Pray Away: a Film About Regret
As the years pass I think increasingly about the role of regret. I regret staying with my kids' dad so long, because of the toxicity our being together produced. I regret working as much as I did, though for many years it kept me sane. And I regret some of the positions I held related to faith, human sexuality, and gender. I'm far from alone in this experience. Parents of kids who come out as gay or transgender often look back with horror at the things they said or did in the early days of discovering the truth. For parents like them, and like me, only a few people were involved. For those in conservative Christian leadership positions, the souls impacted by condemning rhetoric are numerous. A new documentary on Netflix titled Pray Away unfolds the story of former leaders in Christian ministries designed to help people "escape" from the "oppression" of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The majority of the story is told through the voices of Michael Bussee, Yvette Cantu-Schneider, Julie Rogers, and Randy Thomas, all of whom were leaders in large conversion ministries. The timeline begins in the 1970s and culminates in the crumbling of Exodus International in 2013, one of the biggest of those organizations. Each voice adds to an experience which is both universal and unique; a desire to love and serve God, to be "good," and to avoid or escape a "perverse lifestyle." Each person describes feelings of being both manipulated and manipulative as they strove to build their organizations, recruit participants, and influence politics. And each describes facing the realization that what they were doing was creating deep and even catastrophic harm to beloved children of God.
One of the most poignant moments in the film took place when Randy described someone asking him what he thought about the blood on his hands. Randy replied he was afraid to look at them. The documentary reports that ~700,000 people have undergone conversion therapy so far. Not everyone survives. Youth who experience it are twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who do not.
When it comes to regrets like these, I was lucky. I couldn't envision a God who would roast people in a place of endless torment. My disapproval of anything other than cishet identity was tied to being outside an optimal design and therefore (I wrongly thought) was ultimately destined for unhappiness. I never preached hellfire and brimstone to or about queer people, and didn't use language like "perversion." Instead, I focused on apologetics stressing the loveliness of complementarianism. (Blech.) So while my rhetoric was never ugly, I was confidently dismissive of the lived experience of others, and superior in my opinion as a straight cisgender person. I simply thought I knew better than queer people did.
Even luckier, I didn't have a platform for spreading my particular brand of anti-queer theology. A few women in my weekly Bible study heard my lectures, but the handful of readers on my blog held similar views to mine. Because of these strokes of luck the harvest of regret I experience now is minimal in comparison to those experienced by Julie, Michael, Randy, Yvette, and so many others who look back with anguish. And still, my remorse is real.
So pray with me for a moment:
May the film open the eyes of those who continue the work of unintentionally breeding a culture of shame, self-hatred, and repression.
May the Spirit of love breathe truth and peace into the hearts of those who desperately want to please God.
May there be an end to the culture of rules as a means of righteousness, the religious mindset that Jesus tried so hard to tell us God didn't want.
May there come a day when no follower of Christ ever experiences the kind of regrets expressed by the heartbroken people featured in this film.
May those who rue trying to convert people from their true selves realize how deeply they themselves were deceived and are loved.
And may no more people die because of what a church community tells them about being gay or transgender.
If you're able, go watch Pray Away on Netflix. It has the power to change hearts and minds, and to save lives. The first two weeks of streaming dictate how widely it will be distributed. Watch, share links on social media, and urge those you know to do the same.
Like Randy, my hands are bloody. Let's do what we can to help others learn from our remorse.