I spent two years under the care of John Smid and his staff at the Love in Action “ex-gay” program in Memphis, TN. I know they meant well. I know they wanted to help us with our struggles. Although they taught useful lessons about addiction and family dysfunctions, they missed the mark, and in my case caused more harm than good.
When I attended LIA, there were always some participants who suffered from genuine mental illness. Serveral had been diagnosed as clinically depressed. One young man had bipolar disorder. Most of these were are on medications to help them with these conditions.
We went to the program because we believed what our pastors had told us–gay sexual behavior was sinful, unhealthy, dirty. We enrolled in LIA, because unlike most “ex-gay” programs, it proported to provide a clinical, residential setting. Much of the language used by the staff sounded clinical and couched in psychology. In addition to being a Christian program, LIA gave us a therapuetic setting in which to address our issues. Although well intentioned, I found the LIA staff unprepared to provide care for most of the particpants.
Two incidents stand out in my mind.
1. Chet (not his real name) had bipolar disorder, something that did not seem to affect his program or the rest of us until Chet exploded in a fit of uncontrolable rage. Cursing and violently throwing things around the dinning room, Chet had to be restrained. Except none of the staff in the house had been trained to restrain him. Another participant, with some training working in a mental health setting ,wrestled Chet to the ground. When we finally contacted LIA leadership, we were told to call the police who eventally came and took Chet away for a hospital stay. He was later dismissed from the program for medical reasons.
For days after the incident many of us talked among ourselves and in rap sessions about how unsafe we felt, how frightened by the incident and angry that the staff had taken someone into the program who could do harm to himself and us.
2. One day coming home from work (when I was in LIA, we had to work in order to pay the $950 per month fees), I saw Todd’s (not his real name either) truck at the head of the driveway instead of its normal spot. After Todd did not turn up for dinner, two of us looked in the cab of his truck to find a suicide note, photos of his family and empty vials of medicine. For the next several hours we searched the nearby fields and woods. Police helicopters flew low overhead shining spot lights. We never found Todd that night.
I could not sleep thinking of him lying on the ground all alone and dying. Miraculously some utility workers found Todd, the next morning–barely alive. After weeks at a mental health facility, he returned to the program and stayed until his graduation.
I provide only two of scores of similar situations that have occured in Love Action since 1996. The LIA staff attempted to create a therapuetic environment based on a 12-step model, but they could not adequately care for and protect their clients.
Had LIA been a licensed mental health facility, the state of TN would have been able to monitor the program and intervene when things got out of hand. Also, LIA would have been required to follow state protocol for housing people with mental illnesses. But with religious hubris, the program leaders and the board pressed on without accountability in spite of obvious dangers.
I do not fault John Smid and the LIA staff for trying to help individuals who came to them for help. Working out of their world view, they believe they provided a great service. But where is the humility? Where is the self-reflection? Where is the owning up to mistakes and misjudgements.
Jeremy Marks, once a close friend of John Smid and a fellow “ex-gay” leader, realized a few years back that his “ex-gay” ministry in the UK did not bring any positive results. No one changed and no one got better, in fact they grew worse. Marks did something courageous, he publically admitted the failures and moved on to a new work that provides support for gay and bisexual Christians.
Soon we will see how John Smid and LIA respond to the state of TN. I hope for humility and honesty from LIA, but from personal experience and from LIA’s history in Memphis, TN, I’m afraid we will see arrogance, ignorance and stubborness.