emotional pain than almost anyone I had ever met. Deeply Christian and deeply faithful, and — yes — very much gay, these people were desperate to be "cured" of their "affliction", in order to walk more closely beside the Christ they loved and believed in with all their hearts. Most of them honestly believed that if they could not stop being gay, they would be rejected from the Kingdom of God. And why would they not think this? Most of them had already been rejected by their families, their communities, their churches. Many had attempted suicide. Many had desperately married members of the opposite sex (some of whom had come to the camp, as well) who were now suffering their own devastations, realizing that their shattered partners could never love them sexually, intimately, truly.
It was a valley of tears out there.
And where I had expected to find that the Exodus leadership would be a bunch of bigots and idiots, instead I found a group of truly compassionate people, who wept right along with their charges, who fought their own battles against their own homosexuality, who could not have been more loving and concerned and kind — but who just happened to genuinely believe that they were doing a service to mankind by trying to "reorient" these gay Christians into straight Christians.
I came home from that camp so deeply saddened, so heartbroken, I can barely express it. I was sad for everyone there — for the lives of the repressed and ashamed — as well as touched and baffled by the strange (and, to my mind, twisted) earnestness and sincerity of this organization itself. Never had I seen so many good people causing each other so much harm in the alleged name of compassion. It made my head spin and my heart ache.
So when I read yesterday that Exodus was closing, I felt a profound relief, and I marveled at how much has changed in our society in only 20 years that such a reversal could be possible. As someone who has fought for gay rights and marriage equality, this certainly felt like a politic victory. But when I read the full text of the apology that Alan Chambers issued, I started to cry — not just for the relief his words must bring to the hearts of gay Christians everywhere, but for the sheer human courage that it takes to apologize from the bottom of one's heart, for the harm one has done to others.
Here are a few excerpts from his extraordinary remarks:
"I understand why I am distrusted and why Exodus is hated..I am sorry that I didn't stand up to people publicly on 'my side' who called you names like sodomite — or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I knew were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know…Please know that I am deeply sorry. I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through pain and guilt you felt when your attractions did not change… Never in a million years would I intentionally hurt another person…I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine….I cannot apologize to you for my beliefs about marriage. But I do not have any desire to fight you on your beliefs or the rights that you seek. My beliefs about these things will never again interfere with God's command to love my neighbor as I love myself…You have never been my enemy. I am very sorry that I have been yours."
And then this line, which made me burst into tears:
"For the rest of my life I will proclaim nothing but the whole truth of the Gospel — one of grace, mercy, and open invitation to ALL to enter into an inseverable relationship with almighty God." (Emphasis mine)
My lord — look how the doors of the soul open wide and the clean air begins to circulate when somebody bows down in a true and necessary apology. Such a thing is not easily done. It is often easier hide forever behind dusty old orthodoxies than to make a bold statement — a reversal — like this, especially on behalf of a maligned minority. I expect Mr. Chambers will be shunned and criticized intensely for it, within the church that he himself loves. He will lose friends, he will lose community, and — by shuttering his organization — he also just lost a job. And I imagine that, on the other side (my side) there will be those who will say, "A simple apology is not enough for all the damage done." But this was not a simple apology. No real apology is ever simple. Imagine the act of grace and courage to speak these words at all…
Thank you, Alan Chambers, for your example of real compassion. You are now the most brave and unlikely civil rights leader I have ever encountered. You words will change lives.
May we all live FREE, and may we all know that we are each equally loved by God. And may we all have the courage in our own lives to speak — when called to real love — the frightening and necessary words of true atonement.