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Shifting tide was ministry’s doom

Exodus International started in Anaheim 37 years ago as a small ministry to help those struggling to reconcile their homosexuality with the Bible’s teachings. It grew into the leading practitioner of the controversial “gay cure” movement, with 260 ministries around North America.

While Exodus claimed to have purged thousands of people of sexual urges that tormented them, its leaders recently began expressing doubts about the mission. Last year, its president, Alan Chambers, renounced the idea that homosexuality could be “cured.”

This week, the organization abruptly announced it was closing down. Chambers offered a dramatic, public mea culpa, refuting decades of Exodus’ teaching and apologizing for the “shame” and “trauma” the group had inflicted.

The demise of the gay cure movement underscores the growing acceptance of homosexuality in society, even in the evangelical Christian community. Polls show increasing support for gay marriage, and leading conservatives, including Dick Cheney and Rob Portman, have expressed support for gay rights. A May Gallup poll showed that 59% of American adults said gay and lesbian relationships are morally acceptable, up 19 percentage points since 2001.

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“Evangelicals are not immune to this,” said Randall Balmer, chairman of the religion department at Dartmouth College. “They get swept along with the cultural currents as well.”

Chambers’ statement won praise from gay-rights groups, who long criticized his views. But some were quick to point out that Exodus had been losing influence among evangelicals in recent years as gay conversion became increasingly out of the mainstream.

“I think there’s a tendency to see Exodus folding as a parable of Christian capitulation and ethic,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “That is not what’s happening. Instead what you have is an organization that has some confusion about its mission and purpose.... What is not happening here, is an evangelical revision of a biblical sexual ethic.”

Chambers discussed his change of heart in an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Thursday as well as in a lengthy statement and speech to a religious convention in Irvine.

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“We need to change the way we do things,” he said.

Chambers said that gays had been wrongly made to feel rejected by God, and that Christians should accept them even if they believe homosexuality -- like pride and gluttony -- is a sin.

“I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change,” Chambers wrote in a statement on his website. “I am sorry that I ... failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.”

Chambers, who is married to a woman and has two adopted children, told The Times he is still attracted to men and comfortably lives with that tension, but that others may be unable to do so. He said that 99% of people who went through gay-conversion therapy did not lose their same-sex desires.

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Chambers’ apology was welcomed by gay rights activists, who called it a “big surprise.”

“I think it is demonstrative of the major shift that we as a society have gone through in terms of our understanding of who gay and lesbian people are and how they live,” said Ross Murray, director of news and faith initiatives at gay rights group GLAAD.

“At one time, it was pretty mainstream to have those thoughts and feelings about gay and lesbian people. Over time, Exodus and people who have promoted change programs have been more and more marginal or fringe.

“In more and more communities, churches are grappling with homosexuality in more open terms. These are the cultural realities around us.”

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Chambers first made his apology Wednesday night at Exodus’ annual conference in Irvine and in advance of a show that aired Thursday night with journalist Lisa Ling in which he is confronted by “ex-gay survivors.”

“It was excruciating,” he said. “They told their true stories in a way that I will never forget. They told stories of abuse and pain, missed opportunities, awful words that were spoken to them. Stories of abuse and pain from the church and even from Exodus.”

Linda and Rob Robertson came from Redmond, Wash., to speak at the conference. Strict evangelicals with four children, they shared their own torment with the Bible’s teachings and their son, Ryan, who came out to them when he was 12.

She said she and her husband forced him to choose between God and being a gay man, and for the next six years he tried everything possible. He went to reparative therapy with Exodus, but nothing worked.

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At 18, with no answers, he became addicted to drugs, his mother said.

“We didn’t intentionally, but we taught Ryan to hate himself,” Linda Robertson said.

Although they later tried to form a more accepting relationship, he ultimately died of a drug overdose in 2009.

Since then, the Robertsons have become advocates for gay and lesbian young adults who feel shut out by the church.

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“We have to stop warring,” Rob Robertson said. “We’ve got to stop fighting.”

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anh.do@latimes.com

kate.mather@latimes.com

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joe.mozingo@latimes.com

Times staff writers Joseph Serna and Paul Pringle contributed to this report.


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