By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Thomas has no previous work as a minister and no counseling credentials. (He completed only two years of college, mainly at Tarrant County Junior College, where he studied social work.) His role, as he sees it, is to minister to and pray for people. He spends his days at Living Hope's office, where he answers calls from people grappling with issues, even those not related to homosexuality. One woman called because she was a survivor of abuse, another because he's a heterosexual sex addict. And he meets with people interested in attending Living Hope's meetings.
Most of the people who come through his door identify with a major Christian denomination. The remainder have no religious background or are coming straight out of a gay lifestyle.
As Thomas sees it, an "orientation shift" starts only when those to whom he ministers begin to see God's "original intent" for creation. For Thomas, homosexuality isn't an illness; it's just another example of the world's fallen, spiritual state.
At Living Hope, there is no formal membership. Often, news of the ministry spreads through word of mouth. Those who come may give a donation of $3, but it's never required. Of the ministry's annual budget of $51,000, most of it is generated through the 1,200 newsletters that are mailed to individuals and churches in North Texas and nationwide. From that sum, Thomas draws a weekly salary of about $265. Once in a while, he also receives a donation from a church. "Nothing ever big," he says.
Four times a week, he attends the ministry's nightly meetings, which are held in Dallas, Garland, and Arlington. At those times, he joins attendees in what he calls praise and worship, as well as Bible study. Later, people break off into groups of four or five to discuss issues they're facing.
Through the years, Thomas says, he's seen between 500 to 600 people come to the ministry, and of those going to the weekly meetings, anywhere from six months' to two years' attendance indicates significant strides in shaking their homosexuality. Those who don't last long in the group are the ones who continue to go to gay bars or fail to let go of their gay identity, he says.
For the many ex-gays--or "overcomers," as Thomas prefers to call himself--there are the inevitable tears that come from revealing secrets that have plagued them with shame and guilt for years.
Kelley is one of those who has found her way to Living Hope. The 39-year-old woman, who doesn't want her last name printed, knows that if she turned her back on God, even for just a little while, she would be bisexual. When she started going to the ministry's group meetings two years ago, she shared her secret shame: masturbation. "It's what I do with my mind in order to masturbate," she says vaguely. "My thoughts are not good." It had been 10 years since she left behind the "perverted realm" of a same-sex relationship that lasted three years. But masturbation was still an issue; always had been, in fact, as far back as the third grade, when a teacher caught Kelley sitting at her desk with her hand down her skirt.
She can share that secret now, she says, only because little by little, her time at Living Hope has taught her to overcome the shame and to answer for her actions.
"Sometimes," says Kelley, a short, blonde woman, "the group leader will say, 'Would you like us to hold you accountable to that?'" She tells them yes. "That gives them permission to ask.
"The masturbation thing," she says now, "I've been abstaining for a year."
Many others would call her abstinence an unhealthy repression. (As Madonna, with her in-your-face bravado, sings in her ode to self-expression, "It's human nature and I'm not sorry...express yourself, don't repress yourself.") But Kelley views it as a spiritual accomplishment, one she set out to achieve from the day she first walked into Thomas' ministry office and told him that she needed an "accountability group."
Now, at the singles seminar in Plano, Thomas looks at a fresh batch of faces waiting to hear what else he has to say. "I want you to know that God cherishes you and your sexuality," he says softly. "Let the Lord show you what that means." He puts the mike down; he's done speaking.
Soon, a heavyset woman approaches him, with tears brewing just beneath the surface. In a barely audible voice, she tells him she's been racked with guilt for a year, ever since that day when--for the first time in her 35 years--she and another woman shared a long, passionate kiss. She's come to Thomas for strength, to know she'll be all right.
After listening to her story of how childhood molestation led her to kiss a woman, Thomas puts his hand on her shoulder and lowers his head. "Lord, come to her as a protection," he says softly, his eyes closed. "Lord, I ask for forgiveness for people who have hurt your daughter. Lord, I turn my sister to you. Ordain her steps. In Jesus' name."
"Satan can lie to you so much," says the woman, a secretary named Becky. "I've been a straitlaced Christian all my life," she says, dabbing at tears, "but there's been so much abuse that I fell into a same-sex relationship.