You may well have heard about the closing of Exodus International earlier this year. It came as a surprise to me, although I’d heard an ever-more-confusing message from their leadership for about a year prior to the announcement of their closing down. During that time I’d become more aware of the disconnect between those of us who have experienced some type of satisfaction in seeking change through the ministries affiliated with that network, and those who left disappointed, at times bitterly so.
My exposure to individual ministries within the Exodus network was limited – I did not travel the country, or the world, to see what each one was doing. I did briefly visit one affiliate in Ft. Lauderdale, and knew through attending several national Exodus conferences how some were set up. But, I could not speak to what many other people came across in seeking counseling at other places.
What I did find at Harvest USA was a caring, down-to-earth, humble, open-minded and Biblical approach. I wonder if this was a rarity in the Exodus network as a whole, or if there has been mass miscommunication / misunderstanding, or some other combination of factors that have left people with the impression that seeking change is some kind of joke, or worse? I’m not sure if I’ll ever know. Thankfully the counsel I received at Harvest USA was solid, and in this post I’ll write a bit more about that, as well as other counseling I continued to pursue later on. I hope that people will be motivated to give Harvest USA a fair shake, and perhaps help some people to discern more quickly if the counseling they are considering would be worth investing in.
I first came across Harvest USA in a church bulletin (which I still have). There was a note requesting prayer for various ministries that Tenth Presby. Church of Philadelphia supported, and that day in 1991, they mentioned Harvest. I almost jumped out of the balcony w/ joy to see that this church, within walking distance of my college dorm, supported such a thing…that such a thing even existed! After gathering my courage I called and set up an appointment to meet with John Freeman, who was the Director there.
John was a tall man, dressed in a sweater, which fit the cozy wooden trim of the row home where their office was at the time. He had a hint of a Southern accent, with a soft voice that was a great contrast to the nasal tones of most of the surrounding Philadelphians. I was looking for 1:1 counseling with someone there at Harvest, but John was prodding me to try the support group for women that would be kicking off again soon.
“What a stupid idea!” I thought to myself, “Some man must have come up with that format.” To me, putting a bunch of women in a room together to listen to one another’s sob stories was a recipe for disaster. I didn’t want to become more drawn to women than I already was! But, I agreed to try on one condition – that I would be allowed to interview the woman leading the group. If she was really with it, I figured I could buckle down and concentrate and give it a go. John politely agreed to my request. (Months later I learned that meeting with the group leader was a prerequisite for everyone interested in joining the support group…nice one, John.)
Through the years I’ve come to see that some people are gifted at counseling, and I am not one of them. I believe that it takes a lot of restraint, wisdom, and trust in a God who is always working, even when we can’t see Him, to be able to help someone find their own way through the obstacles in their path. The woman leading our small group that year was one of those people. When I came to the first meeting, there were 25 or 30 women crammed into the room. “This is not going to work…too many for a small group,” I thought. Our leader went over some general guidelines, and passed around a paper to sign stating that we would do our best to live up to what she’d outlined.
It may be terribly old-fashioned, but when I sign my name to something, it carries weight. To me, if I don’t follow through on whatever I’ve agreed to with my signature, I feel as though it degrades my name. I want my name to be worth something, to be reliable – or rather, for it to reflect me as someone whose character is trustworthy. So signing that paper sealed it for me…I knew that if I started to drift off course, that I would remember that I signed something staying I’d stay on track. Again, it might seem super corny, but that was a safeguard for my mind.
The next week, there were only about 10 or so women who returned to the group. Someone asked where everyone else was. Our group leader said that the drop-off in attendance happened every year. There was always a large group that seemed interested – some women would say that they wanted help, and came back for just that first meeting every year, then would disappear until the next year. It reminded me of the first year I went out for track at high school. That first week, the large number of girls that were there, stretching out and warming up for our workouts took up almost the entire football field. The second week, less than half returned.
Sometimes it’s the realization that reaching your goals will take actual work that puts people off. In track, our coach would have everyone do a mile long jog around the perimeter of our athletic fields to start off each practice session. The sprinters freaked out – they thought they were going to die before they made it back to the track. And that was just the warm-up! No matter how much they pleaded and begged, the coach insisted that they would and could complete a mile. Eventually, some of them got pretty good at it. I used to tease anyone who came up near me or who passed me that they would have a tough time finishing the rest of their practice if they were going to take on the distance runners in the warm-up. But it was in jest – it was very cool to see the difference a few weeks could make.
Sometimes I think people thought they were ready for the challenge, but inside they actually they were not. There is much to leave behind – and no guarantees of what may be ahead. And for some, they went to the first meeting to see who else might be there, and got together afterwards and laughed about it all. (Why someone would go out of their way to do that, I’ve got no idea.)
So after the group was pared down, we settled into a routine. We’d share how we were feeling and/or what things were going on in our lives that particular week. Then we’d cover a topic and discuss it. Then we’d share things we’d like prayer for and we’d pray together before we left. Pretty basic. The lady leading the group would give us a bunch of hand-outs from a variety of sources – books on codependency, or addiction, or self-discovery type of resources. They had a lot of open-ended questions with plenty of open space to write our thoughts between them. We were free to fill in anything that seemed to hit us where we were at, or to just leave it all blank.
There was no sense of a particular method or formula to follow. The topics we covered ranged from emotions (I.e. – anger) to upbringing (I.e. – relationship with one’s father) to who we knew God to be. Sometimes the topic that week didn’t mean much to me, other times it was very relevant. I loved filling in the questions, just to see what I could learn, and because I’m a nerd. Other women, I learned later, thought the hand-outs were too rudimentary, and got more out of the interactive discussion and prayer time.
One week a lady came in and shared with everyone that she’d had a marvelous affair over the weekend with a beautiful woman, and she didn’t feel bad about it one bit. The rest of the group froze – we looked at one another out of the corners of our eyes. I thought, “Here it comes. Everything here has been comfortable, kind, gracious and loving, but now we’ll see how it will all hit the fan.” I braced myself for the lashing and looked at our group leader. “What were you feeling in the days before that happened?” she asked. “I was feeling great! Before and afterwards!” was the reply. And then…nothing. Our group leader asked her if there was anything else she wanted to share, without a hint of a negative or condescending tone. The woman gave a self-satisfied, “Nope,” and we continued on.
The rest of the meeting that evening, I listened for the catch – I thought that the group leader was saving up for some dig, or jibe – a beautifully constructed guilt trip woven into the topic at hand…but it never came. She just let it go. I couldn’t believe it.
Eventually we came to the end of the discussion and went around the circle to share prayer requests. When it came to the woman who had boasted of her fabulous weekend, she said that she realized that she shouldn’t have done that, and that she was going to break off all future plans with the woman she had been with. And she asked us for prayer. The rest of us in the group froze again – we looked at one another to try to find some hint of how that sudden turn-around came to be. And we looked at the group leader – who did not give a hint of gloating or smugness, nor of great relief – just grace, and peace.
In thinking over this later, I guess that just the fact that the woman came to our group that day showed that there was some kind of tug on her heart, in her mind. Our group leader blew me away in how she let the Lord do His work, and didn’t even hint at trying to force anything on this woman. No manipulation, pleading, contriving – just grace and trusting in the One who knows us best and loves us most.
And that has left a huge impression on me to this day. In the group sessions I learned a ton about the deeper root issues that were woven together in my sexuality. Each week between meetings, I spent time before the Lord going over questions, allowing Him to search my heart and point to the things that needed to be weeded out, or confronted, or forgiven, or that I needed to be willing to trust Him with. I called it “devastating honesty.” But He was always there with me, and for me. It is really important to know that God is by your side, and on your side.
Then I could go to the group and know that I had a safe place to talk through what I was learning, that there would be people there who could be trusted to listen, who cared, and who would pray for me and with me. I’m very thankful that there wasn’t anyone there trying to force-feed a particular theory, or use threats or methods of negative reinforcement. People were free to come and to go. By the end of the year, our group had narrowed down further to about six or so. (Due to transportation issues, or an injury that occurred on vacation, etc.) I did meet one of the ladies in our group a few years later at the 20th Anniversary Banquet for Harvest USA in Philly. She came with her husband and it was great to meet him and to get caught up a bit.
The second year they moved the group to a different location and time, and as the meetings ran after the buses stopped for the evening, I couldn’t attend consistently. There was a different woman leading this group – and she was a tough cookie. But still I saw the trust that the Lord had each person in His hand – and there wasn’t any slacking off when it came to grace. I wish I could have gone the entire year, as I think it might have sped things up for me. But I was able to gather other resources – books, tapes of workshops that had been done at prior Exodus conferences, etc. And I finally had the courage to start talking to my friends, which helped to create a much better atmosphere for growth – where I didn’t feel so alone.
More to come about counseling in Part 2!