Full circle. It’s a phrase that denotes a kind of personal completion that a person rarely achieves, but is a momentous occasion when they do. That’s how I felt after watching the newly released documentary, This is What Love in Action Looks Like. The film chronicles the story of Zach Stark, who was forced by his parents into Refuge, a live-in program that was centered around the concept of reparative therapy.
Zach’s story is one that spoke to me years ago when I first heard about it in the summer of 2005. At the time, we were in the process of forming a new PFLAG (Parents, Friends & Families of Lesbians and Gays) chapter, and it was a poignant reminder of just how much we need to support each other:
Young Zach thought he was just writing in his ‘blog’ as any teenager would. He vented. He cried out. Like most gay kids, he struggled with whether or not to come out to his parents. Once he finally got the nerve to tell his parents that he’s gay, he said things got even worse. They shipped him (at their church’s recommendation) to a division of Love in Action, called Refuge. It is a ‘ministry’ that has one sole purpose, to ‘fix’ gay kids and ‘help them to live a more normal lifestyle.’
It is, in short, the psychologically brutal and damaging practice known as ‘reparative therapy.’
Over the years, we began to hear a few little blips from Zach — namely that his parents had “supervised” deletion of his blog posts. Later, Refuge would be shut down. From here in middle Tennessee, I was still very much shielded to what was really going down at Love in Action.
While Zach was in the program, his friends and supporters rallied to his cause. They protested around the center for weeks on end, shouting their message: “It’s okay to be gay,” and the ultimate in subversiveness: “God loves you!” During these protests, Morgan Jon Fox began filming. It’s with him that the story took a dramatic turn.
John Smid, who was director of the Love in Action center from 1990 until he resigned in 2008, was at the center of the storm. He and his staff held press releases in an attempt to help people understand the live-in program. One day, he met with Fox. It was a meeting that would begin a long journey that would forever change Smid’s life. Memphis Flyer’s Bianca Phillips writes:
“My relationship with Morgan was very instrumental in where I am today because he was the first openly gay person who would meet and talk with me as a person,” Smid said. “Morgan is such a humble person and an honest person that it helped to break down my walls as we related.”
But their unlikely friendship didn’t start off so smoothly. Smid first encountered Fox during a two-week protest outside Love in Action’s Raleigh facility in 2005. Fox and a group of local gay rights advocates gathered outside the church at 4780 Yale Road where Love in Action ran “Refuge,” its now-defunct teen ex-gay ministry, to rally for their friend Zach Stark, a 16-year-old gay kid whose parents forced him into “straight camp,” as protesters often dubbed the two-week program
The film features interviews not only with Smid, but Stark as well. Other men who went through the program tell their stories, including Peterson Toscano, who is an outspoken advocate against ex-gay ministries. Heck, there’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it screen shot of my own blog post about Refuge’s ultimate shutdown. It was a pleasant surprise.
But that’s not why I’m giving the film a high rating. Honest.
Fox’s documentary style might be a little rough around the edges, but the story he tells is as clear as it is tumultuous. He handles the subject matter with compassion and conviction, revealing part of the genuine harm that “ex-gay” ministries do to people all across the country.
My feeling of coming full circle in this story not only centers around learning that Zach is doing just fine as a young adult, but that John Smid himself has gone through some dramatic changes in his life — including coming out as gay. It’s easy to point fingers at someone who comes to terms after years of being on the wrong side of life.
Smid is a compassionate, honest, and deeply spiritual man who loves God and is genuinely working through one of the most difficult chapters of his life. If the film has any flaws, they do not show enough of the struggle of what it’s like for someone who has built their entire life around living a lie — to finally come face to face with that lie. And person lying to him most was the man in the mirror.
I was honored for him to submit his own coming-to-terms story for this blog a few weeks back, and I’ve since talked with him a few times. This is a man who is going through quite a lot. I’m quite taken with his commitment to Christ and to people.
I can only imagine how difficult it was for him, and I know that God is giving him an extraordinary amount of grace to not only publicly apologize to the men who went through his program, but to meet with them one on one.
Love in Action, like most ministries in the ex-gay network, was little more than a well-decorated carpet under which the Church to swept its gay dirt. Then, once the people are “cured,” they get tossed into a dustpan of marriage so that they can show just how “cured” they are. Then life sets in, and people realize they’re just as gay as they started. And the mess really begins.
This is What Love in Action Looks Like is a story of frustration, tragedy, hope, and ultimately, redemption. There are no easy answers when it comes to dealing with gay teens and religious beliefs, but the film does a capable job of presenting the questions — and some of the consequences.
If anything, this is a story that needs to be told, and it needs to be seen. This isn’t about the “ex-gay” network as much as it is about people. It’s about a man and a boy, both of whom had to come to terms with religious expectation and their own sexuality.
The moral of this film is simple: It’s time to stop shouting at each other and start talking. More importantly, it’s time to start listening. That’s what grace is all about.
This is What Love in Action Looks Like is available from TLA Releasing on Amazon.com.