JOURNEY CHAPTER 24
Life at Quest Learning Center
BY JErRY MCKAY
At 7:30 a.m., March 16, 1983, I boarded a bus bound for Reading, Pennsylvania. Six hours later, I was back at the Ottawa bus station!
Expecting problems with border security about my stay in the United States, Colin had prepared two letters. The first letter read:
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN,
This letter is to state that Jerry McKay will have a place to stay with a host family at the courtesy of Quest Learning Center in Reading, Pennsylvania. There will be no charge for the room. He will pay approximately $90.00 per month for his food. We have accepted him as a counselee for nine months at Quest Learning Center, which is a Christian counseling center for the development of emotional growth by the training of personal faith. This is a specialized counseling which is not now available in Canada.
Sincerely, Colin D. Cook, Director
The second version, should I need it, included one additional sentence: This service is specifically designed to help people recover from homosexuality.
Border security liked nothing about the details of my visit. With each response to their request for more information, my chances of entering the United States grew slimmer. The second letter sealed my fate. They denied me entry to the United States because I was homosexual.
Embarrassed and frustrated, I struggled to understand where God was in all of this. Was this a sign I was not to go to Reading, or was God testing my resolve yet again? After all, this was the second time in six months they had denied me entry to the United States while trying to get to Quest.
I was not to be deterred. Several people made calls to persuade officials to make an exception. The President of the Pennsylvania Conference of Seventh-day Adventists called. My host family called, and Colin called. After their pleading on my behalf, I was told that if I came through again, they would “consider the matter.” On Friday, March 18, I was once again standing in front of U.S. border officials.
They took me to a desk in the middle of the processing area. An agent typed out each question and my response. Where would I be staying and for how long? How much money was I carrying? Then there was the question why I needed to go to the United States. My response to that question caused his asking me the key question—Are you homosexual?
From the other side of his desk, and in earshot of everyone around me, I responded as Colin had instructed. “No,” I said, “I am a non-identifying, non-practicing homosexual.” An odd response, perhaps, since that was the reason I was going to the United States. My response, however, was to show my renunciation of the homosexual “lifestyle.” They allowed me into the United States.
I spent the first weekend in Reading at Colin’s home. That Sunday afternoon, Colin, his young son, and I spent several hours by a local lake. We talked about my doubts and fears for the future. As we played with his son, our conversation changed to my hope of someday becoming a father. Having a child of my own, Colin assured me, would allow me to live vicariously through that child, recapturing aspects of a childhood I felt I never had. We claimed God’s promise in Joel 2:25. “I will give you back what you lost to the swarming locusts.” Despite my doubts, our conversation was a hope-filled moment which set the tone for the next few months.
While most out-of-town counselees found their own apartments, I settled in with a host family. Although a cost savings measure, there was the therapeutic hope that living with a family would help me with my heterosexual pursuits. I appreciated their kindness, but I had mixed feelings about becoming too involved in their daily affairs. I was pleased that my space was in the basement. With my separate entrance, I could come and go easily.
Part of the family experience included interacting with their two young children. Often, the boy and girl came downstairs to visit with the “novelty” living in their basement. Even though I liked them, and they me, I felt awkward sometimes. Playing with them did tug at my heartstrings and fanned my hope of being a father. Being a dad wasn’t what stressed me. It was what I needed to do to create children that did! If I’m honest, I didn’t do well with the family integration thing. I tried, but I was often not in the best head space, and rarely wanted to talk to anyone when I got home about the progress I felt I was or wasn’t making.
I enjoyed living in Reading of Reading Railroad Monopoly board game fame. The city had plenty of character even though showing its age. I would take a bus into the city center every day and walk thirty minutes past old brick row houses, through City Park and up Hill Road to the condo where Quest Learning Center was located. Hill Road was lined with old-growth trees which left the sidewalks in a state of upheaval. In contrast to creating a disheveled and broken sidewalk, walking past those ancient trees often helped to level out my mood whether on my way up to Quest or back home.
Glancing through a Quest Learning Center brochure would leave one with the impression that it was a bustling place of activity. That was not so. Quest operated out of a small first-floor condominium apartment that they had turned into three counseling rooms and a tiny reception area. Colin, his wife Sharon, and their colleague, Keith, were the only people on staff; all counselors. That being said, the 1980 nation-wide distribution of the Ministry magazine interview of Colin had put Quest at the center of the reparative therapy world. Because of that, there were always pilgrims showing up in Reading in the hope of “unearthing” their heterosexuality.
Quest attendees included men and women of all ages. There were single and married people, and those somewhere in between. Many were in established careers and financially secure while others lived on a shoestring. While some were psychologically stronger than others, everyone was there because of their orientation. Like me, many had left all their support systems behind.
Since I could not work in the United States, I volunteered in the office answering the phone and helping with correspondence. As a result, I got to know many of the counselees and their stories better than most. I enjoyed being able to chat with Sharon and Keith more extensively. Being at the office every day also meant Colin and I spent a great deal of time together informally. That contributed to a growing bond between us.
If I took part in all programming, I might have had one, two, or maybe three hours of formal counseling per week, and attended the weekly Homosexuals Anonymous (HA) meeting and the weekly growth group. When possible, I joined others for social gatherings at the home of a friend or staff member. I made it to church most weeks. In my free time, I explored Reading and hung out with other Quest attendees.
On March 21, I attended my first HA chapter meeting. As with any HA gathering, there were those who had been attending for years, while others, like me, would appear out of the blue as a newcomer. A majority of the group was men, but a few women attended. On that first evening, it was comforting to recognize a few people from my first visit to Reading six months earlier.
Although HA was patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), we never introduced ourselves with a “Hi. My name is Jerry and I’m a homosexual.” Unlike AA, which encourages participants to admit they are alcoholics, HA encouraged us to discard that identifier. We were to embrace the idea that “God calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17b).
Meetings opened with the reading of one of the 14 Steps of HA followed by comments on what the step meant and how it might apply to overcoming homosexuality. Colin facilitated that meeting, as he often did. Because he was the co-founder of HA, he could elaborate on the significance of each step better than anyone else. While his comments carried a lot of weight, in an HA meeting he was just a member like the rest of us. I watched and listened that evening, sharing very little even when the meeting opened up for discussion. I would contribute more in the weeks to come.
HA meetings were educational. I became increasingly aware that there was nothing monolithic about the experience of sexual orientation. More people than I expected talked about the challenges of having married in the hope of “fixing” their orientation. Although fascinated, I could not relate to those who identified as bisexual and were trying to commit to living out of the heterosexual side of their experience. This was a task harder than one would think, as one cannot control with whom one falls in love. Those who were experienced in the so-called “gay lifestyle” also intrigued me, as I was still learning about what that actually meant. A good number were out to family and friends, while others feared the consequences of family, friends, or employers ever discovering their secret. Many, like me, were in Reading on their own initiative, but sadly, some were under pressure to be there.
Despite any shortcomings inherent in HA, it was a safe place to tell our stories; the safest space many had ever experienced. We spoke openly about our orientation and the broader, often painful, experience that came with being regarded as an abomination.
From my perspective, Quest and HA were a laboratory of sorts. If I say we “used” each other, I know that sounds creepy; but we were always trying to move from theory to practice. Often we needed to practice how to deal with homosexual temptation! Sometimes we tried to stretch our heterosexual wings so to speak. Who better to practice on or with than each other?
After one HA meeting, for example, a member offered to give me a ride to a restaurant where others planned to meet. Barely had I gotten into his car than he nervously confessed, “I want you to know I am struggling over you.” I sheepishly grinned in response. Before I could say anything, he continued, “I praise God about my thoughts for you.” To affirm his attempt at practicing what we were learning, I told him I appreciated his honesty and then confessed that I “struggled” over him, as well.
In many respects, this response was healthier than denying or suppressing my feelings and having them send me off into a neurotic state of guilt. Such comments became the Quest way of telling someone you liked them! These confessions did present challenges. I was never immune to being attracted to a group member or from being someone else’s person of interest. “Struggling” with feelings for one another was harder for some of us to manage than for others. While intimacy occurred between attendees, the greater struggle was dealing with the self-loathing, shame, isolation, and loneliness we experienced because of our orientation.
Although I never fought with temptation regarding women, I had more physical contact with women at Quest than at any other time in my life. When I wasn’t praising God in an attempt to deal with my angst over some male friend I was attracted to, I was praising God for the slightest evidence of attraction or comfort I felt for a female friend. I was never sexually intimate with a female friend, but I was intentional about looking at women more and lingered longer with a touch or a hug. I made myself aware of the heat I felt from a female friend’s body when we hugged. I “observed” how her breasts took up more space than a guy’s chest, analyzing whether this was pleasant.
Before heading home after yet another HA meeting, Lora and I went for a walk. Out of the blue, she asked me where I had learned to hug so well. She knew how I hugged because we had exchanged hugs after various functions. The question wasn’t as risky coming from a woman at Quest. She continued, “You know, I find you attractive, even macho.” I felt she unduly exaggerated the assessment of my masculine presentation, but in typical Quest form, I tried to stay in the moment. I said little other than affirm her appreciation of my manliness, hoping it would boost her comfort with an attraction to men—which was her goal.
Privately, I tried to receive her comment “by faith” as an affirmation of my masculinity and evidence that some aspect of my heterosexuality was emerging. I always tried to read such interactions with women as evidence of growth, but my journal contained evidence to the contrary. Often, after such an interaction I would write, “I pretend I am attracted to women, but it never feels genuine. I don’t want to be intimate with a woman nor her with me.”
As I mentioned earlier, I spent several hours per week in formal counseling. Colin frequently returned to the theme of family dynamics—the cause of my orientation was supposedly rooted there, after all. We examined my sexual history—the nature of my attractions, longings, and fantasies. We constantly talked about how to use the gospel to claim my way out of homosexuality and into heterosexuality. Colin’s experience was my model for this transformation. My body image was also a recurring theme.
Anger emerged as a significant issue. I never thought of myself as harboring anger, but it was there. It stemmed from the profoundly disruptive impact dad’s drinking had on the family and my experience of him as a child. There was a thread of powerlessness – learned helplessness – below my anger as well; a deep frustration over not being able to control what was going on around me no matter what I did—argue, cry, or pray. Such distress over intense emotions had led to numbing as my default coping mechanism.
As with my first two trips to Reading, Colin and I exchanged hugs during sessions. I welcomed them, but occasionally an embrace felt too long. As before, when Colin would become slightly aroused sexually, I felt awkward. He always explained such moments as just residual homosexual responses. While this seemed reasonable to me given that I had embraced Colin’s change narrative, I was growing tired of this “talking through” aspect after the fact. Listening to Colin explain away his physical response often irritated me.
Then on Monday, May 2, I made an entry in my journal that sounded like a teenager recording a secret. “I hesitate to write about this because of who may someday read this journal. If you are reading this, I trust you are doing so sincerely and seeking to understand the struggles of the H person. I need to record this because there is no one else that I can share it with. This creates a great emptiness. It creates a terrible feeling of distance from those closest to me.”
Then I got to the point. “Friday evening, we had a massage together. It was more erotic than ever before.” The cryptic “we” involved Colin. But there was more. We were at Colin’s home. Sharon was out of town. Colin asked me to stay the night. I accepted even though I would have preferred to go out with another friend. When it was time to retire, Colin didn’t want me to sleep in the guest room, but with him. I did so—reluctantly.
The next few paragraphs continue as if nothing happened. I wrote about going to church with Colin the next morning and later having lunch with a mutual friend and several counselees. I commented on being pleased to see a particular Quest attendee in church, noting it as evidence of God’s continued work in our lives despite our struggles.
Eventually, I wrote about Colin and me taking a walk that Sabbath afternoon—to talk. Colin knew he had crossed a line the night before. Twice, he initiated more than an erotic massage. He was frustrated and ashamed over what happened. I could tell he was carrying the weight of this significant sexual failure. One sentence in my journal summarized what I felt about our conversation. Our talk, I wrote, “was mainly for his benefit to work through his feelings and needs.”
Colin asked me how I was feeling, but I don’t believe he appreciated the gravity of the situation and its impact on me. Beyond the fact that we had broken every ethical boundary, how was I to process what had happened? While this was certainly not my first sexual experience with a man, this was different on every level. Colin had become a surrogate father and my spiritual mentor. He was my counselor—my trusted guide out of homosexuality. I was deeply enmeshed in his psycho-theological narrative about the cause and cure of homosexuality. While I said little in response to his question, my head was hurting. When my head hurts, it shows I am repressing the intense frustration, confusion, and anger I experienced as a child when at my wit’s end because of yet another weekend of dad’s heavy drinking.
My journal doesn’t record much of what I was thinking either, but what it does record says it all. In my characteristically understated fashion, I simply wrote, “I am confused. I am alone—again. I did not want to sleep with Colin. I wanted to sleep in the guest room, but I couldn’t say no—not because I was longing for affection or couldn’t resist temptation—but because I couldn’t say no to him.”
As we walked around the park, Colin meandered through the psycho-theological narrative he had told himself for years. He confessed his failure to God, and me, and claimed the forgiveness he believed Jesus provided. He dug deep into that narrative and reaffirmed his belief that this homosexual incident had no power to define who he was.
Despite my being in a semi-dissociative state during this incident, I could tell Colin was struggling with more than a “definition” of who he was or wasn’t. Although Colin could intellectually—through faith—rationalize the incident to a moment of sexual addiction; upon reflection, I sensed his demeanor betrayed a deep longing to be intimate with another man; a longing that had broken through after years of suppression.
Not that simple for me. On one level, I felt implicated in causing Colin’s fall; and on another level, I felt victimized. As he talked, my old, yet familiar, feelings of powerlessness returned and with it a headache that signaled simmering rage. As Colin reaffirmed his commitment to “living as though” he was heterosexual by faith, he left me wondering if I were witness to a pure unadulterated application of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the healing of homosexuality, or to a great deception. Little in my experience leading up to this incident allowed me to know the difference.
There is a deeply frustrating aspect to sharing this experience. When I do, it immediately becomes a headline about “sexual” assault. While that may be true, the violation of my body paled compared to the slow insidious assault I was experiencing on my understanding of self, the realities of changing my orientation, and how the Gospel was to fit into all of this.
On our walk in the park, and in the days that followed, there was something conspicuously missing in our conversations. Colin never asked me not to tell anyone. He didn’t need to! Besides embracing his overarching narrative of change, I had unconsciously taken on a damaging subtext that is more common in “change” ministries than people realize. I had bought into a justification for silence which suggested that those outside the world of reparative therapy—the public and church folk in particular—couldn’t possibly handle or understand what the change process might actually entail. I, like anyone trying to overcome homosexuality, should just work through sexual failures and move on, as Colin did. Except for the personal disappointment Colin expressed regarding this incident, I don’t believe he thought it was significant. I believe Colin could model this attitude because on some level he believed the Gospel mandated or gave permission for such omissions. The other justification for silence was that gay activists would use such information to discredit this important work of God.
This meant that Colin would not tell the Quest Board, let alone his wife Sharon, or his colleague Keith. He would not confess this sexual failure at the next HA meeting or inform the tens of thousands of Ministry magazine readers. Colin`s omission would leave everyone believing he was free from homosexuality except for the rare brush with temptation.
But what was I going to do?