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2011 Daniel of the Year

Alan Chambers: Change we can believe in

2011 Daniel of the Year

Alan Chambers (Photography by Tom Mills/Genesis)

Editor’s note: WORLD named Alan Chambers its 2011 Daniel of the Year for his decade of work at Exodus International, a Christian organization founded to help men and women battling the sin of homosexuality. In the year after WORLD published this story, Chambers’ public statements about homosexuality shifted, and he led efforts to close Exodus International in 2013. Our detailed coverage of those developments can be found in the following articles: “Alan astray?” (Aug. 11, 2012, issue of WORLD Magazine), “The exodus of Exodus International”(June 20, 2013), and “Leaving Exodus” (July 13, 2013, issue of WORLD Magazine).

Since 1998 WORLD has selected a Daniel of the Year, one Christian from the millions around the world who have put their faith in God and gained the strength to stand up against ungodly trends (see WORLDmag.com/daniel).

Particular years suggest particular Daniels, and this year, with victories for gay-rights groups at high tide and marriage being redefined, is no different.

ORLANDO-Alan Chambers is in denial. It's a charge his critics level against him on a regular basis. They say that Chambers-a former homosexual who helps others struggling with same-sex attraction-is denying what comes naturally to him. Chambers wholeheartedly agrees.

"For Christians, every day we're called to a life of biblical self-denial," he says. "We take up our cross and follow Christ, and we deny what comes naturally." But he says denial isn't without reward: "Those who reject the concept of self-denial haven't reaped the joys that come with it."

Self-denial isn't a new concept to Chambers. The 39-year-old president of Exodus International-a Christian ministry that helps people struggling with homosexuality-grew up in a Christian home but embraced homosexuality as a teenager. But through years of an active gay lifestyle, Chambers couldn't shake the biblical conviction that what came naturally to him was also sinful. He didn't want to be gay.

Eventually, he embraced the biblical teaching that Christ could change his heart, and his sinful patterns, including homosexuality. It didn't happen quickly. "I didn't get a magic wand or a lightening bolt," says Chambers. "I got a very difficult, painful, blood-sweat-and-tears journey-and a Jesus who never left me along the way."

That journey began 20 years ago this past September in a Florida chapter of Exodus International, where Chambers first sought help. Ten years later, Chambers became president of the organization that's one of the largest Christian ministries to homosexuals in the country.

It's not an easy job. Part of Chambers' work involves treading into the lion's den of mainstream media outlets that scorn the notion that homosexuality is wrong. Critics have called him a bigot, a homophobe, and a spiritual terrorist. An online petition to ban an Exodus application from Apple's iTunes store earlier this year drew more than 150,000 signatures. Apple dropped the Exodus app, saying it offended large groups of people.

But there's something that angers Chambers' opponents as much as his belief that homosexuality is wrong: His message that homosexuals can change. That's not a new teaching in evangelical Christianity, but it might be one of the most radically unpopular messages in America today.

In a year that has brought the legalization of gay marriage in New York, the repeal of the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, and a decision by the Presbyterian Church USA to allow the ordination of homosexuals, Chambers has continued to champion publicly a historic Christian teaching: Christ can change the life of anyone who seeks Him-including a homosexual. Meanwhile, Chambers has issued an urgent call to evangelical Christians: Make churches places where anyone can find compassionate help-including homosexuals.

For bearing both of those messages in the face of fierce opposition for more than a decade, Alan Chambers is WORLD's 2011 Daniel of the Year.

If Chambers leads a nationwide ministry, you wouldn't know it by standing outside the Orlando headquarters where he works. After a handful of security threats from opponents in recent years, the Exodus staffers don't post a sign on the front door. They don't publicize their address. They usually lock the doors.

It's a striking contrast to an annual gay pride festival that drew 60,000 people to an Orlando public park last year. Two days before this year's festival was set to begin in October, a local alternative newspaper carried a front-page preview of the "Come Out With Pride" event. A large block-quote hailed the repeal of the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and declared: "Orlando's [gay] veterans and advocates, not content to simply celebrate the policy change, have begun to lay the groundwork for a new social order."

Inside a sparse conference room at Exodus headquarters that morning, Chambers wasn't discussing the festival or contemplating social order. Instead, his nine staff members were reading perforated cards with handwritten prayer requests sent to the ministry. (The cards come from a newsletter Exodus sends to its mailing list.)

On one card, a set of parents asked for prayer for their daughter to overcome homosexuality. Another offered the same request for a son. A third card came from a man asking for prayer as he and his wife raise their newborn child. "I've struggled with my sexuality all my life," he wrote. "Pray that I'll set a good example of holiness and sexual purity for my daughter."

Chambers prayed for the new father and asked that God would help people understand: "When we're pursuing You, You can't help but change us. ... When we become more like You, everything changes."

The marks of change in Chambers' life decorate his office: Framed photos of his wife of 13 years, Leslie, hang near pictures of Isaac and Molly, the couple's adopted son and daughter (both 6 years old). A pink, handmade card from Molly reads: "I love my daddy." A red card from Isaac includes a drawing and says: "Me and daddy ice skating."

Chambers takes homemade cards from his children and wife when he travels for work and displays them on the dresser in his hotel room. But he doesn't offer the cards or pictures as proof that he's not gay anymore. "My wife isn't my diploma," he says. Instead, he says he pursued marriage and children after his homosexual desires changed.

Gay websites sometimes mock Chambers' marriage as a sham. But during a long lunch at a nearby restaurant, the pair seemed like a happy, loving couple, and Chambers said: "My wife is every bit the object of my desire." A homemade card from Leslie on a coffee table in his office returns the affection: "To my lovely, faithful, handsome, wise, strong, helpful, fun, tough, well-dressed, loving husband. We love you, we miss you, pray for you, kiss you, count on you, and can't wait for you to come home."

Chambers knows this doesn't happen for everyone. He regularly tells audiences that marriage isn't the goal for those seeking to leave homosexuality, and he warns that finding an opposite-sex partner won't "fix" a gay person. Many who leave a homosexual life may decide never to marry.

So what is the goal? What does change mean? Gay activists regularly accuse Chambers of promoting a "cure" for homosexuality. Chambers offers an emphatic response: "What's our mission? It's not to fix people. It's to point them to Jesus. He's the one who changes people's hearts and lives." Indeed, Chambers often repeats what he wrote in his 2009 book Leaving Homosexuality: "The opposite of homosexuality isn't heterosexuality. It's holiness."

That's a crucial tenet in the message that Chambers promotes in writings, conferences, speaking engagements, and media interviews. He emphasizes the Christian teaching that homosexuality is like any other temptation that the Bible calls people to resist. He says he didn't choose his homosexual temptation, though he did choose to indulge it: "I chose to look at gay pornography, to go to gay bars, and to have sexual relations with other men." Eventually, he stopped indulging, but only because he pursued inward change through Christ and holiness in every part of his life-not just his sexuality.

If that sounds like lofty Christian language, the reality has been gritty, and the battle hard-fought. When Chambers first visited an Exodus chapter in 1991, he had already been praying for years that his attraction to men would go away. He remembers telling the counselor: "I want to be done with this in six months." Six months later, he says, "I was in a gay bar."

Eventually, his sister-in-law invited him to begin attending church again. He met people who "didn't look at me cross-eyed because of what I struggled with. They didn't think that my stuff was any different than their stuff. They were just committed to helping me like somebody helped them."

Friends in the church met with Chambers regularly, prayed with him, and even retrieved him from a gay bar on an Easter Sunday evening when they saw his car in the parking lot. When change didn't happen overnight, they didn't give up. Over time, Chambers' same-sex attractions diminished and he stopped indulging temptation. He still relies on the members of his local congregation near his home to encourage him and pray for him.

That experience has formed a core piece of Chambers' focus at Exodus: Get churches involved. Exodus maintains a network of about 256 local ministries and churches across the country willing to help people seeking to leave homosexuality. (They also help families with gay loved ones.)

The ministries are autonomous, though they do sign an agreement to affirm biblical principles when they join the network. And while Chambers is grateful for the counseling that he found at an Exodus chapter, he wants to refer more people to churches that can help people long-term.

"This isn't about counseling," he says. "This isn't about a 12-step group. It isn't about 90 meetings in 90 days. This is about what you do on the 91st day, and what's the 13th step. Because that's where you live your life."

That's where a church can be especially effective, he says: "It's not rocket science. You don't have to have a counseling degree to bring somebody to Jesus and walk them into a place of wholeness. But you do have to have a lot of patience because it's not going to get all cleaned up immediately."

Chambers says that kind of patience is lacking in some churches that have spoken the truth about the sin of homosexuality but have failed to extend Christ-like compassion to those struggling. "God is 100 percent grace and 100 percent truth," he says. "If we fail to represent any part of that then we fail to represent Christ."

Chambers' emphasis on church is a pointed answer to critics who say that Exodus is solely focused on reparative or conversion therapy-a counseling method that tries to help a person change his sexual orientation. Some of the Exodus affiliates do focus on reparative therapy, and Chambers says he believes it has merits: "But it's ultimately not about counseling. It's about a life of Christian discipleship."

That may be the point where Chambers' critics most misunderstand him. The concept of self-denial as a part of Christian discipleship doesn't make sense to those who believe that affirming self is the greatest good. Chambers knows it's a point that he can't make others understand: "I'm not the Holy Spirit."

But he also knows that while many embrace their homosexuality, others don't want to live with same-sex attractions, including people already in churches. He believes that Christian groups should be able to share what the Bible teaches about faith and sexuality and to offer compassion rooted in Christ: "Why shouldn't that be out there for people who want it?"

Most of his critics contend it's destructive. Websites like Truth Wins Out and Ex-Gay Watch have whole sections devoted to condemning Chambers and other ministries to homosexuals. They note that some prominent former leaders of Exodus have returned to homosexuality. Chambers acknowledges that many people do return to homosexuality, but he says that doesn't negate the validity of Exodus' message.

Others loudly disagree. The gay website Queerty described Chambers' message at Exodus as: "Advocating adults and young people (and their families) disavow the way their creator made them for a life of hating yourself so a man on a cross won't send you to hell. This man [Chambers] does not teach love and prosperity; he prescribes dangerous advice for malleable minds."

Activists regularly protest outside Exodus events, including a September event in rural Auburn, N.H., that drew about 90 protesters carrying signs with slogans like: "Conversion Therapy Kills," and "Exodus, Exodus, Quack, Quack, Quack/You Can't Change Gays and That's a Fact." When a group protested outside an Exodus meeting in Wheaton, Ill., in 2009, Andy Thayer of the Gay Liberation Network told the Chicago Tribune: "They say they 'love' us, yet their fake attempts to change gays into straights is rooted in their hatred of gay people."

And in an ABC News segment with anchor Brian Ross earlier this year, Ross barely concealed contempt for Chambers when he asked: "But you really believe that homosexuality is a sin?" (Chambers answered yes.) Ross later asked: "Isn't this a dangerous message you're sending?"

Criticism reached a peak last March when Exodus submitted an application to Apple's iTunes store that included a calendar of events and a link to the ministry's website. When Apple approved the app, a website called Change.org launched a petition to remove it from the store. The petition called Exodus "dangerous" and eventually garnered 150,000 signatures. Apple dropped the app. Christian author Charles Colson called the effort against Exodus "a bare-knuckled smear campaign," noting that one reviewer called Exodus "as dangerous to Christianity as al-Qaeda is to Islam."

But Chambers says it's most disappointing when the criticism affects Exodus' relationships with other Christian groups. Christian youth leader Dawson McAllister agreed to drop Exodus from his radio show's website and referral list last year when a gay activist complained to the Clear Channel radio station that carries the program. (The activist called the show's hotline pretending to be a confused gay youth, and the phone counselor suggested he call Exodus.)

Chambers said McAllister's decision to drop Exodus at Clear Channel's insistence was "astounding" because McAllister referred him to Exodus 20 years ago: "It's hurtful because he believes everything we believe, but he won't stand up for it." Tim Altman, CEO of the program, declined a request for comment.

Last July, news broke that Willow Creek Community Church had severed formal ties with Exodus in 2009. The mega-church with its 30,000 members and well-known pastor Bill Hybels didn't publicly specify a reason for breaking the longtime ties, but Chambers noted that the decision came after the gay-rights group Soulforce met with Willow Creek leaders. (Members of Soulforce visit churches and Christian colleges around the country, and the group's website says their mission is "changing the hearts and minds of religious leaders who engage in anti-homosexual campaigns.")

In an email, Willow Creek spokeswoman Susan DeLay said the Soulforce visit didn't influence the church's decision to cut ties with Exodus, but she didn't offer a specific reason for the decision. DeLay did say: "We do not believe same-sex attraction is a sin; engaging in sex outside marriage is. Willow believes marriage is ordained by God for one man and one woman."

Whatever the reason for separating from Exodus, Soulforce executive director Cindi Love wrote an editorial in July hailing Willow Creek's decision. Love said the group met with Hybels in 2008 and 2009 to encourage the church to cut ties with Exodus, and said that Soulforce was "celebrating today that Willow Creek has found a door in the wall of religious bigotry and walked through it in such a public way."

Despite the ever-widening torrent of criticism, Chambers says he remains dedicated to his work and ready to admit his own mistakes. For example, shortly after a Christian conference on homosexuality in Uganda in 2009 that included Exodus board member Don Schmierer, a handful of Ugandan officials drafted legislation to institute the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality."

Chambers condemned the legislation, but critics said he should have listened to pre-conference concerns about speakers at the event known for inflammatory language and views, and asked Schmierer to avoid it. Chambers eventually agreed: "I wish I had known the complexity of this initially and said [to Schmierer]: 'Don't do this.' But I didn't, and I'm sorry."

Earlier this year, after criticizing the "It Gets Better" campaign (targeted at gay teens) for using the character Woody from the children's movie Toy Story, gay blogs questioned Chambers' concerns for suicidal youth. Chambers backtracked, saying he shouldn't have criticized the campaign's use of a child's toy without affirming the message that gay teens shouldn't commit suicide. "Would I rather a kid choose life and be gay?" he says. "Of course, I'd rather him choose life."

Spending long days steeped in heated controversy would be exhausting to many, and personal threats might lead others to seek new work. Chambers says he's received a handful of threatening calls, including a message saying he should be killed for what he's doing. He maintains a substantial security system at his home and calls his wife when he's traveling to go over a security checklist at night. "I don't live my life in fear, but we're careful," he says.

Despite the pressures, Chambers remains notably upbeat and energetic. He bounds around his office and peppers his conversation with humor. And he doesn't worry about a climate that seems to grow increasingly hostile to his work. "For me to do nothing with my story is a waste of God's grace and His redemption and His mercy and all He did for me," he says. "It changed my life, and I've watched it change other people's lives."

At a Friday night regional conference, Chambers told the same thing to more than 100 people packed into a chapel at a church outside of Orlando. He had forgotten his notes for the evening, but he hadn't forgotten his message: "Is change possible? If you know Jesus, anything is possible."

Listen to Jamie Dean discuss this year's Daniel of the Year on WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.