17 minutes reading time (3337 words)
JOURNEY Chapter 25
"A Victorious Failure"
BY JERRY MCKAY
After Colin’s unwanted sexual advance, one would think I would have fled Reading. Or, at the very least, pulled Keith, Colin’s colleague, aside and proposed an “I’m asking for a friend” scenario. I didn’t. Instead, I was completely silent. I did not speak to Sharon, Colin’s wife. I continued to interact with friends at Quest as if nothing were amiss. I did not call my parents or reach out to Perry who, of all people, expressed concern about my going to Reading.
As well, in the weeks that followed, I said nothing to a string of visitors. My college roommate Kelvin and his wife visited me. Robert came to Reading in the first week of July. My sister spent a week with me at the end of July. While each interacted with Colin, I was silent about the sexual abuse. In fact, I gave the impression that all was well.
Rather than confide in anyone or leave Reading, I continued to meet with Colin formally for counseling and informally in social settings. A relationship that was already multi-layered became even more complex.
Counseling was difficult to navigate. Some sessions offered moments of valid insight into an area of my life I could, in fact, work on. Examining my family history helped me see my father as a human being with all the foibles of any adult. Instead of hanging onto the need for dad to be the perfect attentive father I always wanted, I was starting to see him as an equal. In other sessions, we spent a lot of time putting out my psychological and spiritual fires. We frequently moved back and forth between talking about me, about him, and about us. Once, I was so distressed when I walked into a session that I said nothing for the entire hour. When the time was up, I left.
If I expressed frustration or doubt about changing my orientation, Colin would reinforce the idea that, like him “in the past,” I presently lived with two personalities. After any type of homosexual response, Colin suggested I defined myself only as a homosexual. But if, he insisted, I continued to put faith into action, in time, I would realize like he had that I was a heterosexual person by creation. Swinging between these two identities, he told me, was creating an emotional imbalance, a kind of anxiety neurosis.
Because of my belief system, I often agreed with Colin in the moment. In private, however, when I could reflect on what he said, I grew angry. Below the surface of my controlled exterior were an increasing number of how-dare-he dialogues. How dare he suggest that I was trapped in a world of dual identities and emotional imbalance, while being so blind to and dismissive of the imbalance he was living!
On one occasion, as if oblivious to the distress our sexual encounter caused, Colin casually suggested that we celebrate my body together—again. I say—again—because this was not the first time he suggested celebrating my body as a therapeutic technique for healing issues related to low self-esteem. Unlike the first time, when I reluctantly agreed to get naked with him in order to practice praising God for body parts about which I felt insecure, this time, with a hint of anger in my voice, I declined the “treatment.”
Despite the turmoil I was in, I often marked a new day as the day when I would commit to unearthing my heterosexuality. On good days, I created lists of things for which to praise God: new understandings of myself and the world; freedom from the fear of claiming a new identity; deliverance from powers that bound me; tomorrow’s victories and opportunities. I continued to transcribe prayers and worked hard at identifying the vaguest evidence of change. On bad days, when I saw no hope in becoming authentically heterosexual, commitment to change would collapse.
I still haven’t addressed the question of why I never broke my silence about the incident with Colin. Was I caught up in some type of Stockholm syndrome, as friends have suggested, where hostages or abuse victims bond with their captors or abusers? To whatever degree the answer was yes, I was captive to far more than Colin. The moment I read the Ministry magazine interview two years prior, Colin became God’s designated interpreter of scripture regarding homosexuality and my model on how to change my orientation. I am not being melodramatic when I say that God, my theology as I received it, and my commitment to my spiritual community were all implicated in any Stockholm Syndrome to which I was captive. They were inseparable in my mind.
I saw myself as a “companion” in “our” struggle to overcome homosexuality. “Our” sexual failure was “a victorious failure,” as Colin would have described it—a learning experience which was to be processed through faith. How could I turn in a fellow pilgrim on the road I believed few people were willing to travel? Even if I were exasperated and infuriated, turning Colin in would have been synonymous with betraying Jesus.
All of this being said, I don’t believe Colin willfully set up Quest to lure the naïve to Reading in order to take advantage of them. However, I believe he was captive to an ideological structure of his own making. For years, he had been reinforcing that structure. As a result, it now blinded him to obvious limitations of his move into a heterosexual experience and the seriousness of his actions.
In HA meetings, Colin said nothing explicitly about our “victorious failure.” Yet, in retrospect, I believe he talked about it frequently. One evening, Colin called us to regard sexual failures between Quest members as opportunities to confess, make amends, and move forward in faith. It was impossible for me not to hear a message about “us” in those comments.
In late June, Step Three of the fourteen steps of HA was the focus of another meeting. “We learned to see that there was a purpose in our suffering and that our failed lives were under God’s control, who can bring good out of trouble.”
That meeting became a litany of Bible texts that called us to suffer for doing what was right with patience (I Peter 2:20); consider trials with joy knowing they produce endurance (James 1:2-4); exalt in tribulations which bring about perseverance and proven character (Romans 5). I don’t cite these texts to mock them, because I continue to hold the notion of patience, endurance, and perseverance in high regard. Rather, I cite them to illustrate how scripture could be used to excuse a multitude of abuses. As insane as it sounds, in my state of mind, the sentiment in Step Three which echoes that of Romans 8:28—God causes all things to work together for good—included sexual failures initiated by my therapist!
In Growth Group that spring and summer, we worked our way through the book Dealing with Hurt and Anger—a topic from which I could benefit. Sadly, while I strove to understand how events from my past made it difficult for me to deal with intense emotions in the present, I shared nothing about my new source of hurt and anger. Perhaps that was because Sharon, Colin’s wife, often facilitated the group.
In late spring, I visited Washington, D.C. The sudden juxtaposition of being with friends I had worked with in Japan re-activated my habit of editing out significant aspects of my life. My heightened awareness of editing left me feeling secretive, if not deceptive. As well, touring the world headquarters of the Adventist church triggered unexpected anxiety and sadness. Although I was receiving letters from church leaders in Japan seeking information about my plans to return, I had not responded. Despite the sheer joy I experienced working for the church in Japan, I was ignoring those letters because I felt I couldn’t or shouldn’t return.
In response to this trip, I recorded some of my first serious thoughts about leaving Quest. I second guessed myself, constantly questioning whether God ever led me to go to Reading. Even though I had poured out my soul for guidance and taken a step of faith and put my foot in the River Change—my spiritual River Jordan—I felt I had made a mistake. Those misgivings were accompanied by doubts about the reality of recovery from homosexuality. I blamed this shift in thinking on a lack of spiritual stamina on my part—not on what was happening to me. “I am afraid to admit I have made bad choices; that ‘change’ is too much for me to obtain,” I wrote. Spiritually, I felt I had become the person the Apostle Paul spoke of in Romans 7:19—the person who continues to do the evil they do not wish while finding it impossible to do the good they long to do.
I mused about going to Toronto, as my sister lived there. I thought of returning to Ottawa had appeal because Robert was there. I was burdened, however, with not wanting to give people a negative image of Quest or the church. To the many “why” questions that plagued me for years, I added a host of “what” questions. What would my parents think? What would my support group in Ottawa think? What would I tell Perry? What about those who had given me money? To the shame I carried because of my orientation, I added the shame of being a spiritual failure.
Then, on Monday, August 9, Kinship came to town.
Seventh-day Adventist Kinship grew out of a series of meetings between several men who placed advertisements in The Advocate in 1976 seeking other gay Adventists. Within months, a rudimentary organization was formed. Chronologically, while Kinship and Colin’s ministry ran on a similar timeline, they were distinctly different ideologically. From its inception, Kinship members argued that the homosexual person could not become heterosexual, at least not in any lasting or authentic way. Both organizations gained the notice of the Church, but the Church endorsed Colin’s work while they regarded Kinship’s with suspicion, if not hostility, and saw it as heretical.
Following the practice of the church to hold yearly camp meetings, Kinship held its first national gathering in 1980. Kinship invited three professors from the Adventist Theological Seminary in Michigan and two pastors to speak at its Kampmeeting. The General Conference granted “permission” for these church employees to attend as long as Kinship would not claim their presence signaled the church’s acceptance of homosexuality. In addition, the church stipulated that Colin was to be invited in order to present his ideas about helping homosexuals find healing. Colin, Kinship, and the Church shared a history!
Without naming names, Colin had alluded to organizations like Kinship in the Ministry magazine interview. Colin spoke of “gay liberationists” as the “vocal element” in the Church. He described them as “self-affirmed homosexuals.” In the interview, Colin implied that such groups influenced those who are “seeking peace and equilibrium” regarding their orientation by encouraging people to accept an affirming posture. Included in those liberationists were “heterosexual individuals who are sympathetic to their lifestyle.”
In the summer of ‘83, Kinship held its annual Kampmeeting 20 miles from Reading. Ron, one of Kinship’s leaders, knew Colin casually and was following his ministry from a distance. He arranged with Colin for a group of Kinship members to meet with some Quest counselees. Colin agreed to this unprecedented meeting, hoping he could show to Kinship visitors that one could change their orientation, and that the Quest approach made it possible.
On that sultry August afternoon, Colin, seven of us counselees, and fifteen Kinship members sat shoulder to shoulder in a circle in Colin’s office. The mood was polite, but skepticism was as heavy as the Pennsylvania humidity.
For two hours, Kinship visitors listened while we shared stories about what had led us to Quest. Although we did not profess to have changed our sexual orientation, we spoke of ever-increasing change, growth, victory, and transformation. I gave as rosy a testimony as any. I said nothing about the sexual encounter between Colin and me. Nor did I talk about the anger, confusion, and distress I was carrying. Ever the optimist, I wrote that the meeting had gone “smoothly, and that it cleared up many misconceptions of Quest.” I noted, however, that the fundamental difference between Quest and Kinship concerning homosexuality and homosexual relationships remained unchanged.
All but three of the Kinship members returned to Kampmeeting that afternoon. Those who stayed sat in on an open HA meeting as observers. While I did not know what these guests were thinking about Quest, I knew I wanted to learn more about Kinship. I approached Ron after the meeting and told him I would like to spend some time at Kampmeeting. I confessed I had no money to cover costs because I could not work in the U.S. They invited me to attend as a guest. After a quick trip home for a change of clothes, I was off into the night.
I had to go. I could not pass up an opportunity to meet other gay Seventh-day Adventists. I know Colin was concerned. Besides potentially losing me ideologically to this group of “gay liberationists,” Colin knew I carried a secret.
Like any Adventist camp meeting, this one was full of workshops and discussion groups. I enjoyed the in depth presentations on the Bible and homosexuality, but I was already convinced that the so-called clobber texts said little about sexual orientation. Like Colin, or perhaps because of him, I was decidedly within the theological camp that focused on what I believed God intended for me as laid out in the Genesis creation story. Since God created Adam and Eve for each other—a heterosexual bonding—I believed God both called and empowered me to restore what God intended.
I was struck, however, by the personal stories. Whether in a sharing circle or in private conversation, testimonies of pain, rejection, and other abominable abuses perpetrated by family and friends were the norm. The struggles and disappointed expectations of those who were or had been married fascinated me even more. Although I knew otherwise, the idea still captivated me that Colin’s marriage was something unique, that he alone had achieved things others could not. Obviously, this was not the case. There were also stories of contentment and peace that came with self-acceptance. These stories created a disconcerting tension within me, a tension between my theology and experience.
I was most intrigued, however, by the heterosexual guests and what they had to say. Who were these church employees who came to minister to this group of self-affirming homosexuals? Even though I thought their spiritual experience was suspect—thinking they were on that slippery theological slope to perdition—they were more credible in my mind, and certainly less biased than the homosexual theologians.
Only one comment, shared in passing by one of the guest speakers, made it into my journal—the suggestion that my orientation might be a blessing or a gift! I might have encouraged a friend to believe that God could bring “gift” out of an illness or accident, but seeing my orientation as such took the concept to a whole new level. The idea was jolting. Hearing it and entertaining it were two very different things.
Helen’s presentation was enough to motivate me to seek her out for a private conversation. For the first time, I shared my very private ambivalence about staying at Quest. I’m sure Helen could sense how disappointed I was in myself, and the shame I felt over disappointing those in my faith community if I were to give up trying to change.
Without telling me what to do, this wise and sympathetic woman gently reminded me that it is hard to go out on a limb with personal growth when God and our religious community are so tightly enmeshed. “God is God,” she said. “If you leave God, God is not destroyed.” By “leaving God,” I understood her to say I needed to let go of my very certain notions of what God wanted for me and might expect of me. God could free me from my bondage, but I needed to be sure I was, in fact, handing my entire experience over to God, daring to trust where God might take me on my journey.
That conversation settled me for a while, but it did not resolve my angst and internal struggle. I did not come away from Kampmeeting having embraced a new paradigm. I did not have an “aha” moment in which I resolved all my theological issues regarding my orientation. I was not now free to set out on a carefree path into the so-called gay lifestyle. People like me, those who weigh, ponder and agonize over minor matters of faith, can’t deconstruct such weighty matters easily, if at all. Changing my belief system around such a profound spiritual issue would be no easier than trying to change my orientation itself. Both options now seemed impossible, and it terrified me to even consider examining what I actually believed about my deeply held convictions and my experience.
In private conversations with several Kinship members during my time at Kampmeeting, I revealed details about my experience that seemed shockingly inconsistent with my testimony at Quest a few days earlier. What seemed inconsistent for Kinship members was not inconsistent for me. I had learned to speak in riddles, to describe my recovery in terms of “growth in faith” while editing out any offending details. As well, my confessions included no mention of anything being amiss with Colin. While this omission meant Colin’s public testimony of healing was safe from the scrutiny and criticism of these gay liberationists, it also meant multiple others would continue to compare themselves to Colin’s testimony, believing their inability to change meant they were lacking in faith.
I left Quest on August 24. Colin and I had talked about my leaving, so this was not a surprise. My abrupt departure came about because a fellow Canadian—a Catholic priest—was driving to Toronto. This was a convenient way to get me and my belongings back to Canada.
In the week before leaving Reading, I had many last suppers with trusted friends. I went river rafting with Colin and Sharon and another group of friends. And of course, Colin and I spent a lot of time together. During a day together at Hershey Park, I convinced Colin to ride one of the roller coasters. He had never been on one in his life. I believe it was our friendship—his level of trust in me—that enabled me to convince him to do so. We had two choices: an old style coaster or a modern one. I could not convince Colin that the newer coaster, even with its 360-degree loop, might actually be less frightening than the more traditional coaster. We ended up on the deceptively benign brain banger.
Colin was already pale by the time the coaster reached the top of the first descent. As we arched over the top and started our first plunge, Colin slumped in the seat. Fainting from fear, his body falling limp beside me, it was all I could do to gather up his glasses and hold him as his body fell onto me. I held Colin until the coaster stopped. As far as metaphors go, this two-minute roller coaster ride captures the complex bond that existed between Colin and me, a bond that geographical distance would not change.
I was familiar with the mixed emotions that departures engender, but this time I felt I was moving from a moment of personal failure to an undefined future. Preparing for my departure from Reading was the only thing that kept me from being overwhelmed emotionally. In a final journal entry around that time, I wrote that “nothing in my experience, since the day I first read Colin’s article in Ministry magazine, has been what I expected—absolutely nothing.”
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