By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
As if they're browsing at a mall, the faithful and the seeker circle the upper floor of Prestonwood Baptist's spacious recreation center on a recent Saturday. Some 550 men and women have braved the pounding rain to be here for this singles seminar, and they walk from door to door, scanning the signs that advertise topics to be discussed inside.
In one room, there's "Spiritual Recuperation." That packs them in. In another, there's "The Importance of Apologetics." It's popular enough, far more so than, say, what's offered across the way in Room 206.
There, like a lone wolf, a sign on a black metal stand challenges those who pass by.
"Prescription for the Sexually Wounded," it reads. For those who have enough moxie or whatever else it takes to admit their wounds, Randy Thomas is waiting inside for them, for those he calls the sexually broken.
The Plano church has invited him to speak today, and to anyone who'll listen, he has much to tell: of his work with an "ex-gay" ministry called Living Hope, where he ministers to those yearning to cast off their homosexuality, and of his own former gay lifestyle.
Thomas, a Southern Baptist himself, refuses to make peace with the popular culture, one that's increasingly tolerant of homosexuality. So here he is at this church, in a kind of no-man's land all his own, distanced from the secular culture at large and even from many evangelical Christians, who remain wary of dealing with sexual issues, particularly homosexuality. Through his eight years of professed abstinence from sex, Thomas says he hasn't stopped addressing the desires that lie in people's hearts or speaking about his own encounter one day with a God that told him that homosexuality--and any other sex outside of marriage, for that matter--is a sin.
The mostly empty seats before him, though, indicate that few people want his help today. Many pass by the room. Others briefly stop at the threshold, as if they're on the cusp of admitting--just by their silent peek into Room 206--that they have some dark, secret shame lodged in their hearts and minds.
Inevitably, though, they move on. It takes a while for Thomas to get a full audience. But like the now-ebbing rain outside, they eventually trickle in. Without much exchange of words, about 20 men and women take their seats before Thomas, a heavyset, bearded man of 32 whose facial features resemble those of fitness guru Richard Simmons. All look at him; they're ready to hear what he has to say.
"This is a very important issue, one that is a very 'hot potato' topic in the church," says Thomas, standing with a mini-microphone in his hand, while Ricky Chelette, another leader in his Arlington-based ministry, sits to the side. (Chelette, who says he was sexually abused as a child by his step-grandfather, runs the ministry's private online forum, which receives about 40 posts a day from teenagers grappling with their sexuality.) "Eight years ago I began a process of leaving homosexuality," says Thomas, his soft-spoken, subdued voice barely changing its tone or giving any hint of his old wild self: his nights of dancing in clubs until dawn while high on ecstasy, his days of frequenting Dallas' gay bars. Those times are gone, he says. "I say that with much love for my savior Jesus Christ, who is willing to go oftentimes where the church won't.
"Eight years down the road," he says evenly, seriously, as a thick silver cross hangs from his neck, "I can say for a fact and without reservation that I am no longer a gay man."
A middle-aged man in the back of the room claps. Others join in, awkwardly, in a short spurt of broken applause that lasts a second or two.
"I do not identify myself as gay," says Thomas. Brazenly, unflinchingly, he then reveals, "That doesn't mean that I'm not affected from time to time by same-sex attraction.
"However, I have experienced a significant orientation shift," he quickly adds, sounding clinical about this "shift," which he says only occurred four years into his conversion. "I had a physical attraction [for a woman], not a lustful attraction," he later says of this "longing to be tender and romantic" that made him feel for the first time as if "having sex with a woman was not repugnant, but actually something that I felt was possible." All that talk about homosexuality being genetic isn't proven, he tells the group before him now. Rather, it was sin--and a father who left his family when Thomas was 10 and from whom Thomas is still estranged--that made him fantasize about men, beginning at the age of 10, with the beefy Bo and Luke from The Dukes of Hazzard. Sin and sin alone, he tells them, led him to have sex with another teenager when Thomas was 16. But even if it were true, even if homosexuals were born that way and not made, that reality wouldn't change what his Bible tells him.
"We're spiritual beings first," he says. "Even if it were proven to be genetic, that wouldn't make it a moral right." God, he reminds them, doesn't have a whole lot of good to say about mankind after Genesis' third chapter.