In 2013, the world’s largest “ex-gay” ministry, Exodus International, voluntarily shut its doors. The final nail in its inglorious coffin was Exodus’ then-president, Alan Chambers, admitting, “The majority of people that I have met, and I would say the majority, meaning 99.9% of them, have not experienced a change in their orientation.”
With the crumbling “ex-gay” industry in shambles, it would take a modern miracle to bring it back from the grave. Unfortunately, there is a controversial mega-church cult that literally specializes in reviving corpses. Bethel Church, based in Redding, California, traffics in miracles and is feverishly working to revitalize the lifeless “pray away the gay” industry.
He’s using his “personal story” to attack Joe Biden in ads paid for by the religious right. But is it all a sham?
Bethel is sponsoring the ambitions and up-and-coming Changed Movement, an “ex-gay” group that is positioning itself to become the new Exodus International. While it’s easy to laugh off such thoroughly discredited programs, Changed Movement must be taken seriously because its host church has 11,000 members and a $60 million-dollar annual budget. In 2020, Bethel was the fifth-largest employer in Shasta County, where Redding is the county seat.
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The nearly unlimited resources available to Changed Movement dwarfs the paltry amount available to LGBTQ+ organizations, like Truth Wins Out, tasked with monitoring and debunking the “ex-gay” industry. By sheer power of the purse, Bethel can buy “respectability” for the Changed Movement by drowning the truth with a tsunami of cash.
Bethel is a marketing machine that has made a fortune through Christian publishing and music. This expertise has helped in rebranding the hapless “ex-gay” industry, with Changed Movement sporting sleek hashtags, such as #OnceGay, and slick paraphernalia, like jet-black “Changed” t-shirts, coffee mugs, and even a COVID mask. The organization offers a professional-appearing volume, CHANGED: #OnceGay Stories Book. For those more committed to “transformation, the organization’s website offers a $299 online course that features “testimonials, teachings…dozens of videos and this interactive guidebook.”
Unlike its high-profile predecessor, Exodus, the Changed Movement has operated largely behind the scenes. It has quietly flown beneath the radar by focusing its efforts on Christian media, conservative think tanks, and right-wing lawmakers.
“Today, many of the once-thriving ex-gay ministries are gone,” Atlantic contributor and author Jonathan Merritt wrote in The Washington Post. “But that doesn’t mean the ideas aren’t still taking hold in churches across the country and, thereby, endangering the lives and well-being of a new generation of Christian young people.”
As Changed Movement has matured, it has increasingly entered the public policy arena. It lobbied against legislation prohibiting conversion therapy in Oregon and Minnesota. In a letter to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights it wrote, “It is with sober concern that we ask that you carefully and compassionately address the needs of individuals who seek the right to shape and control their own sexuality apart from state-led control.”
The “ex-gay” group boasted in an October 4, 2022 newsletter, “What we did in D.C.”:
- Shared with over 75 national leaders the connections between our childhood experiences and our sexual identity
- Met with dozens of U.S. Congressmembers’ offices
- Counseled and collaborated with seven powerful conservative advocacy firms who have sought us out for input
On October 31, 2022, Changed Movement signaled its intention to increase its political footprint by naming David Reece its director of civic engagement. “It seems there is purpose on my life to affect public policy in some way,” Reece said in a statement announcing his new lobbying gig. Changed Movement added, “David will play a major role in expanding our advocacy and civic engagement.”
The Changed Movement is also a key signatory to “An International Declaration on ‘Conversion Therapy’ and Therapeutic Choice.” This virulently homophobic document promotes conversion therapy and showcases a worldwide who’s-who of anti-LGBTQ+ activists. It seems Changed Movement is the primary “ex-gay” organization these activists are using to advance their mendacious message.
While the Changed Movement hoped to be considered mainstream, they are the epitome of extreme. Their parent church is a radical dominionist cult that seeks to join church and state. Bethel’s head pastor, Rev. Bill Johnson, is a key proponent of the 7 Mountains Mandate, which believes that conservative Christians should infiltrate civil society and wrest control over the “mountains” of family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business, and government.
Bethel seems to be using Redding as its social laboratory rat. Church members have won a majority on the city council, they have leveraged its deep pockets to essentially buy off the police and fire departments, and 11,000 out of the city’s 90,000 residents belong to the wacky non-denominational church—unnerving the secular majority.
On the church’s massive campus is Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry. The curriculum includes, “how to practice His presence, to witness, heal the sick, prophesy, preach, pray, cast out demons and much more.” The San Francisco Chronicle reported that creepy, obtrusive students roam Redding searching for people to “heal”—often against their will.
Residents say Bethel students are a regular fixture in the city streets, both practicing prayer healing and participating in “treasure hunts,” which the church describes as “seek[ing] out treasures (people) within our community to pray for.”
“Bethel students would pray together and someone in the group would say, ‘God says we’re looking for a person in a plaid shirt,’” Chamberlain said of the treasure hunts. “And then if you were wearing a plaid shirt, they’d stalk you. Oh and God forbid you walk with a limp. They’ll come up and approach you and ask to heal it.”
Curing diseases and “fixing” the broken is a core part of Bethel’s archaic teachings. The church’s leaders make outrageously wacky (and dangerous) claims of healing ailments such as cancer and growing back missing limbs. The church engages in exorcisms to cast out demons, including a spiritual cleansing of a young girl who was later diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder that causes involuntary muscle spasms.
In one extreme case, a two-year-old girl, Olive Alayne, passed away, and the church held a bizarre service to raise her from the dead.
In another controversy, a man fell off from a 200-foot cliff and became a paraplegic. Instead of calling the police or an ambulance while the man struggled for his life, two church members instead prayed to God that the man would be healed.
In one of the most peculiar stories, Bethel Pastor Bill Johnson made gold dust and angel feathers float through the air of a worship service. “The gold dust we still can’t explain, even after my thorough hunt for hidden air vents, or drum kits marinated in glitter. After hour-long interrogations by friends and family, I gave up explaining,” said one former Bethel leader.
To people with critical thinking skills who live in the reality-based community, it’s clear Bethel Church is a scam run by grifting hucksters who prey on hapless suckers. The Changed Movement is part of this medieval mindset and toxic stew of magical thinking.
The leading group attempting to rebrand and reboot the “ex-gay” industry can’t be separated from the bizarre practices and primitive beliefs of the Bethel cult. There is no daylight between them, with the group’s two co-founders, Ken Williams, a Bethel pastor, and Elizabeth Woning, a teacher at the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry.
Williams and Woning also participate in Moral Revolution, a belligerent international rightwing political operation that was founded by Bethel pastor Kris Vallotton. Moral Revolution is a veritable flea market of miracle products that can cure any ailment for a fee. This includes Changed Movement’s $299 program “Finding You.”
Despite Changed Movement’s best efforts to reset the “ex-gay” industry’s shredded reputation, the inconvenience of reality still has a way of encroaching. One of the organization’s star “ex-gay” leaders, who also founded the “Freedom March,” recently announced that she was transgender and would henceforth be referred to as Scarlett. Even after Scarlett’s transition, she can be seen on the top left of a group picture prominently posted on Changed Movement’s homepage. (Isn’t that false advertising?)
Clearly, the new “ex-gay” industry is no different than the old version and will eventually meet the same fate. In the meantime, these greedy charlatans are poised to make a comeback, influence public policy, and wreck the lives of vulnerable and desperate LGBTQ+ people.
Before joining Changed Movement, potential LGBTQ+ clients should beware that this “ex-gay” organization is part of Bethel’s absurd magical “cure” ministry and fraudulent faith healing circus. They should also understand that sexual orientation or gender identity transformation is as likely as growing back limbs or raising children from the dead. The great change they promise is about as real as floating gold dust and angel feathers. I strongly advise entering Changed Movement with your eyes wide open and your wallet firmly shut.
Wayne Besen is the author of Lies with a Straight Face: Exposing the Cranks and Cons Inside the ‘Ex-Gay’ Industry