14 July 2009. After driving 15 hours through the night, I wearily parked my car at Wheaton College just outside Chicago. Groggy and petrified, I stepped into the bizarre new universe that was the Exodus Freedom Conference – an alien reality of unmasked interiors around every bend.
The theme of that 2009 conference was “Make Us One,” and by the end of that momentous week, I certainly experienced a “oneness” with other Christians unmatched in the twenty-and-three years prior.
The 2009 Exodus Freedom Conference was my first; four years later, the 2013 Exodus Freedom Conference would be my second. And my last.
20 June 2013. After surviving one maddening hour of Los Angeles traffic, I parked my car at Concordia University in Irvine, California, surrounded by silent brown hills as I reentered the bizarre Exodus universe of yesteryear – the last Exodus Freedom Conference I or anyone would ever see.
Just one day earlier, Exodus International announced its impending shutdown – a blog post I’ll tackle next week. For the first part of this three-post Exodus series, I want to focus on my initial impressions on the Exodus Freedom Conference of 2013 and how it compared to my experience in 2009.
This year’s conference theme was “True Story.” Thus, what will follow in this three-part series is my “true story.” A true story none can deny, appeal, or take from me.
The true story of my last Exodus Freedom Conference.
How the Exodus Freedom Conference Changed from 2009 to 2013
My first thoughts while walking the solitary path to the sign-in table went something like this: gosh, everything seems so barren.
Indeed, over the next hour I realized something readily apparent: there weren’t nearly as many attendants as were in Wheaton four years prior — maybe 200 people, one-fourth the size from 2009.
Shrunken numbers aside, I reacquainted and acquainted myself with some long lost and new faces alike, and I recognized something quite significant about how I fit into the demographics of this year’s conference:
Four years earlier in Illinois, I was a scared college student who’d only told his four family members about his sinister struggle with homosexuality; four years later in southern California, I was a much more confident young adult who’d not only confided in dozens others, but who had also written a book about his same-sex attractions.
The same book I first envisioned at the Exodus Freedom Conference in Wheaton was the very book I’d actually published 2 mere months before Irvine. How amazing and symbolic to come full-circle at this same conference four years later.
God is all about that kind of stuff.
Looking back on the last four years — Exodus conference to Exodus conference — I felt empowered by such evident growth, both masculine and spiritual.
How the Exodus Freedom Conference Remained Unchanged from 2009 to 2013
Whether the Exodus Freedom Conference had 1,000 people or 100, the numbers had no bearing on the people themselves. These precious people were and still are beautiful. Struggles aside, I’m honored to be “one of them.” A brother.
Anyone who goes to an Exodus Freedom Conference has to surrender. You just have to. You might have your deep dark secrets in the real world, but in this bizarre Exodus universe, you cannot hide.
Even if I’ve never met you, I know why you’re there, and you know why I’m there.
And it’s incredible — once you move past the jarring openness of it all.
Despite being a conference primarily for Christian attendants wrestling with same-sex attractions, the Exodus Freedom Conference does feature some attendants who don’t have SSA themselves.
I will definitely talk more about those amazing “OSA” folks later in this series. In the meantime, I’ll let y’all try to decipher what “OSA” means.
But getting back to the people – goodness, the people. I’m a mostly reserved introvert in real life, and even I had little trouble starting conversations with guys I’d never met, instantly sharing the deepest rawest parts of our stories without any reservation.
Those kinds of conversations just doesn’t happen as instantaneously in the “real” world — the real Christian world. In the real Christian world, it takes weeks, months, years to pry those dirty masks off.
Not at Exodus.
I met broken beautiful guys from Maryland, Illinois, Washington, Texas, Florida, and I heard there were even some attendees from as far away as Thailand. Forget the fact that we’re all gay or SSA or romantically challenged or whatever you want to label us.
Yeah, we’re messed up. And we pretty much know that.
But we’re so much more.
How the Exodus Freedom Conference Resonated from 2009 to 2013
One of my favorite aspects of the 2013 Exodus Freedom Conference just as it was in 2009 was simply worshiping with my fellow believers. Fellow strugglers. We had one celebration service in the morning and one in the evening.
Each service opened with someone praying, music playing, and I was transported to Paradise both times.
It’s one thing to worship God in a church where most everyone ferociously upholds their carefully crafted masks of “I’m fine” and “Everything’s great with me how about you?”
It’s quite another thing altogether to worship God at a conference where everyone has willingly entered the room unmasked, sexual and spiritual struggles often exposed like a pulsing gash.
Have you ever experienced worship like that? I experienced similar vulnerability sessions with my summer missions team in Milwaukee, and gosh. Just gosh.
It might sound incredibly awkward to worship Jesus amid such stinging vulnerability, but you know what? Who cares? Who cares that most everyone in that chapel was attracted to the same sex?
For hours, every one of us worshiped the same Christ who loved and died for each of us, proclaiming Him our “Cornerstone,” where the weak are made strong in His arms of love.
I simply can’t put it into words — singing my very favorite Hillsong worship ballad with 200 fellow unmasked believers.
I’m telling you, it was Heaven. A slice of the unhinged Paradise to come. At the conclusion of both celebration services — especially the evening one — I didn’t want to leave.
How do you leave Paradise?
>>To be continued Wednesday.