Today we are at the 38th Annual Exodus International Conference…a place where we NEVER expected to be again. In 2006, at Ryan’s request, we went, with him, to the Exodus conference in Indiana. Ryan had asked to go for his 17th birthday in January of that year. We were THRILLED that he wanted to go – so agreed without trying to reveal just how happy we were (as if I could do that even if I wanted to – ha!). However, getting there didn’t go quite as planned.
Two weeks before the conference, on Father’s Day morning, when we stuck our heads into Ryan’s room to make sure he was up and getting ready for church, we didn’t see him. His bed was perfectly made – complete with military corners – and a note lay on his pillow. It said:
Dear Mom & Dad, I have run away. I just can’t keep trying to do this anymore. Please try not to worry.
I love you,
He was gone for almost two weeks. By the time we found out he was safe (and in Sea Island, Georgia), we had a brand new appreciation for the trauma parents of runaways go through…it is indescribably horrific. We changed Ryan’s tickets from a flight from Seattle to Indiana, to a flight from Jacksonville to Indiana. We didn’t know if he would come, but he did. After two weeks of doing everything a parent most fears that their teenager will do, Ryan showed up at the Exodus conference, more than a little bit intoxicated from a combination of drugs and alcohol. While riding from the airport to the conference on a shuttle filled with conservative Midwestern Christians, he gave Rob – loudly – the gritty details of all of his adventures, including descriptive tales of his first sexual encounters, his first time purchasing and using all kinds of chemicals and his confessions of what he had done to afford to buy them. Ryan was always brutally honest, and he made no exception on that day.
Looking back, we have asked ourselves whether or not we regret taking Ryan to that conference, knowing what we know now. I don’t think so. Do I wish that we, as parents, had responded very differently to our son? YES. YES. YES. But do I think that the 2006 Exodus conference inflicted additional harm on Ryan’s soul? Not really. He made dear friends there. He had deep connections with other young men who were asking the same questions he was, connections he kept, even through his years of addiction. His conclusions, after the conference, were about being MORE honest about his own journey, not less. And he shared deeply with us about what he heard God say to him while he was there. Ryan always loved Jesus and loved to worship, and he was able to worship there with his whole heart, surrounded by teenagers and leaders that he had been completely honest with…friends that didn’t doubt his love for Jesus when he told them he was gay.
I know some of you are asking…but didn’t it reinforce the message that he wasn’t okay, just as he was? Perhaps. But we had already succeeded in hammering that message in quite soundly. And the thing is…we don’t regret having “exposed” Ryan to reparative theories. We regret ONLY exposing Ryan to reparative theories – to being too fearful to expose Ryan to gay Christians on the other side of this issue, so that he, with the help of the Holy Spirit, could wrestle through this with God and listen to GOD’S leading. Ryan wasn’t stupid (anything but, actually). And he sought – passionately – the face of God. We didn’t need to be afraid of ANY viewpoint on this issue…because God was big enough – powerful enough – faithful enough to speak to Ryan. But we actually tried to prevent that – we shielded Ryan from all but one perspective, giving him the mixed message of “we love you unconditionally, but you really need to agree with us – you really need to have the same conclusions that we do.” THAT isn’t real love. And it sure isn’t an example of real faith.
In so many other areas of our lives as parents, we helped our children to make decisions – their own decisions – by allowing them to consider all sides of an issue, by encouraging them to pray and seek God for wisdom, and by creating a place of safety in which to question and figure it out. And, by truly surrendering our own agendas and choosing to defer to God’s. But we didn’t do that with Ryan when it came to his sexuality. And we regret it.
Yesterday was an amazing day for us…one in which we were blessed – over and over again, by the staff of Exodus International, who have welcomed us, and our gay Christian friends, with sincere, open hearts and genuine love. Alan & Leslie Chambers, Randy Thomas & Jill Rennick have gone out of their way to communicate honest gratitude for our presence. I haven’t had much extra time, but I have seen a few very disparaging (to put it mildly) comments from other Christians about Exodus, and specifically about Alan Chambers. Those remarks grieve our hearts. We wish others could see and know the Alan that we do. Over the years, as we’ve been on our journey (a journey that was quite different than his own), Alan has been nothing but gracious, supportive and loving to us. With all of our hearts, we believe that he is the “real deal,” a messy, broken and in-process Christian (just like me), who is one of the most humble and sincere people I know. He is seeking to listen to the Lord, and to obey Him, at great cost to himself, his career and his ministry.
After reading my blog “Just Because He Breathes” in the first week of June, he sent us this message:
Linda: I just read your post from December on your friend’s blog. Even knowing of Ryan’s death, reading your words crushed me in a new and deeper way. I feel so sorry. I wonder what I could have done differently for you and Rob and Ryan. I do know I won’t be the same having read what you wrote and inserting myself and my son into your story/reality. This comes at a time when I am making significant changes at Exodus. I’d actually love your input. Also, I am so very sorry for anything I might have done or said or led that caused you to reject any part of Ryan. My heart, stomach and head aches thinking of it all.
Alan is a dear brother in Christ whom we are honored. privileged and blessed to call our friend. Please hear me – I don’t want to invalidate the intense pain, anger and damage that many of our friends and family have experienced as a result of their encounters with Exodus International and its affiliates. You have VERY real hurts and deserve VERY real apologies. And you have the absolute right to be angry…really, really angry. I don’t blame any of the many LGBTQ people who are skeptical about the public apologies Alan has made. I haven’t experienced what they have. I won’t ever really know what their journeys have been like. I am a straight, Christian, married woman who has only experienced a tiny glimpse of the depths of the pain they have felt, through the lens of her son. And I am amazed by the grace and forgiveness shown by many of our gay Christian and non-Christian friends towards Exodus. But I don’t expect it. As we have learned in 30 years of marriage, trust and reconciliation take hard work and a lot of time.
But, as I am learning in my own life, people aren’t all good or all bad. Each of us are a mixture of both; we make tragic mistakes and we have great victories. We hurt people we love, both intentionally and unintentionally. But if that makes someone all bad, then I am, of all people, the worst. Because I have committed some horrible wrongs and have caused untold pain in the lives of others. I need grace. I want grace. I am DESPERATE for grace.
I want people to see through my mistakes to my heart – to know that I don’t intend to be malicious or hurtful…but that sometimes I am. I want them to believe that I don’t want to be jerk…even though sometimes I am. And I want to believe in others in the same way. And for us, this is easy to do in the case of Alan Chambers.
We’re all in a process, and honest process – and progress – is difficult, incredibly slow, and can look coarse and unkempt. Is Alan perfect? Of course not! For me, I would much rather have messy, imperfect friends who are willing to admit fault, keep learning and STAY in the process, allowing God to teach them, than people who have everything figured out. Because I sure don’t.
It is because of Alan that we were able to share the extended version of our “Just Because He Breathes” story at the keynote session of the Exodus Conference yesterday morning (if you’d like to watch it, it is posted below). It can’t have been a popular choice for Alan to make. Our presentation was not exactly what the attendees had expected when they registered and traveled from around the world to be here. But he invited us to come and share, completely unedited, anyway. Because he, and the rest of the staff and board of Exodus, believe, as we do, that far too many people have taken their own lives because of the culture of hatred and bigotry that the evangelical church in America has not only tolerated, but cultivated. We can be silent no longer.
It isn’t exactly easy or comfortable to be here, because we are sitting in the tension of all that is going on. Many people here are at a very different place in their journey than we are. Some attendees are very uncomfortable with what we shared, and some feel that we have completely compromised and are no longer committed to truth. It is hard…because a lot of Christians are unhappy with us, and after posting this blog, perhaps some of our gay friends will be disappointed, too. It is completely okay with us if you don’t agree, or you have a different perspective. We NEED different opinions and people to challenge us. But, as our beautiful boy Ryan once said, “Dr. Tom, please be gentle.”
We are so very, very thankful that Alan allowed God to use him to bring us here, so that we could share our story – a story of how God taught us to truly love our gay son, just because he breathes.
Note: I’ve posted the video of our presentation below. Thank you to Alan Chambers for allowing our story – Ryan’s story – GOD’S story – to get out.
Second note: if you are wondering why Ryan said “Dr. Tom, please be gentle,” it is because when Lindsey was 4, and he was 2, they convinced their babysitter that we allowed them to jump from our half-wall in the kitchen onto the nearby recliner. In attempting this feat, Ryan’s front tooth was jammed completely up into his gums. We had to call our friend Tom Marxen, who is a dentist, to open up his office for an emergency visit on a Sunday morning. As “Dr. Tom” was preparing to pull his tooth (the roots had fractured inside the gum), Ryan said, in the sweetest toddler voice, “Dr. Tom, please be gentle.” And his words often ring in my head when I hear others speaking harshly, or when I desire others to be careful and kind with me.