When Michael O’Leary learned a faith-based drug and alcohol recovery group was looking to move its rehabilitation center for women into his Clifton neighborhood, he welcomed the idea. The 52-year-old grew up in the South End, but he and his partner moved into the diverse community more than a decade ago because it was so inclusive.
Upon reviewing the group’s literature, however, O’Leary found, among other things, a questionnaire that raised the issue of sexual orientation. The material asked interested participants if they were wiling to recognize that being homosexual is sinful, end any lesbian relationships, and abandon being gay altogether.
The 10-page admission form also asks the women who enter the program if they masturbate, and if so, how often, and if they’re willing to stop.
“I don’t know enough about the program to say what it’s all about, but having read their materials it looks like a ‘gay no more’ organization that’s disguising itself as supposedly rehab for alcohol and drug abuse,” says O’Leary. “And what’s with the fixation on female masturbation?”
Since 1997, Teen Challenge of Kentucky has been providing teens, adults and families with faith-based solutions to substance abuse. With a growing waiting list of more than a dozen young women, the group’s Louisville chapter is looking for bigger digs and hoping to purchase the former Salvation Army building in Clifton.
But the possible relocation has raised a red flag with residents and gay rights activists who worry about the group’s alleged “deprogramming” underpinnings and are concerned that the evangelical organization is bringing its anti-gay message into one of the city’s more progressive neighborhoods.
Last Friday, during a preliminary public meeting required by city zoning laws, dozens of residents assembled to confront the group’s leaders about their intentions.
And though many welcome a residential rehab center in their neighborhood, some found the message in the brochure unsettling.
“We’re a conservative, faith-based program, and this is not going to be for everybody,” the Rev. Clayton Arp, state director of the organization, told the crowd. “And as a conservative, faith-based program, we certainly have our preferences, so that’s why that’s a part of the admission form.”
The local chapter, called Priscilla’s Place, houses 10 women who live together in a cramped house along East Broadway. Besides drug and alcohol counseling, the group’s staff help the women overcome eating disorders, gambling addictions and the emotional wounds caused by domestic violence.
Despite falling under the umbrella name of Teen Challenge, the Louisville chapter caters to adult women. Priscilla’s Place encourages clients to commit to at least five months of treatment, with the recommendation that they then complete an additional 10 months at one of their long-term programs offered in several nearby states.
Priscilla’s Place works with women entering the program voluntarily as well as those referred by the state court system as an alternative to incarceration, usually the result of drug or alcohol abuse.
In a telephone interview, Arp says the group does not deny entry based on sexual orientation and is dedicated to counseling women with addictions and other behaviors that “master a person’s life.”
Asked if the group considers homosexuality one of those addictive behaviors, Arp says yes, adding that personally, he believes a person can be converted back to heterosexuality. But he insists the primary focus at Priscilla’s Place remains treating substance abuse.
“If a young lady has some lesbian tendencies, that’s her choice, and we may not be the type of program for her because it’s group living,” he says. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Right now, it has been a non-issue for our group.”
Founded in 1958 by David Wilkerson — an Assemblies of God pastor who once said he received a vision from God regarding the country’s future — Teen Challenge is an evangelical recovery organization with more than 200 chapters nationwide.
While many faith-based social-service agencies do not proselytize, Teen Challenge regularly cites Jesus among the reasons for recovery and aggressively delivers a religious message to participants. Local gay rights activists say the organization’s admission form suggests they believe gays and lesbians can be deprogrammed.
“The only challenge, really, is to see how long people can be coerced into lying about themselves and their identity,” says Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville nonprofit dedicated to promoting gay rights. “It definitely smells of the ‘ex-gay movement’ programs that were running rampant in the ’70s with the notion that someone could be turned.”
But Rebecca Henslee, head of women’s ministry at Priscilla’s Place, says two women in the local chapter are lesbians, and they have not been discriminated against or pressured to turn straight.
“From the time they come in the program, we are very clear that from a biblical standpoint, we do teach against homosexuality. At the same time, we are not trying to indoctrinate anyone,” she says. “If you don’t believe the (Bible) says that (homosexuality is wrong), then we’re not going to force you. You’re welcome to come and stay here, but you need to understand that you’re going to hear this teaching.”
Despite their opposition to the recovery group’s message, the Fairness Campaign and concerned Clifton residents have not declared any action — yet. Meanwhile, Teen Challenge’s application for a permit to operate at the former Salvation Army property is moving forward to the Board of Zoning Adjustment for review.
Given the community’s reaction thus far, however, the group’s leaders are considering looking for another location, saying they are not interested in engaging in a fight where they’re not welcome.
According to Sharon Duncan, a member of Southeast Christian Church and volunteer with the recovery group, it’s disappointing that the organization’s mission is being entangled in this debate.
“The people in this program are here by choice, and if they’re going to be offended by (the group’s teachings on homosexuality), then they don’t have to be there,” she says. “I think any place that helps women you should support. It doesn’t matter if they’re gay or straight. They can be what they want to be when they leave.”