Catherine largely attributes the sexual confusion she's maintained for most of her life to this relationship. "When I hit my teen years, I was going into chaos. Did I like girls? Did I like boys? I had feelings for girls, but I was raised in a Christian family. We lived in a very small town. It was the mid-'80s then, people aren't as open as they are now... If you were different, you would be marked, harassed. There were terrible things that would happen to anybody who was different. I mean, my dad's a pastor; my idea for life was I grow up, I get married, I have three kids, and I live happily ever after. I didn't know how to respond to everything that was happening in my life," she says.
Then, to add to the confusion, before her friend and her family moved away, Catherine was raped. "Her [my friend's] stepfather raped me at one point in their home," Catherine explains. "And it was very I mean, the confusion, it was just crazy. So I went into my teen years suicidal; I tried to commit suicide once, but didn't make a good enough effort of it."
On top of that, Catherine was beginning to have crushes on other girls. Miserable, confused, ashamed, and hoping to make her attraction for girls vanish, Catherine began to pursue men; "I really wanted to be whatever normal was, so I aggressively pursued guys. I became sexually active with guys at 14 years old. And that pattern went on. When I wasn't with a guy, I'd be attracted to my best friends. It was just this constant back and forth."
At the age of 19, Catherine married a man, despite her continued confusion. Still, she tried to force herself to be 'normal.' "He was going to save me, that was my thinking. And so I went into this whole thing like, 'I'm going to be the perfect wife, and I'm going to be the perfect mother.'"
Five years into her marriage, now with a child, Catherine cracked. She became so depressed she could no longer care for her daughter; she and her husband placed her in childcare. She met a woman with whom she started a sexual relationship. She also started counseling.
"I started asking myself the same questions I'd asked myself in high school," she says. 'Who am I really? Am I fooling myself to be married? Or should I follow this deep thing in me that's always been there--or so I thought--and leave my husband and my child?'" Catherine had to make a choice. Join the gay community or stay married? Leave her family, or stay with them and feel miserable?
That was before she found Portland Fellowship.
Today, Catherine's daughter is a happy 11-year-old, and she says she and her husband, who have been married for 13 years, have a relationship that's more loving, reciprocal, and trusting than ever been before. "I very much know who I am, who I'm supposed to be, what I'm supposed to be doing," she explains. "I feel very confident and at peace with myself."
And, according to Catherine, her desires to be with women have evaporated. "I'm totally in love with my husband. And I'm able to look at women in a loving, caring, healthy way. It's no longer about how they can fulfill me. That was a selfish way of thinking."
WHAT IS THIS FELLOWSHIP?
Since 1976, Exodus International--a national organization of fellowships devoted to "Freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ"--has grown to include over 135 ministries in the world, mostly located in America and Canada. Though they are often lumped in the same category with political groups like the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA), Exodus is not interested in passing legislation relevant to homosexuality, nor do they preach the dangers of going to Hell as a result of practicing homosexuality. Their primary concern is providing assistance to individuals who are struggling, and "challenging those who respond to homosexuals with ignorance and fear."
The Portland Fellowship is the local member of Exodus International, and it's located in a large house off Hawthorne. Though it is a faith-based organization, it is not a church, nor is the fellowship affiliated with any particular religion. All their members come to them--they don't recruit. They are funded largely by private donors and contributions from 13 churches in the area.
"We try to be simplistic in our belief system," explains Phil Hobizal, the founder and director of Portland Fellowship. "I think of us as Evangelical Protestant. We work with Christian churches in the community, the Catholic Church, and even Orthodox Jews." Nor are they affiliated with any political group. "I don't like politics," says Phil. "It isn't pure."
Phil and the other employees of the Fellowship believe that God created everyone to have heterosexual relationships. "God is not a man, and God is not a woman," says Phil. "God reflects both masculine and feminine qualities, and so when the two come together, it's this healthy, whole picture, and from that, love comes out and family. It goes beyond just preference or behavior; it's something much deeper."
Presently, there are 68 people going through the two year counseling program that Phil leads, along with the help of 22 volunteers and three other staff members. When individuals come to the Fellowship, it is out of a desire to change, to leave the "same-sex attractions" behind. Though Phil says he never turns anyone away, the cost of the entire program is about $1000. After enrolling in the program, people meet with Phil both on an individual level and in the group setting.
The program was founded when Phil--then living in the queer community--decided to quit his job as a mailman and start a group for people to drop in and talk. "I kept hearing people say this thing over and over again," he recounts. "They'd say, 'If I could change, if I could choose not to be gay, I would.'" From there, the program grew over the last 15 years into the Fellowship. Phil has written a six-part program, which he says starts with understanding "the homosexual struggle"--the roots and causes of it--and ends with understanding one's place in the community. Often, depending on the individual, this program is coupled with counseling. Phil says his program has about a 50 percent success rate.
LOVING THE GAY SINNER
"I think that for too long, people have categorized sin," says Phil. "Some sins are acceptable and some are labeled worse than others. Homosexuality has always been a taboo subject and, in some churches, unless you stop it, you're not allowed to be in that church. What we're advocating is that the church be willing to allow people to grow, and to say 'We believe this behavior is sin, but you're welcome to be with us, since we care about you.'
"One of the factors that's very important in order for people to be successful is a support system--and the church isn't the warmest, fuzziest place to walk through changes. That's one of my number one problems, that's why I go out and do conferences. I tell people that you should not say, 'You should change and then maybe we'll think about letting you in.' You need to come around these people and love them, not reject them."
For this reason, the Fellowship claims to resist any affiliation with anti-gay, political, Christian groups. Phil grimaces at the mention of organizations such as the Oregon Citizen's Alliance (OCA), which have sponsored numerous anti-gay ballot measures. "Organizations like that seem to be really based on fear and hatred," says Phil. "We've done a lot to disassociate ourselves from them. People send us donations for them and we send the money back."
For Catherine, being able to talk about her feelings was an essential change. "Basically, my husband confronted me and told me to make a choice." Catherine explains. "And when it came right down to it, I didn't want to lose my eight-year-old, and I didn't want to lose him, my husband, my best friend who I loved so much. And you know, I believe that God created me. And I don't believe that he would create me to do something that he said in the Bible I wasn't supposed to do."
"My husband gave me some different restrictions. He said, 'I've heard about Portland Fellowship, I want you to go there. I want you to continue in counseling. You have to break off the relationship with this woman. I was very much into the lesbian pornography at the time, and he had found out about that and said, 'These are the restrictions you're going to have on the computer.' My husband said, 'If you want to show me you want to stay here, then you need to do these things.' And there was no question in my mind. I said, 'Yes, I'll do them.' At that point, I started at the Fellowship."
At the Fellowship, Catherine has relived and assessed each moment of her past. "The therapy was like going back to each thing, dealing with it, dealing with the pain of it, and then putting it where it belongs in my brain, rather than just having it all mashed together where it doesn't make any sense," she says. "I have been able to look at these things, my desires, and say, 'Okay, this desire was based on an actual painful experience--it wasn't based on actual truth.'"
WHY DOES GOD MAKE GAY PEOPLE?
"Homosexuality is not about sex, it's about identity," Phil says. Phil argues that if a girl does not bond properly with her mother, she may mimic her father and therefore, find it more comfortable to be attracted to girls. Likewise, if a young boy does not bond with his father, he may mimic his mother. Moreover, he also believes if a boy is born with certain, biological factors--such as having a slight build, being melancholy, sensitive, or creative--they may not fit in with other boys. Boys, therefore, may harass them, leading to the child's alienation from the group of boys, and making him act out on this alienation, resulting in homosexuality.
Both Phil and Catherine concede there may be people who are in happy, loving, homosexual relationships. "I have friends who have been in the program and are now back out in the gay community," Phil says. "We're still friends. We just disagree on this."
"I don't necessarily think that people living in the homosexual life will go to Hell," Catherine explains. "I think what it really comes down to is that no matter how a person chooses to live, no one can judge their heart and their relationship with God. I do believe there are probably lots of people in the gay church that are Christians. If God is a gracious God, a loving God, then there's no, 'Oh you're too bad, you're the worst of all sinners.' I don't believe that. I don't believe this is the worst of all sins.
"My church has groups for drug addicts and alcoholics, and it's not so different; they're Christians, and they still struggle. The struggle is not gone just because they're Christians. God's not going to say, 'Okay, you still have a problem with that, so you can't come in.' There are probably a lot of people out there who think they're Christians and probably aren't going to go to heaven, and then there will probably be a lot of people you wouldn't expect to see there."
Even when people have completed Phil's program, he does not necessarily promise that people will not have any homosexual feelings or desires ever again. "In God's eyes, he intended something better than a homosexual relationship, but for people involved in homosexuality, there's definitely a tremendous amount of pleasure and intimacy in sexual experience." says Phil.
"I don't promise that I'm going to make people no longer be homosexuals," he concludes. "I just help them to have a better, more loving relationship with God."
THE OTHER SIDE
Peg Pfab is the minister at Southminster Church in Beaverton. A few years ago, Southminster made the decision to become a "morelight" congregation which, Peg explains, "in Presbyterian language, means to say that we're openly in support of gay and lesbian members."
Theologically, Southminster Church accepts homosexuality because they believe some of the things written in the Bible reflect outdated values. "We try to look at those passages that people always use to make arguments against homosexuality and consider them in the context of the history of the time," says Peg. "I mean, when the Bible was written, people had no clue about homosexuality or sexual orientation." Therefore, Peg explains, "I think what you have to transfer from the Bible is core beliefs. So then you have to figure out what those core beliefs are."
For Peg, these core beliefs involve understanding sexuality on a continuum and treating people with respect and love, regardless of what their gender or orientation may be. "It's how you love somebody--how deeply and compassionately you love somebody--that matters," Peg explains. "Not what gender the person is."
Though Peg doesn't agree, theologically, with organizations such as the Portland Fellowship, she recognizes the value of the love and respect they give to their members. "I think there's a whole continuum of acceptance," she says. "There are the people who cannot even accept being around gay and lesbian people, and then there's the people who say they love the sinner but hate the sin, but they're still putting people who are gay and lesbian in the sinner category. At least in my own theology, being gay and lesbian is not sinful." Still, says Peg, "People in the love-the-sin, hate-the-sinner category are often really compassionate people."
Talking About Being Gay
"I think for a lot of people, sexuality is a very hard issue to discuss, because it gets at some deep emotional thing," says Peg. "Talking about issues of homosexuality brings up a lot of fears in people about their own sexuality. I think people live with a lot of fear, and people live with a lot of fear about who they are."
"The so-called sexual revolution in the '70s wasn't much of a revolution, in terms of really looking at identity and comfort level," says Peg. "It was much more of an adolescent behavior, like, 'Hey these rules are scary to us, let's go out and figure out how many of them we can break.' That's not the same to us as being mature about who we really are. Because of all these sexual taboos in our society, we're such a divided culture, and we focus way too much on sex, when we could be focusing on way more important things in the world, like the fact that people are starving to death."
"I think that--at least in this church and in other Presbyterian churches--when we as a congregation baptize a child, we say that we will support and nurture that child to become the best person they can be," explains Peg. "I think we have an absolute obligation to support that child, and mentor and accept them, and if we're not willing to do that, and be open, I think we're really denying our baptismal vows. I think it's a real serious obligation."