Alternet has posted an article, “What Happened When Fundamentalist Christians Tried to ‘Cure’ Me of Homosexuality,” in which “a young gay man recounts his soul-crushing experience being ‘rehabilitated’ by the Christian Right,” taken from “My Nightmare Experience at Teen Challenge,” which was posted on the “Truth Wins Out” blog. (And is that right? Should it say “a young gay man” or “a gay young man”? Is it just a matter of preference or is there a right and a wrong way here? Who decides such things? Inquiring minds need to know.) Anyway, the author, James Voss, explains that he was sent to Teen Challenge to cure him of being gay, and—wait, no, that’s not right. Despite the misleading headline, it turns out Voss was convicted of a DUI and sentenced to rehab for his substance abuse problem. And, in a shocking development, it turns out that the people running Teen Challenge, an Assemblies of God rehab program, happen to believe homosexual behavior is sinful. Voss lets the reader in on this closely-guarded secret, along with the various forms of torture the folks at Teen Challenge used to try to cure him of homosexuality help him with his substance abuse problem.
**NB: This isn’t a post intended to address the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality; rather, it is about honesty and misrepresentation. If we are to have open and honest dialogue about sexuality, the very least requirement is that we be intellectually honest and forthright in our representations of both ourselves and those with whom we disagree. As you will see below, I do not believe Voss’ article meets this minimum requirement for civil dialogue, as it seems to be misleading throughout. We can do better than this.**
Voss begins his story by explaining that he had been raised in the Assemblies of God church and actually attended an Assemblies Bible College (North Central University), intending to become a youth pastor, until he decided to “admit [he] was gay” and left the school in his third year there. He explains that his parents rejected his lifestyle and that he took to bar-hopping and eventually got busted for a DUI and chose to go to Teen Challenge to fulfill the terms of his sentencing. Well, actually, he kind of danced over that part, instead giving the impression that he was forced into the whole thing. In contrast, Teen Challenge’s website FAQs explain:
Can a person get court ordered to go to your program?
Approximately 15% of our population nationwide is court ordered into our program. However, because of our faith-based nature, the court is required to give the individual a choice, (i.e. do 12 months in a correctional facility or complete the [12 month] Teen Challenge program.) It is important that such a person understand that biblical principles are fully integrated into the program at Teen Challenge.
So, what we have so far is a guy who was raised AG, went to an AG college, and knows as well as anyone what Teen Challenge represents and teaches, who voluntarily chooses to go through the Teen Challenge program as the best option for fulfilling the terms of his sentencing for a DUI. This is starting to sound a bit different from its initial billing. From here, Voss begins to recount the horrors he faced at Teen Challenge, which he describes as “a 12-18 month program that serves drug addicts, alcoholics[,] gang members, prostitutes, and people dealing with the life controlling problem of same sex attraction and addiction.” (Incidentally, Teen Challenge’s website makes no mention of this last group.)
In the four months I lived at the teen challenge center in Muskegon Michigan, all personal decisions were left to the director of the center who was guided by a stern handbook that consisted of 111 individual rules and guidelines. …
Hmm. This is sounding an awful lot like a rehab center so far, where the folks running it are indeed the absolute (court-ordered) authority.
In the program, we were not ever allowed to look at females directly. Men and women had to sit on separate sides of the chapel and if a woman was singing or giving a testimony she did so behind an office cubical wall so that only her eyes were visible.
So let me get this straight: Voss is complaining about having no access to contact with the opposite sex as a part of an attempt to cure him from homosexuality? I’m not sure I understand. Either way, it must have been horrible to have been in a single-sex environment for four whole months, especially for someone who identifies as a homosexual.
Daily life consisted of chapel, bible classes, work duty, and two hours of praying on your knees. You physically had to kneel or you got in to trouble. Students were not allowed to talk about addiction or in my case homosexuality. Instead, you were only to think and talk about God and the scriptures that they had you memorize and meditate on.
Hmm. Again, this is starting to sound like the kind of regimented life one might expect at a rehab center. Odd. And he wasn’t allowed to talk about homosexuality at all? Does this mean the focus was on something other than homosexuality all along? How exactly is this a “nightmare experience”? I was expecting waterboarding or something along those lines.
One of the stated program goals was to reprogram or recondition the mind, because as they taught, human nature was evil and your mind was naturally wrong. We were all born sinners, they claimed. So, for a gay man to bring up that he was born gay was stating the obvious, because the program directors believed that we are all born into sin. “All man has fallen short of the Glory of God”, they preached, while they taught that all Christians are at war with their own flesh and blood. (I have included a link to the daily schedule so you can get an ideal of how regimented it was.)
To put this another way, they refused to differentiate between his homosexuality and any other aspect of what they regard (right or wrong) as fruit of a fallen nature. So, right in the middle of the article, Voss concedes that he was in no way discriminated against for being gay. Rather, he was treated just like everyone else at a Teen Challenge—as a sinner who has lost control of his life to addiction, in need of a transformation from God with the help of people who see this as a way of living out their Christianity.
By looking at the curriculum we can get a quick glance at what was covered in the three daily bible classes. In the first 14 weeks I was exposed to classes on attitude, growing through failure, temptation, anger and personal rights. We were told that we signed all our personal rights over to God and the pastors at the center when we entered the program.?Learning at the center was mostly done through rote memorization. Workbooks for classes had places where critical thinking could potentially take place, but students were expected to just memorize the correct answer and fill it in.
While living at the center, all conversations are monitored for ungodliness, all mail is read, and phone conversations are limited to five minutes every two weeks. No mail or phone conversations are allowed in the first four weeks that a student is attending the program. This is done largely because by the fourth week in the program, students are broken down enough that they no longer think for themselves and respond in a programmed way. Parents probably do perceive a change in their child, but is it real or simply a programmed, conditioned reaction to subverting and suppressing all individuality and critical thinking skills?
Uh, has this guy never seen 28 Days? Here’s Wikipedia’s brief summary of the first part of the movie: “Gwen Cummings [Sandra Bullock] borrows the limo at her sister’s wedding after ruining the reception with her drunken antics. She crashes the limo while she is on her cell phone trying to find a cake to replace the one she destroyed. She is given a choice between jail or 28 days in a rehab center. She chooses rehab. However, she is extremely resistant to taking part in any of the treatment programs they have to offer, refusing to admit that she is an alcoholic…” (my emphasis). The whole movie centers on Gwen’s (initial and prolonged) resistance to all the “stupid rules” of her rehab program and her refusal to accept help for her problem (which she refuses to admit she has). As I read through Voss’ article, his complaints about the schedule, the classes, and how the program breaks students down, sounded remarkably like the complaints of Bullock’s character in 28 Days. For what it’s worth, the rehab clinic in the movie is by no means faith-based; it just (like every other rehab clinic) held to similarly rigid rules and a regimented schedule just like what Voss complains about.
So far, none of this sounds out of the ordinary for a rehab center, minus Voss’ complaints about what these people actually believe—THINGS HE ALREADY KNEW BEFORE HE EVER ENROLLED IN THE PROGRAM. There is no mention of whether the program had any positive impact on what he was actually sent there for—his substance abuse problem, but I suspect he was less than a model student in the program, steadfastly resisting every step of the program, since he had decided beforehand that their worldview was aberrant (despite signing a statement upon entrance to the program to the contrary), simply because they also believed that his homosexual behavior to be sinful. Thus, according to Teen Challenge’s own teaching, his participation in the program would likely be ineffective. What Voss did get out of the experience, however, was the opportunity to write a less-than-forthcoming article about these awful “fundamentalists” (more precise to refer to the AG as Evangelical Pentecostals).
Programs like this negatively impact a high number of gay youth. I can state from firsthand experience that Teen Challenge did some long-term damage to my self esteem.
“Damage to my self esteem”? I’m pretty sure he didn’t get sent to rehab to help his self esteem. No, he was there because he could have killed someone by driving under the influence—and because he (knowing what they represented and taught) volunteered to go there upon being presented the option. Voss’ presentation is thus disingenuous from the start. He purports to tell a story about how nasty “fundamentalists” did “long-term damage” by trying to “cure him of homosexuality.” Instead, the story amounts to little more than complaints about drug/alcohol rehab with an additional “and they believed homosexuality is sinful!” attached to it. Nothing more, nothing less. As such, the article contributes nothing productive at all. But I do hope the program had some positive impact on what Voss actually was sent (and chose to go) there for.