The leader of Exodus International, an anti-gay ministry that's changing course to work with LGBT communities, acknowledged that he feels "same-sex attraction" and intends to open talks with those "who suffered unimaginable pain."
Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, believes Christianity is changing and "we've got to adapt to our culture that's changing too. We've had a war mentality, and there are times when the church is a difficult place to be but there's nowhere else I'd rather be. And to be here to start a conversation and listen to other stories.
"We like to put God and people in a neat and tidy box, so as long as your story is like that, you fit. But life is not like that," he said. "I'm married. I have children. I have same-sex attraction. But at the same time, I'm thrilled with my life and I'm thrilled with my wife."
Chambers, a father of two adopted children, said: "I feel tension – but I'm comfortable with that tension. My tension will serve the church. Hey, the church is here for all of us and I think there are amazing churches" out there "who are already helping people" in the LGBT community.
In the days after his apology to the gay community and his bombshell announcement to close Exodus – the oldest and largest Christian ministry dealing with faith and homosexuality – Chambers juggled media interviews while walking toward a chapel on the campus of Concordia University in Irvine, site of the group's annual "Freedom" conference with about 300 attendees.
Chambers has shared that he struggled with homosexuality until he chose a Christian path as a young adult.
Last year, Chambers said he no longer believed homosexuality could be cured, prompting about a third of its partners to withdraw support.
The reason behind the departures "is they see me as compromising biblical truths," he said. But the nonprofit "has not had a change of belief," he added, explaining that "how we interact as Christians is our focus moving forward. We must come to the table amid tension and imperfection and try to understand one another."
Exodus, which will reinvent itself starting with the website reducefear.org, now works with 222 ministries and referral agencies across the U.S.
Transformation is needed as Exodus has become "a lightning rod because we're known as an organization that's anti-gay," Chambers says. "No matter what good we do, it would be overshadowed. We have to get past the opinion and actually just talk to each other."
While conference participants greeted Chambers with hugs and words of support, he says public reaction to the closure is mixed, as he and his wife Leslie tried not to "look at a bunch of stuff online because we realize this is something that will be misinterpreted by both sides. Yet that gives us new empathy for people."
Exodus officials expect to close their doors by summer’s end. It runs with a staff of nine, including Chambers, but plans to reduce to three employees by July 5. The group has an annual operating budget of $1.5 million.
During his job interview more than 11 years ago, Chambers remembers being asked what kind of future he envisioned for the nonprofit. "Success would look like Exodus going out of business because the church is doing its job," he remembers telling recruiters.
The original name of the group, founded by Michael Bussee, is Ex-Gay Intervention Team, changing to Exodus International in 1976. It's currently based in Orlando, Fla., and among its role models, Chambers cites one group, World Vision, which links members of all faiths to work on shared social services goals.
"There they are, with Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and everyone is respectful," he adds. He especially admires World Vision's project in Bangladesh, where employees run a day-care for the children of sex-trade workers. "They don't judge. They're there just to help. God challenges us to love people better and the fact that God loves us, no matter what, can guide us.
"Life has been incredibly difficult," Chambers told his audience during his opening speech earlier this week at the conference. To relax, his hobby is interior design, noting, "I've begged God so many times to let me be a decorator."