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HS infiltrates "pray away the gay" camp

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By Antti Pikkanen
      A circle of six men sit in a small cabin. Two blocks of wood serve as a cross. The men's eyes wander to the walls. My cheeks are slightly flushed - I feel ashamed. I have just revealed something that made me go silent.
      The leader of the group opens his mouth but does not look me in the eye.
      "Is it all right to pray for you?"
      Well, yes.
      I hunch over, my elbows on my legs. Four men place their hands on my shoulders. One places his hand on my side. I flinch at the touch.
"Lord, you heard what Jalmari just shared with us. You know what sins he has committed, and you will also forgive them as he brings them here before the cross. Thank you, Lord, for allowing Jalmari to understand and accept his own frailties. Jalmari still has a long road ahead of him, but you already heard his plea. Fill Jalmari now with our love, take him into your embrace, and let him suckle of your love as a child does of his mother’s breast. Heal him. Thank you Lord."
      Two of the men mumble something in tongues, and then it is completely silent.
      The head of the group takes a white plastic cup from the table, makes a dipper out of the palm of his hand, pours water into it and touches my brow with it.
      "Lord, cast the evil spirit out of Jalmari."
      It is completely silent, and nobody says anything.
It is Sunday morning, the fifth of August. The time is half past ten. The announcement on Intercity 905 sounds out: next station – Jyväskylä. My alarm clock had gone off at half past five in Helsinki. Now I am already here.
      I get off the train. My ill-fitting backpack chafes against my shoulders. A fuzzy-haired young woman stands on the platform with a sign in her hand. The text written with a black marking pen on the piece of cardboard reads "Kiponiemi". I know that the woman is waiting for me. My breath accelerates. Now is the time – now it begins.
      I approach cautiously. I wipe my sweaty hand against my thigh, reach out my hand and introduce myself: "Jalmari – you can call me Jamppu."
Jalmari is the third of my given names. I cannot use the first, because if I did, I might be identified as a journalist.
      I place my backpack in the boot, and sit in the back seat. The fuzzy-haired woman starts the car.
      Let us sing praises to the lord is the song that comes from the car radio.
According to the Aslan association, homosexuality is a psycho-social disturbance in development – a kind of spiritual damage.
      Medicine disagrees. Homosexuality has not been classified as a disease since 1981. However, the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD) still has a classification of "ego-dystonic sexual orientation disorder" – an orientation that goes against the person’s idealised self-image. However, this diagnosis is hardly ever applied.
      The reparative therapy programme brought to Finland by Aslan is called Living Water. The expression comes from the Gospel According to John in Bible: He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. Once a year a four-day intensive camp is organised with activities running nearly around the clock. This is what I am taking part in now.
The programme has been developed by Andrew Comiskey, the founder of the worldwide Desert Stream Ministries. He is one of the leading figures of the American ex-gay movement called Exodus International.
      The coordinator of the work in Finland is Andy Chambers, who, like Comiskey, is an "ex gay". Chambers has a Finnish wife, Sirkku Chambers, who is also part of the work. Andy Chambers says that Aslan’s activities are based on "a literal interpretation of the Bible, and modern psychology, to the extent that it is compatible with the Bible".
      The Living Water programme was originally meant exclusively for Christians, but Comiskey says that it also benefits non-Christians because it is based on psychology.
Aslan has activities in eight communities in Finland. Now the organisation wants to expand to Finland’s Swedish-language regions and to Estonia.
      Aslan finds itself challenged by growing media interest and the attention of human rights organisations that are taking issue with what it does.
The activities of Aslan have been sharply criticised since the spring of 2011, when a Christian youth magazine started a media campaign called "do not submit!", urging those who are struggling with homosexual feelings to seek help. Last winter, Minister of Culture and Sport Paavo Arhinmäki (Left Alliance) withdrew state subsidies from the organisations that were behind the anti-homosexual campaign.
      Living Water is not a campaign for homosexuals alone. It says that it seeks to help all who are sexually broken in some way. But what does that mean?
Now I am here at the Kiponniemi centre, a lakeside camping area owned by the Free Church, 15 kilometres from Jyväskylä. There is a reception desk in the foyer where registration cards are handed out. Each participant can fill in his or her personal information. It is stated on the form that giving false information is a criminal offence. The participants are also given name tags - about 20 for teachers and instructors, 50 for people seeking healing.
      We are shown the way into the auditorium. The fuzzy-haired woman and I are the last. People have been waiting for us.
      The seats fill up. An estimated two thirds of those participating are women. There are also a few couples with small children. One of the children is fussing. The age range is between people in their early 20s to those who are clearly of pension age.
A dark-skinned man steps into the auditorium and smiles broadly. He introduces himself as Andy Chambers. He gets a long round of applause, which stops at a wave of Chambers’ hand.
      He is a charismatic speaker. He tells jokes, which make the people laugh. Soon there is an hour-long lecture, but first it is time to praise the Lord.
      A young man with a neat shirt steps up to the piano. A woman grabs a guitar. The song is familiar from my days at Lutheran confirmation camp. A woman in front of me raises her hands. Someone from the next row starts to dance. Behind me, instructors are whispering in tongues. Nearly all have their eyes shut, with faces turned upward. One woman is crying.
When the praising comes to an end in about half an hour, Chambers comes back holding a microphone. A PowerPoint presentation is shown on the screen. The topic of the lecture is Receiving the love of a father – the relationship with the father.
      "A sociologist has called this generation a "fatherless generation", Chambers begins. An interpreter translates the speech into Finnish.
      "That is a good summary. We are living in a fallen world. We do not get what we really need."
Although it is a course run by Christians, the talk is not about the Heavenly Father – it’s about ordinary fathers.
      "Every child has an essential need for both a father and a mother."
      "A father sees the gifts that we have. A father calls out the true identity of a child. A father guides children on a path that the child has to walk. We get comfort from our mother, strength from our father. A father reinforces the good that is in us. Only the father knows who you are. A father blesses us materially as well, when we cannot earn a living on our own. There are studies that indicate that we need a male voice to make the transition from childhood to adulthood."
      And then: "We who are broken have something missing. Perhaps our father has disappeared behind a newspaper, or a work bench. Perhaps something was missing from our father’s love."
After the lecture there are meetings in small groups. Each participant has been placed in a group with an average of five other participants. The purpose of the small groups is to go through the personal healing process of each one, and to talk about difficult topics.
      Men and women are separated. According to the Living Water programme they cannot understand each other in the way that they are supposed to.
      Before the first small group meeting I sign a silence pledge, where I promise to keep all personal discussions confidential. There is no admittance into a small group without such a commitment.
My group convenes in a small cabin. When it is my turn to introduce myself I let out my life’s story. I tell everything as if I were really trying to heal. But some anecdotes I save for later.
      When I say that I once seriously loved another man it shocks the other members of the group. They do not seem to accept the word "love" in this context.
      This comes already before I explain my story in any detail. I am a bit confused.
In the evening the auditorium is full again. There are people of all ages, colours, and professional backgrounds. There are doctors, teachers, psychologists, actors, plumbers, and salespeople.
      A man of about 20 sitting next to me raises his arms. He trembles a little. Possibly because he is cold – it is cool here, I think. A voice comes from the loudspeakers.
      Jesus, heal us, fill us with your love
      The man trembles harder.
      Jesus, you are pure goodness. You are purity..."
      The man shouts out. His Adam’s apple bobs up and down, his breathing becomes uneven.
      Jesus, come closer to us, fill this space with your healing power...
The man begins to weep hysterically. His head bows down, his arms go stiff, and jerk around as if he were having an epileptic seizure. Nobody reacts in any way – they are all in their own states of rapture.
      The man collapses on the floor. The piece changes once, twice, and a third time. I check out of the corner of my eye to make sure that he is still breathing. Finally, when the programme starts, he goes to the toilet for a few minutes. When he comes back he looks shaken, but calm.
      The anguish creeps into my chest in the form of light contractions. I check the programme for the evening. All 20 group leaders are to tell their own stories about their own processes. All that we have to do is to listen.
A woman of about 50 steps up and introduces herself as a psychologist. (I later check in the state registry to ascertain that she really is.) Her voice is sharp and it carries far.
      "We are living in an increasingly difficult world. I am involved in Living Water because I want to fight on this front. At times I wonder if I will even be allowed to say what is healthy."
      The audience members nod with approval.
Another woman steps to the stage to tell the story of her past lesbian relationship.
      "The confusion and shame were great. Then I understood my broken relationship with my mother and I understood that this was not infatuation, but rather the lack of a mother’s love."
A young woman takes the stage. She younger than the previous ones. She understood already in school that she liked people of the same gender.
      "In my puberty I liked to dress in boyish clothing. I had many girls as friends, but none of them were very close. When they started liking boys, I liked them", she says.
      "When my mother was pregnant with me my parents wanted to have a boy. I have always lived according to that, trying to meet those expectations."
      Then she became a Christian. "I understood that I had been hiding my own femininity all the time."
A fourth woman had a different story. She tells about her dead husband, her oppressive marriage, and her male chauvinist husband who kept her down for years. The woman is academically educated. Suddenly her husband died, and the wife, who had been in the psychological stranglehold of her husband, was left alone.
      However, the marriage left her identity in tatters. The solitude felt strange. She tried to assemble her splintered self by controlling everything that she could control until it all fell apart. She had always been a devout Christian, so she decided to seek out the Living Water group. Gradually she started reassembling the remnants of her self-esteem.
      Now she seems happy, humorous, and relaxed – not at all a nitpicker or a control freak. Her story does not mention homosexuality at all, and the audience listen to it in silence.

More on this subject:
 (Part 2)
 (Part 3)
 (Part 4)
 (Part 5)

See also:
  MP Hirvisaari sparks new controversy by calling homosexuality a “disability” (1.8.2012)

Helsingin Sanomat

  16.10.2012 - THIS WEEK
 HS infiltrates "pray away the gay" camp

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