By the time Scott Melendez-Stewart was 19, he had spent half his life asking God to "cast out his demons." The young man from Arizona prayed, fasted and prayed some more. "I had to do," he says, "whatever it took not to be a gay person."What it took, in his mind, was religious rehabilitation. Scott entered a self-help group for homosexuals in Phoenix in 1985. There he found 10 other gay men, all wanting desperately for God to set them straight. In the company of the others, Scott says, "I felt hope."
Three years later, in another city, another man struggling with his sexual identity tested his faith and himself. At 28, Jeff Johnston joined 200 other souls in a Los Angeles auditorium. There, he would begin his journey with a ministry aimed at "healing" homosexuals. His family remembers believing God surely would make Jeff right with the Lord again.
"The word that stands out," says his mother, "was 'hope.' "
Both men turned to God for help and healing. And through ardent prayer, they both survived a crisis of faith to become the men they are today: One, a married man; one, a gay man.
Last summer, when newspaper ads featuring the testimonials of "healed" homosexuals appeared, the country learned a new term: ex-gay. Bankrolled by a dozen conservative groups such as the Christian Coalition, the "Truth in Love" campaign was just beginning.
"The dream that I thought could never happen - having a wife and kids - has finally come true," says a TV spot scheduled to air this fall.
"Most people still don't take us seriously," says Bob Davies, executive director of an ex-gay ministry called Exodus International. In its 23 years, Exodus has viewed homosexuality as a moral disorder that can be overcome through prayer. "But with so many thousands of people now in the ex-gay ministry," he says, "can they all be brainwashed? Or is there a real phenomenon going on?"
The gay community's response is that homosexuality is not a sin. Men and women can be Christian and gay. We are all God's children. They say ministries such as Exodus prey on vulnerable souls.
"They tend to have a negative self-image and a negative image of their God-given attraction to other people," says the Rev. David Smith of Baltimore's Metropolitan Community Church. Of its 110 gay and lesbian members, about 30 have sought "conversion" in ex-gay ministries, Smith says.
"They realize after leaving that it didn't work," he says. "And I deal with picking up the pieces of somebody's life."
Between the lines of any ad, sermon or testimonial are basic, ageless questions: Who am I? How do I fit in? Can I accept who I am?
Just ask Jeff Johnston and Scott Melendez-Stewart.
One man happens to be gay. One man happens not to be.
And both call themselves Christians.
One of Exodus' oldest chapters, Regeneration Inc., resides in a two-story suburban house in Towson. Inside, the office feels like a campaign headquarters: Downstairs, volunteers stuff envelopes with pledge cards and testimonials. Upstairs, Jeff Johnston sits under a picture of Christ and the words, "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me."
Jeff, director of Regeneration since 1996, knocks his head back and chuckles while asking a question only he can answer:
"When did I grow up and become a man?"
Jeff is 38 but looks like a young camp counselor, which he was summers ago in San Diego. Growing up in the evangelical Plymouth Brethren church, Jeff went to Bible camp, where he gathered around the fire to hear testimonials. His fellow campers confessed to smoking, cursing, shoplifting or "listening to bad music."
Jeff couldn't confess what he did.
"As a young child, when I tried to be friends with boys, our play would sometimes turn into sexual exploration. I felt extremely guilty and ashamed about the sexual nature of these friendships," Jeff would write much later in a testimonial called "Just a Good Christian Boy." His faith clearly viewed homosexuality as a sin.
As his mother, Carol Johnston, remembers, Jeff was "a quiet, cooperative child who spent more time with books than with other kids." He was a sickly child, often sidelined with asthma.
"I played inside with my sister rather than outside with the guys." Girls were safe; boys were not. Jeff knew from a young age he was attracted to other boys.
All through high school and college, Jeff struggled with his homosexuality. There were encounters at adult bookstores, meetings that were both thrilling and repulsive. He'd pray for forgiveness - but then return to the bookstores and his fantasies.
"I figured if I kept praying real hard it might just go away, or maybe I would grow out of it," his testimonial says.
Jeff's parents saw a young man who had many friends and at least one serious girlfriend "who broke his heart," Carol Johnston says. Yet, call it mother's intuition, she knew her son was unsettled somehow. "I knew there was some sense of unhappiness. I just didn't know how to discuss that with him."