February 1, 2010

Amateur Ethnography: Prodigal Ministries

I am an ignorant fool.

A week ago, I considered leaving my home church because of their affiliation with Prodigal Ministries (an organization that provides holistic counseling to gays and lesbians). Today, I consider Prodigal Ministries (and its founder, Jerry Armelli) a loving voice in the midst of too much polarizing hatred.

I want to publicly apologize for anything I have written in the past about the organization (which I don't think is much). I settled for ignorance, and that was wrong. Today, I hope to communicate a more complete picture of the heart behind Prodigal Ministries.

Last week, I met with Jerry Armelli to discuss his ministry. The conversation encouraged me that healthy dialogue about meaningful issues is still possible.

We spoke for nearly two hours. I'm not a journalist, so this post won't be written as an interview. It's best to simply tell the story of our encounter. So, here we go ...

I first heard of Jerry a few years ago when I originally stated on my blog that gay men and women should be permitted to marry. That online conversation became pretty heated, and one acquaintance mentioned I should meet with Jerry to discuss my beliefs.

At the time, I considered organizations that ministered to gay people (Exodus International, Prodigal Ministries, etc.) to be of the devil. Okay, maybe not that extreme, but sorta. I had no interest in being lectured by a judgmental stranger, so I didn't contact Jerry at the time.

Fast forward through almost four years of publicly defending gay rights ...

After a year of The Church Experiment, I decided to attend the Springdale Vineyard in early 2010. It seemed like a good choice considering my history there. On my first night back, I was perusing the program when I found a blurb about Prodigal Ministries. They were hosting a series of workshops at the Vineyard to help educate Christians about ministering to the gay population.

I was annoyed. I made a snide remark to a friend and seriously considered leaving the Vineyard (again) because of their affiliation with Prodigal Ministries. In my mind, Prodigal Ministries rounded up gay people from the streets and forced them back to their hideout where Jerry electro-shocked the gay out of them.

Clearly, I was wrong.

Rarely has a conversation inspired such hopeful optimism as my conversation with Jerry did last week.

First, you need to know that Prodigal Ministries is nothing like the various media outlets make them out to be. They don't go into the streets to round up gay people. Every single person who walks through their doors does so voluntarily. Prodigal Ministries exists to help people confront issues of sexuality, specifically homosexuality.

I was surprised to hear that Jerry doesn't see his mission as "changing" everyone from gay to straight. As someone who formally lived the homosexual lifestyle, he is passionate about helping people. That means eventually diving in pretty deep to confront unhealthy behaviors. If people are perfectly content in their gay lifestyle, then so be it. But if people want to pursue a different life trajectory, Prodigal Ministries exists to provide support.

And, based on Jerry's experiences, many men and women do want help. Let's face it, most heterosexuals have a pretty screwed up sexuality, so why should homosexuals be any different? Many struggle with identity issues, just like we all do.

That was a huge realization for me. Why wouldn't we want places to exist that help people voluntarily work through issues of sexuality?

What really excited me was Jerry's wisdom in issues of sexuality. Politics tend to polarize the issue. Liberals want everyone to own their gay selves. I was disappointed when I heard Oprah try to force Ted Haggard into admitting he was gay. There are so many nuances that we typically ignore. I have previously argued that sexuality exists on a continuum. Ted Haggard isn't gay. He loved his wife and kids, and from all accounts, had a great sex life. Can't we (liberals and conservatives) get beyond labels to have an intelligent conversation about life's nuances?

If we do exist on a continuum, that means many people are dealing with these issues. Think about how many young women now consider themselves bisexual, or at the very least, make out at clubs with their female friends. Because we all get so much of our identity from sexuality, these issues obviously affect our lives deeply.

What struck me most about my conversation with Jerry was how much he deeply cares about the gay population. He's not trying to "fix" everyone or "force" anyone into changing against his will, he simply wants everyone to live the life God intended. Jerry admitted, if that means two people live happily ever after as a gay couple, then so be it. It's not his job to judge. He simply wants to offer people a safe place to seek help.

Jerry actually cares about gay people. I'm not sure how many Christians can honestly say that. Most seem to be angered or offended by homosexuality. They rage against gay marriage because it somehow messes with their personal ideology. I have never understood why Christians care so much about this particular issue. We don't hold rallies to outlaw drunkenness or greed. And, seriously, gay marriage will ruin the sanctity of marriage? I think adultery and divorce already have that covered.

When we get angry or offended by someone else's "sin," it's more about our own insecurities. But when we actually love other people, we feel compassion for them. We point out sin not because it feels good to be right, but because we want the best for their lives. This is a key difference that Jesus lived, but so many of us are missing.

I don't understand why we (by we, I include myself) bash people like Jerry. (Well, okay, I do understand ... we're uninformed.) And I don't understand why Prodigal Ministries doesn't have a bigger platform. More than almost anyone else I have ever encountered, Jerry is living like Jesus. He isn't settling for either extreme. He refuses to be polarizing. Instead, he tries to love people into a deeper relationship with Jesus, and through that deeper relationship, he trusts God will heal those who desire wholeness.

That seems better than blindly bashing gay people. And it seems better than an "anything goes" mentality.

So, where does this leave me ...

First, I honestly don't believe homosexuality was part of God's original design for humanity. Biologically, it just doesn't make sense. My boy part goes into your girl part, and we make babies to perpetuate the species. (That is a sample of my wedding night dirty talk, Liz.)

Second, I do believe there are many gay men and women whose sexuality has been distorted in unhealthy ways. I encountered multiple people at the gay bars who are likely trapped in destructive lifestyles. As an observer, their behaviors seemed way outside of God's will for their lives. Not because they are attracted to people of the same sex, but because those attractions seemed to be manifesting in bizarre ways.

But ...

Walk into any straight bar in this country, and you'll find heterosexuals engaged in similar behaviors. Billions of people use sexuality to find power, happiness, self-worth, and intimacy. Maybe homosexuals are more vocal about it (and I believe they are; sexuality becomes a huge part of a gay person's identity), but heterosexuals are equally screwed up.

One of the arguments against gay marriage is that gay men only want to have sex. They don't care about monogamy. And your point? That sounds like 99 percent of the straight men I know. If women thought about sex the way men do, every straight bar on this planet would look exactly like gay bars. Society would collapse because we would have sex all day, every day. And while that sounds fun on some level, I believe God had a plan when he created men and women to think differently. Both sexes obsessed with sex = society falls apart. Neither sex obsessed with sex = the species dies out.

So, I do believe there are gay men and women who struggle with their sexuality and could benefit from counseling. Just like most straight men and women I know. But many people also believe some percentage of the gay population was born gay, so what do we do about them? What about the gay men and women who want nothing more than a loving, committed relationship? What about people who feel perfectly comfortable with their sexuality, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum?

That is why I will continue being vocal about gay rights, but I hope to mature in my rhetoric. You can't force anyone to pursue sexual health. If a gay man or woman really feels like his or her sexuality is destructive, then God bless organizations like Prodigal Ministries that help them deal with those issues. But if a man wants to spend the rest of his life with another man, who are we to stop him? If that man loves his husband to the depths that you love your wife, why is that wrong? To refuse them the same legal rights as heterosexual couples still seems oppressive.

With all aspects of my life, I want to keep pushing into the "third way" that seemed so natural for Jesus. Not blindly accepting everyone's dysfunctions, because many people are hurting and desire something better for themselves. And not blinding judging those outside of my personal ideology, because all fall short and are in need of God. When we love people the way Jesus loved, it becomes about them, not us. We weep for the lost instead of taking pleasure in their pain.

Would Jesus hang out in church and celebrate gay marriage being defeated in California or Maine, or would he mingle with the crowd of mourners, offering love and compassion to those who weep?

Jesus got it right. Most of us get it wrong. I want to be more like Jesus.

One final thought about Jerry Armelli and Prodigal Ministries. In the past, I have always thought organizations like his were about forcing people to be something they aren't. But I was wrong. It's not a denying of self, it's the revelation of true self. And if I understood Jerry correctly, if that true self really is a healthy, loving homosexual, then so be it. But if not, Jerry's waiting to help you discover the person God created you to be.

Not a bad prayer for all of us to pray.

And now, with God's help, I shall become myself.