In the pastoral foothills of North Carolina, nearly 2000 conservative Christians anxiously gathered this past Sunday in a school auditorium converted into a makeshift revival meeting. The make-up was as thick as the anticipation and the hairdos higher than the choir’s soaring notes. The standing room only crowd was whiter than a convention of ghosts and overflowed into an adjacent room with a big screen television. As the music played people held up massive Bibles and hollered and hooted as if they were in a heated competition for the Lord’s ear.
The clean cut and wholesome-looking families were not waiting on evangelical titans such as Billy Graham or Rev. Jerry Falwell, but on the somewhat obscure ex-gay leader Tim Wilkins, who directs Raleigh-based Cross Ministries.
The revival was a deliberate response to a provocative new ad campaign by the organization Faith In America, which challenges what it refers to as “Religion-based bigotry.” Faith in America is directed by Rev. Jimmy Creech, who was dismissed by the United Methodist Church for performing a commitment ceremony for a same-sex couple, and was founded by North Carolina furniture mogul Mitchell Gold, who had invited me to attend this event.
Rev. Wilkins confidently strode to the pulpit like an old pro, as a palpably nervous buzz ricocheted through the pews. The consummate salesman, he peddled more goods than a Wal Mart Christmas sale. While the ex-gays say they are too busy to keep reliable statistics or publish peer-reviewed studies, no one has ever accused them of sloth when it comes to penning books or recording DVDs.
In his sermon, Wilkins repeatedly made the stunning acknowledgement that people do not choose to be gay. Instead, he erroneously blamed homosexuality on a wide array of possibilities including the standard pseudo-scientific canards of parental abuse and dysfunction. To his credit, Rev. Wilkins confessed that his “theories” could not be applied to all gay people.
Equally surprising was that Wilkins unwittingly admitted that he was not cured, but merely suppressing his sexuality. He tried to spin this message by reducing the deep, intrinsic identity of “sexual orientation” to a nagging “temptation.” However, it was striking how after 30 years of ex-gay ministry and marriage, Wilkins was no more than a wink from a twink away from falling off the hetero wagon.
To drive home this point, he reiterated that he would not watch Brokeback Mountain because he feared that his resistance might melt like butter near a fire. I pointed out that as a gay man I have watched hundreds of heterosexual dramas and not once was enticed to become straight. Watching Pretty Woman, for instance, did not make me want to sleep with Julia Roberts. He had no answer for this.
Wilkins stressed that those who don’t become straight or successfully celibate fail because they are not sufficiently obedient to God.
From my experience this message is particularly dangerous. People who don’t “change” after long and emotionally draining efforts often think they have been rejected by a God who doesn’t hear their prayers while He helps others become heterosexual. This can often lead to low self-esteem, severe depression and even suicide.
The most constructive part of Wilkens’ message was that he frequently urged the crowd to love gay people and not harshly condemn them. Of course, his cynical reason was that this would only retard their progress on the path to salvation. Looking around, I could see that this notion of basic tolerance was a significant challenge to many in the audience who were brought up in churches where virulent homophobia was the norm.
This message was an improvement only in that audience members were now more inclined to biblically browbeat than actually beat homosexuals. The question is will this newfound “tolerance” wear thin when it becomes clear that the gays targeted for conversion can’t change?
Most significant, however, was when Wilkens asked the crowd if they knew someone who was gay. A sea of hands rose and the preacher remarked that when he asked this question ten years ago, less than 10 percent of audiences raised their hands. Today, he said, the number can exceed eighty percent of a congregation.
Here, in the foothills, it was becoming clear that the gay community had gained a foothold. The crowd was not there to gripe about homosexuals, but searching for ways to grapple with a loved one who had come out.
Following the service, Rev. Creech, Gold and I met Wilkens and his small ex-gay entourage at the Red Lobster for a late night dinner. Although we agreed on little, at least we were amicably talking. It seems that the love that dare not speak its name is babbling with a deep southern accent in the most unlikely of places.