There Is No Fear In Love: My Experience Trying to “Pray the Gay Away”

There Is No Fear In Love: My Experience Trying to “Pray the Gay Away” November 30, 2018

Me during Bible College with well-known evangelical pastor Thabiti Anabwele, who has written extensively against LGBT+ inclusion.

As I entered into the professor’s office, I was trembling. Dr. Rose was known to be one of the fiercest, most opinionated professors on campus who happily called out students by name in her classes for disagreeing with her political or theological views. I was being called in because she was “gravely concerned” about my presence at Moody Bible Institute where I was finishing up my Junior year of studies. I walked in and sat down in a chair in the corner of the dimly lit office, and Dr. Rose turned and looked at me with fierceness in her eyes. “You’ve gotten away with murder. I think they’re going to let you graduate, but I have been fighting it with all of my might. You are a deceiver, a liar, you are being used by Satan to lead a whole caravan of folks straight to hell. You should be ashamed. If you had any integrity at all, you’d drop out now and pay back your scholarships and move on.” 

“But, Dr.Rose, I don’t think you understand, I’m just trying to be honest. I’m still a Christian!” I responded, tears welling up in my eyes. “I just believe it’s okay to talk to people who believe different things that we do.”

Dr. Rose had called me to her office on this day because she had been told by another professor that I was struggling with same-sex attraction and on top of that had begun interviewing a number of popular well-known gay affirming pastors on my podcast and campus radio show. They believed I was going to start advocating for LGBT+ inclusion on campus and promoting theology that contradicted Moody’s official position, when in reality, I was still quite conservative and still firmly believed that my same-sex attraction was sinful. But simply because I was talking to people with different perspectives, I was deemed to be not just dangerous- but demonic.

“If you want to prove yourself to us, you need to start meeting with Dr. Gene, her office is right next door to mine. She practices healing prayer which God can use to heal you of your sexuality.” I quickly replied, “Of course, I’ll do anything”, and I really meant it. I was not trying to cause trouble, and I certainly didn’t want to lead myself or anyone else astray. “And here is a book I want you to read and report back to me on. It’s by the leading therapist that deals with your issue.”Dr. Rose handed me a brick of a book called “Shame and Attachment Loss” by Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, one of the most influential reparative therapists in the country. “I’ll do it”, I said. “I’m really sorry, Dr. Rose.”She turned away from me and I fumbled towards the door of her office, visibly shaking with tears running down my face.

The next day, I had my first meeting with Dr. Gene, the professor who specialized in healing prayer. I had only seen her around campus a few times, but she struck me as a stereotypical lesbian- tall, athletically built, short hair, and a deep voice. I walked into her office, which was adorned with crucifixes and paintings of Christ on the cross. She closed the door gently and said, “It’s good to meet you, Brandan. I’ve hear you’ve been raising a bit of hell around here.” She smiled and laughed. “I really haven’t been trying to”, I said with a slight grin. “Moody can be a little intense sometimes. So, tell me, why are you here?”For the next half an hour, I shared about my upbringing with an abusive alcoholic father and an over-attached mother, I spoke of my same sex attractions and my struggles with masturbation. I poured everything out for Dr. Gene, deeply hoping that she could offer some assistance to me.

As soon as I finished, Dr. Gene looked at me again with a gentle smile and said, “Do you mind if I lay hands on you and pray?”  I nodded. She then led me in one of the most profound prayers I have ever experienced. “Brandan, as we sit in the presence of God, identify a time when you were an infant where you were neglected.”  I imagined a scene my mom had told me about, where I was left crying in a crib for hours while my dad was passed out drunk. As I conjured up images of that scene in my mind, Dr. Gene prompted me to imagine Jesus stepping in to my room, lifting me up out of the crib, and embracing me in his arms. “Can you feel his heart beating against your body?”, she asked. “I can. I feel so much peace” I replied. She then prayed for God to pour healing into my young soul, to break the chains of pain and generational curses that were upon me, and begin restoring me to be the whole man I was meant to be.

Towards the end of the prayer, Dr. Gene reached for a bottle of water sitting on her bookshelf. She said, “Do you mind if I use some holy water?” I was taken aback. We were a conservative Baptist college who was decidedly anti-Catholic. We didn’t use holy water. But, being the edgy boundary pusher that I was thought it would be a cool experience. “Sure”, I replied. She poured water on my head and declared that I was clean before God and that my chains were being broken. She invited me to renounce all of the demonic spirits that were trying to overcome me, “Repeat after me: I renounce Baal, Ashtoreth, the spirit of homosexuality, the curse of my father…” Moment after moment, I renounced everything she told me to, and as the prayers got more impassioned, I felt tingles all over my body. By the time she said “Amen”, I opened my eyes and had tears of joy. I felt like a new man. “Thank you so much, Dr. Gene” I exclaimed. “Anytime. Shall we meet at this same time next week?”I will be here!”

I left her office feeling on cloud nine, like God was actually going to heal me from not just my same-sex attraction, but all of the pain in my life. I felt like I had been saved all over again, and was so eager to get back into her office next week for more prayer. Every week, we would have a similar experience where I would share a little bit more about my “sin struggles” and Dr. Gene would open up to me a bit about hers, and we’d pray intensely for healing. A deep relationship began to develop, as you’d expect to happen with someone who you are sharing your most intimate thoughts and struggles with. Dr. Gene and I began to text outside of class, whenever I felt tempted by homosexuality or pornography, I would text her and she’d send me a powerfully worded prayer. She became an advocate for me with Dr. Rose and the Dean of Students who were keeping their eye on me as I continued to blog and podcast.

About four months in to my healing prayer treatment, I had what I called a “major stumble”. I had invited my best friend Max home with me for the holidays- we both struggled with same-sex attraction. One morning as we were waking up, we began to kiss and fondle each other. This lasted for all of five minutes, but as soon as we stopped, we both filled with dread. “What have we done?” I whispered loudly, so my parents couldn’t hear. “Let’s pray” Max said. We fell to our knees by the bedside and repented, begging God to forgive us and to keep us from this sinful behavior. As soon as we finished, I texted Dr. Gene to let her know what had happened and to ask her to pray. She called my phone and I explained the situation, she rebuked me firmly, told me to keep my distance from my friend for the rest of my trip, and prayed over me. When I got off the phone, I told Max what she had said and he agreed. We barley talked the rest of the trip, and anytime I got in physical proximity to him, he would turn and say, “Get away from me.”

I reflected on this experience for the next couple of days before we drove back to Chicago. What happened between us didn’t feel wrong, but I knew it was wrong because God’s word said so. The relational separation between us, the rebuke I received, it all seemed like a harsh overreaction. This whole thing felt off. But I couldn’t express that, and I fought against these thoughts in my head. “This is just the devil tempting me”, I deduced. But when we got back to Chicago, Dr. Gene told Max and I that we needed to deal with our sin more severely, so she booked us a session with one of the leading “healing prayer” practitioners at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, IL, the homebase of this healing prayer movement.

It was a cold, gray Chicago morning when Max and I made our way to the train station to go out to Wheaton. We didn’t say much to each other, and intended to keep our distance so as not to tempt each other to sin. I felt sick to my stomach the entire hour-long train ride to the suburbs, wondering what we were about to experience when we arrived at the church. When we walked into the large, empty church building, we were greeted by four individuals, including one of the most prominent authors and leaders of the healing prayer movement. They welcomed us and took us to a small office where they sat us next to each other and told us to describe, in detail, what we had done with each other, and our current sin struggles.

Max and I sat awkwardly in silence. “You want me to say this out loud?” Max said to the counselors. “Yes, unless we can name our sin, bring it into the light, there will be no healing”, one replied. He began to describe what happened at my house over holiday break in vivid detail. He then spoke of sexual tension that had been building between us since freshmen year, and his other struggles. I reluctantly followed suit, naming each of my struggles, my own emotions about Max, and my desire to be healed. They looked at us with concern. “You’re going to have to make some big changes, gentlemen. First, your friendship is over.” A knot formed in my stomach and a lump arose in my throat. I began to weep. Max was my best friend- he knew everything about me and I admired him so much. I wasn’t sure how I could continue to make it through Bible college without him.

Next, we’re going to spend some time praying for both of you individually. Brandan, come with me.”I followed a slender man with a salt and pepper beard into an adjacent office. He asked me to stand up tall, as he pressed his hand onto my back. He looked at me in the eyes and said, “Do you want to be healed?” I wiped away my tears, breathed deeply, and said “Yes, I really do.” His assistant grabbed a bottle of holy water and he began to anoint my head, praying that God would cleanse my mind. He anointed my chest, asking for God to cleanse my heart. He poured water on my pelvic region and prayed for God to heal my sexual desires. And out of nowhere he put his hands on my head and began to shout in tongues, an unintelligible “language” given to individuals by God. He vacillated between shouting in gibberish, and then renounced Satan and various demonic forces in English. I stood with my eyes closed shaking in fear. I didn’t feel God’s presence here at all. I didn’t feel like I was being healed. In fact, this felt demonic to me. This man didn’t know what he was doing. He had made me feel ashamed and uncomfortable. As I stood listening to him shout gibberish over me, I felt anger rising within me. This was absolute bullshit.

When they finally finished praying, they dismissed Max and I and told us that we should plan on visiting them again soon. We walked quietly through the small town of Wheaton, back to the train, and headed back into the city. Max and I wouldn’t talk again for a few months. I entered into such a deep season of darkness- losing my best friend, who I loved so deeply, and beginning to realize that this healing prayer thing wasn’t working, and facing the fact that if I didn’t keep doing this, I would likely not be able to graduate. The pressure landed me in the hospital just a few weeks later after suffering a massive panic attack in the middle of the night. I awoke unable to breathe, overwhelmed with grief and shame, feeling like something must be deeply wrong with me for this not to work. All I wanted was to be faithful to God. All I wanted was to do what was right. But nothing seemed to work. Nothing seemed to help.

I continued to meet with Dr. Gene every week, trying to be authentic in our sessions, but growing increasingly cynical with Moody and this whole process. She could see that something was off, but continued to pray, anoint me with holy water, and hope that God would do something to heal me. By the time May rolled around, Dr. Gene had assured me that when she was asked about whether I should be permitted to graduate that she had given her endorsement, but that she remained concerned that I hadn’t experienced more healing or progress. During our graduation ceremony, Dr. Gene prayed final prayer over the graduating class, and I felt like she was looking at me the entire time: “God, keep them from the snares of sin, and lead them into wholeness and holiness”, this had been my hope and my desire. But nothing about my experience seemed to have been holy or leading me toward wholeness- the rejection and demonization by professors and students alike, the consistent shaming of me for my attractions, the destruction of my deepest relationships had pushed me further from God and had made me more cynical towards evangelicalism than ever before. My faith was in shambles, and I feared that my life would soon be as well.

Six months later, I had moved home to Washington D.C. and had taken a job for a new organization called “Evangelicals for Marriage Equality”, a group advocating for civil marriage equality among evangelicals. In my time out of school, I had discovered that there were large groups of Christians that were much more gracious, kind, and affirming of who I was even as I continued to wrestle to reconcile my faith and sexuality, and had become passionate about seeking to bridge the divide between the LGBT+ community and evangelicals. As stories about my work began to surface in the national media, I began to hear from students and professors at Moody.

Dr. Rose spent half of the class warning us about you today, Brandan”, one student texted me. “For what? Arguing for civil rights?” I responded. I was familiar with the way Moody demonized students who left their campus and then didn’t continue to align with their social and theological views. I just hoped that students would be wise enough not to buy into whatever demonization narrative was being spun about me. A few days later, I opened up my inbox and saw a name that made the color drain from my face. It was Dr. Gene. The following is an excerpt of that email:

Hi Brandan,
The last time we talked you…acknowledged that you were slothful, and simply declined to exercise your will to stop sinning. You were dishonest about your commitments, among other things, hiding your commitment to heretical views. On atonement, for example. I wonder whether in your very expensive talks you tell the people how dishonest, cunning and manipulative you are. I wonder whether you tell them about your addictions and compulsions. I wonder whether you tell them about how actively you cultivate a sin life while being so inactive towards righteousness and how damningly lazy you are? Do you tell them how disinterested you are in the Word? Or how driven to power you are, desiring spiritual gifts for public display?So where exactly do the bridges you allegedly build lead?Certainly, you are a leader, Brandan. It is safe to say that in the current trajectory of your life you will usher many into a hellish existence. And when you need the blood of Christ to wash away your sins, where will you turn, now that you have renounced His redeeming and transforming work so thoroughly?I know you like to be coddled. True words feel so harsh to you. (This, of course, keeps the door to your personal prison locked.) Nevertheless, only one word makes sense to speak: Repent.”

As I read this email for the first time, I surprised myself when I didn’t experience anger. I wasn’t intimidated. No, as I read these words, I felt truly sorry for Dr. Gene. I felt sorry for so many of my professors at Moody. I felt sorry for those who had committed their lives to trying to pray the gay out of people. Every line of this email was infused with fear. This was the same fear that drove students and faculty to fear me talking to people with different perspectives. It was the same fear that caused me and Max to sever our relationship. It was the same fear that had landed me in the hospital. It was the same fear that made me want to give up on faith altogether. And I remembered the words of Scripture in 1 John 4:16-18 which says:

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world, we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

Every attempt to change my sexuality was rooted in fear. Every harsh word and threat of expulsion emerged from a posture of fear. Everything about my faith as an evangelical Christian found its genesis in fear of hell, fear of judgement, and ultimately fear of God. But now, standing on the other side of these traumatic experiences and attempts to heal myself, I felt, for the first time, a deep sense of Love. Not sentimental love, but an enduring sense that I was embraced by God and that regardless of what I believed or did, nothing could separate me from this Love. I realized, for the first time, that the evangelical faith that feared difference and sought to change it was rooted in fear and therefore, could not be said to come from God, for “the one who fears is not made in perfect love.”

As I recount my experience trying to find healing from who God made me to be and as I hear the stories of individuals who went through far worse than I did, my heart continues to break. It breaks because of how deceived these Christians are who do not know the enduring Love available to them to free them from living in fear. It breaks my heart because of how many LGBT+ Christians end up destroying or ending their lives because of the pressure that fearmongering Christians pile upon them. It breaks because so many of these Christians will never get to experience the liberation that I have tasted by discovering the truth of the words written in 1 John- Love does indeed expel all fear.

The Love I share with my partners of the same sex is liberating. The Love I get to proclaim every week as an openly gay Christian pastor heals the deepest of wounds. The Love that I feel for myself, as a gay man created in the image and likeness of God has set me free from the chains of bondage and shame. The life I now live is filled with so much joy and peace- I feel like I’ve been born again. I only hope that those still living in the bondage of fear will taste of this Love and be liberated to be the people God made them to be, too.

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