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Exodus International celebrates 30 years of helping thousands of gays

Alan Chambers was a youth pastor's "dream kid": president of the youth group, a member of the youth choir, sure to be at church every time the doors opened. He was a role model to other kids and a trouble-free son to his Christian parents. But Mr. Chambers, now 33, was also the keeper of a dark secret.

Behind the veneer, Mr. Chambers struggled with homosexual impulses. By middle school he was acting out on the impulses, though he knew his actions were wrong: "I knew that I knew that I knew that what the preacher said about homosexuality being a sin was true, but I still struggled."

He sought connections and male affection through homosexual encounters in middle school, high school, and part of college, but that activity "never met the need I was looking for it to meet." He tried to conceal his secret, but when Mr. Chambers was 18 an older brother "asked me if I was gay, and I said yes." He agreed to attend his brother's church and found what he was looking for: connection in a meaningful relationship with Christ and other believers.

Mr. Chambers also found help in dealing with his sinful habits through a Christian counselor recommended by his church. "I repented and I got help," he says. "Fifteen years later I'm not the same person that I was."

He was recounting his story in the bustling lobby of a mountain retreat center in Ridgecrest, N.C., where more than a thousand people gathered July 19-23 to begin the 30th anniversary year of Exodus International, the largest Christian ministry for homosexuals and former homosexuals in the world. Mr. Chambers is the organization's president.

In the same lobby, Mr. Chambers' wife beamed while introducing the couple's two adopted children: a bouncing 5-month-old son and a sleeping 11-day-old daughter decked out in pink. Mr. Chambers calls his wife his "biggest supporter" and revels in the hard-fought freedom he's discovered over the last 15 years. He says "hundreds of thousands" of people have found similar freedom over the last 30 years.

Today, Exodus has 130 member ministries all over the country, but it began in 1976 through the work of 62 men and women who had come out of homosexuality in the years following the sexual revolution of the 1960s. They found that the freedom promised in "sexual liberty" was more like bondage, and they wanted to help others find a way out as well.

Exodus now fields more than 400,000 inquiries each year at its headquarters in Orlando. A staff member directs each inquirer to the member ministry closest to his home, where he can receive counseling and support. "The No. 1 call we get is from males struggling with homosexuality," says Mr. Chambers. "The No. 2 call is from parents who have a child struggling with it."

As Exodus continues to grow, so does the increasingly vitriolic criticism from pro-gay groups. Last week Salon.com launched a series on the "Christian netherworld of reparative therapy, a disputed practice to convert gays and lesbians into heterosexuals." The online magazine characterized ministries to homosexuals as "wrong," "bizarre," "potentially dangerous. "

Steven Fisher of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay activist group in the world, attacked ministries such as Exodus for purportedly "distorting the truth and scientific and medical evidence to move their political agenda forward." The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian magazine, charged that Exodus "claims to cure its members of being gay or lesbian."

Not so, says Mr. Chambers: "We don't believe in the word cure. We believe no one is fully cured of sin until the end of the Christian life." On the contrary, Mr. Chambers says Exodus emphasizes that dealing with homosexuality is a life-long process, like dealing with any besetting sin. "It's not something that just goes away instantly," says Mr. Chambers. "I do believe that God is a God who can do anything, but I don't think that He zaps us of our humanity."

Homosexuality as a life-long struggle is something that Cynthia knows well. (WORLD agreed to quote her without using a last name so as to protect her privacy and her job.) Cynthia, relating her story in an upstairs lobby at Ridgecrest, says she engaged in homosexuality for 10 years before converting to Christianity and determining to give up her sin. But though she found forgiveness, she didn't find immediate recovery.

"I was still very messed up," she says. Hoping to erase her homosexual inclinations, Cynthia married a man to whom she wasn't attracted. Meanwhile, her attraction to women didn't completely disappear. But Cynthia says she "cried out to God" and has remained faithful to her husband through their 29 years of marriage. She says she still has to work to be physically attracted to her husband, but "by God's strength I'm so happy that I gave up the lifestyle, and I would never go back."

Mike Goeke, executive vice president of Exodus, says he would never go back either. Raised in a Christian home, he says his struggle with homosexual desire began at an early age, "but I was a good Christian and I was determined not to act out on it." He says he resisted temptation through high school, college, and law school and then married Stephanie, thinking "marriage would heal me."

Mr. and Mrs. Goeke were active in their local church, leading Bible studies and other activities. On the outside, "we were the perfect Christian couple," Mr. Goeke says, but trouble was brewing and came to a head two years into their marriage with the acquisition of a common household luxury: "I discovered AOL."

Plunging into the world of gay chat rooms, Mr. Goeke "collapsed" into sin. On a November morning in 1996, he taped a letter for his wife to the couple's front door, telling her: "I'm gay, I'll always be gay, and I want a divorce."

A shocked Mrs. Goeke refused to file for divorce, believing God could save their marriage, but her husband quit his law practice, went to work for a gay decorator, and entered into a typical male homosexual lifestyle. Things seemed hopeless until Mr. Goeke's desperate father gave him a book called You Don't Have to Be Gay.

"I couldn't not read it," Mr. Goeke says-and by the end he saw that he should go home. His wife took him back and the couple began "the arduous process of rebuilding our marriage." The keys to that process, Mr. Goeke says, were relying on Christ and serving others. Eight years later, the couple rejoices in God's work in their lives and in their three children under four years old.

Exodus International has its long-time veterans as well. Nancy Brown and her husband were married the year Exodus began, not long after Mrs. Brown's husband had come out of a homosexual lifestyle. Nearly 30 years later, the couple still finds the support of Exodus helpful and wants to help other couples with their own experience.

"I want to be able to tell the women here with their husbands that they can come through this," says Mrs. Brown. "I want them to know that though they may have been surprised by their husband's homosexuality, it didn't surprise God."

Mrs. Brown adds that she is "the woman of God that I am today because I've walked through this." A pair of yellow and red wristbands on her right arm reminds Mrs. Brown of a friend struggling with cancer, and of friend in Iraq, but the bands also remind her of the grace and hard work of the last 30 years of her marriage. One wristband reads: "Live strong." The other reads: "Freedom isn't free."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.