Trigger Warning: If you are of the LGBTQ+ community, Pray Away has many scenes of abuses towards LGBTQ+ people so as to expose how harmful Conversion “Therapy” is.
Netflix has a new documentary out called Pray Away, which on a topic about which I am deeply passionate: Conversion “Therapy”. For those who don’t know, this is the decades old, widely discredited, and torturous practice designed to “free” people of LGBTQ+ identities. It’s primarily, if not exclusively, done by Christian organizations in the name of Christ, and relies heavily on Christian indoctrination which manifests itself in abject spiritual abuse, as well as emotional and sometimes even physical abuse. Quite simply, it is not therapy. It’s torture.
People are often surprised to hear that such a practice even exists, but it does. And it needs to be banned. It’s difficult, if not impossible to stop an adult from choosing such a “therapy”, and there are legitimate therapists who will help one sort through sexual orientation and gender identity, but that’s not what this documentary is addressing, and that’s not what we’re talking about needing to be banned. We’re talking about the kids and vulnerable adults whose parents and guardians force them into these programs, which are so harmful that a striking percentage of those who are subjected to this torture die by suicide, and the ones that don’t are (rightly) called survivors.
And the reason I am so passionate about banning it, is that I was once a supporter of it, even to the degree of supporting one of these organizations financially. I was one of those Christians who believed that a non-cishet1 identity was one that missed the mark of God’s ideal for our lives, and therefore was a chain keeping us from the abundance of life Jesus promises in John 10:10 (spoiler alert: it doesn’t). As I grew in my Christian faith and pastoral leadership, as I read a little less of Paul and a little more of the Gospels, and as I had some lovely, beautiful, patient people in my life who guided me in thinking otherwise, I was liberated from my hateful and harmful homo/transphobic beliefs. And I mean liberated. I had no idea about the prison I was living in until I broke those chains. My faith has never been more deep and alive than since I left that garbage behind.
Because of that, I consider it part of my life’s work to do what I can to eradicate Conversion “Therapy” from this earth. And movies like Pray Away that can help, but as one person in the movie points out, “as long as there is homophobia, there will always be some version of Conversion ‘Therapy'” (my paraphrase). And, so, the battle against it has two fronts. Yes, we need to make it as difficult as possible for these organizations and their practices to exist by doing such things as city, state, and even federal bans on the practice, but that’s just one battle in the broader war against LQBTQ+ phobic beliefs that generate and energize such practices.
Pray Away does a beautiful job detailing the genesis of Conversion “Therapy”, which took off in the 70s with the formation of the organization Exodus. Ok, sorry, not sorry, but it’s here that I need to pause for a moment so we can reflect on how disgusting this appropriation of the word “exodus” is. It uses the story of the liberation of Jews in their exodus of Egypt after hundreds of years of literal slavery as a symbol of what they perceive to be a slavery that LGBTQ+ people live in, and need liberating from, making the leaders of this organization Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Ew. Christians, we need to be more careful how we use this story (and the entire Torah and Hebrew Bible for that matter), and we need to condemn loudly and boldly such uses of it as this.
Now back to our scheduled program…
What is fascinating about Pray Away is the way in which it tells the stories of some of the founders of Exodus and other such organizations coming to grips with their own identities, embracing who they really are, and discrediting, as well as dismantling the organizations they led and and founded. Their stories are beautifully told, and it all makes the movie worth the hour and forty-one minutes. It is gut wrenching at times, but also powerful and beautiful. And what’s also interesting is that you can see the way in which it is distinctly Christian theology (albeit bad Christian theology) that is indeed the genesis of this practice.
It’s here that Pray Away led me to a second viewing. After a first viewing I had mixed feelings. It felt like a good documentary on the organization Exodus, but it didn’t enough combat the thinking, ideologies, and theology that created it. But after a second viewing I realized that it perhaps doesn’t do this because this is my job, and our job.
This harmful and hateful theology is thick throughout the documentary, and in so doing, I believe Pray Away is a call to the Christian Church. While other religions share in these theologies, none of them has manifested those theologies in such broad, sweeping, and organized ways as the Christian Church has. Beloved, this is our work. We created it, and it is our job destroy it. And before we start saying “but I never believed that”, know that I appreciate that, but this is systemic, and nearly every Christian expression has participated in it at some level and at some time.
And, so, I call upon all Christians, particularly we cishet ones, to watch Pray Away so as to see what has been created out of our traditions, and then take the next step to destroy the practice of Conversion “Therapy” as well as deconstruct the theology and hermeneutic that created it. We need to get educated on our history and theology, and we need to educated and active in our communities to right this wrong. That is, to forge a new path, which is to repent. If repentance doesn’t make a new way, it’s not repentance.
And to you LGBTQ+ beloved out there, I say thank you. Thank you for who you are, for the ways you’ve not only liberated me, but enriched my life. Thank you for your strength, for surviving, for being the you that God created you to be. Thank you for rising up, exposing the hate and harm, too often at great risk to yourself. And I am so sorry, deeply sorry, for all the harm The Church has done to you. I am also sorry for how long it’s taken for many of us to get on the front lines to guard you from this hate and harm and work with you in destroying it. But, for what it’s worth, many of us are here now. We are for you and we are with you.
So what do you say, friends: Will you join me? It’s a lovely and liberating journey.
1someone whose gender identity is the same as that which was assigned at birth and is heterosexual.