Warning: This story contains details about self harm.
Three women say they experienced attempts to suppress or change their sexual orientation by leaders at the Third Day Worship Centre (TDWC), an ultra-conservative evangelical church in Kingston, Ontario that has recently come under fire over other allegations of “conversion therapy” and videos of anti-LGBTQ+ sermons circulating online.
Two of the women also allege they were mistreated and punished by church leadership during their struggles with mental health issues, including a suicide attempt.
The women, whose stories span from 2006 to 2015, are coming forward in the wake of a VICE News investigation into other conversion therapy allegations by a former TDWC church member Ben Rodgers against the church’s founder and head pastor Francis Armstrong and other church leadership, which at the time also included Kingston’s current mayor Bryan Paterson. It also comes as Canada, and other countries around the world, are criminalizing conversion therapy.
Paterson, who was involved with the church since 2000 and served as a youth pastor, announced in September that he decided to “step away” from the church following the controversy over the sermons by the lead pastor Francis Armstrong. Paterson and the church have denied ever conducting conversion therapy.
TDWC is a non-denominational evangelical church founded in the 1990s by Francis Armstrong, who is also referred to as “Apostle,” and his wife Edith Armstrong. The church registered as a charity with the Canada Revenue Agency in 1997 and includes a youth ministry, a Bible training centre for future pastors, and a “healing clinic.” The church in Kingston is the flagship church of Third Day Fellowship of Canada; another TDWC church opened in Lethbridge, Alberta in 2011.
The church’s mission, according to its website, is “to bring the power of true, Biblical Christianity to the surrounding culture” and “ignite a nationwide spiritual reformation.” There are hundreds of congregants and services are livestreamed every Sunday.
Neither Francis Armstrong nor any other leader at the Third Day Worship Centre responded to repeated emails, social media messages, and phone calls from VICE News for this story.
In general, religious groups often do not consider their anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and practices to be conversion therapy—and many will openly condemn the practice altogether. However, many experts and survivors say that teachings and attempts to suppress or change someone’s sexual orientation or behaviour are, indeed, conversion therapy, and can lead to severe mental health issues including suicide.
There’s a patchwork of bans and restrictions on conversion therapy in provinces and cities across Canada and the federal government is currently pursuing changes to the criminal code that would ban certain aspects of the practice including advertising and profiting off of it. However, consenting adults would still be able to seek the practice, meaning religious groups can still legally offer it to those who want it.
Nicole Perry was 18 years old in August of 2006 when she started attending Third Day Worship Centre in Kingston. She had been going through some family strife back home in Calgary, and a friend who attended the church told her it would change her life. So she moved across the country.
She quickly settled into the church, attending multiple services a week and eventually the Bible college.
“Everything was fine and dandy. It was nice,” Perry told VICE News. “It had a family, community atmosphere.”
One day during a Sunday church service, Perry said Francis Armstrong, the lead pastor and TDWC founder, pulled her up to the front and gave her a “prophecy” regarding her future.
“He spoke a prophecy over me, this fancy word meaning that I had some sort of purpose in my life,” Perry said. “I felt important.”
But at the same time, she began to feel the burden of having to live up to that expectation.“I never felt like I was good enough.”
By 2008, Perry was one of four women chosen to be the first cohort to be part of “Esther House,” a new church program for women to live together and get mentorship from church leaders on how to be a good Christian women and prepare for the future.
Each woman, who was in their late teens and early 20s, paid $450 per month in rent and was encouraged to pay an additional tithe to the church, Perry said. The residence was a four-bedroom house located in Kingston.
When she and the other women weren’t doing chores around the house or part-time work, Perry said they spent much of their time at the church volunteering or contributing to worship services.
Perry said by this point the pressures she felt began to build up more, and she said she was constantly being scolded or “rebuked,” as it was referred to within the church, by Armstrong and others at the church for various infractions like misbehaving, not doing her chores, or somehow violating the Bible. She said she was rebuked on multiple occasions for not “dancing enough” or “praising enough” at the front of the church during services.
“You had to be a perfect Christian,” Perry said. “It might have been invisible expectations…they might not have necessarily been like, ‘you have to do this.’ But you knew if you didn't, that you would be called out.”
By October 2009, Perry said that she started to feel more depressed and overwhelmed by these pressures she felt. At the same time, she started to become closer with another girl who lived in the Esther House named Jelisa Mackenzie. They were around the same age and just clicked right away. They also both had trouble sleeping at night and Mackenzie started sleeping with Perry in her bedroom.
Within weeks, Perry and Mackenize started a romantic relationship, something they both knew was strictly prohibited by the church, and their own religious beliefs. Neither of them had been with a woman before.
“That’s the worst thing you could do,” Perry said. “We kept being told that [homosexuality] is the biggest sin.”
Mackenzie, and other former church members, said it was well-known within the church that same-sex relationships would not be tolerated.
“The way that they believe the Bible and would preach it is, ‘If you're gay, you're going to hell,’” Mackenzie, who attended the church from 2008 to 2011, told VICE News.
Perry said her depression continued to get worse. Around this time, she began self-medicating with Gravol and over-the-counter sleep aids. She said she sometimes would take so many just to fall asleep to get through the day. Then, she started cutting herself on her leg to the point where it would bleed through her pants.
“It was so severe that I should have gotten stitches,” Perry said. Even though Mackenzie told people at the church about Perry’s destructive behaviour and struggles, Perry said that the church leadership never referred her to a medical doctor or offered support for these issues. Instead, she said she continued to be scolded for various infractions including not wanting to go to church services.
Within a couple of weeks, Perry said a church counsellor named Gerry Wein and another church member found out that Perry and Mackenzie were sleeping in the same bed, but weren’t yet aware that they were romantically involved. Perry said Wein called her into her office and Wein and another church member offered to “pray over the spirits” in her bedroom.
Things stayed the same until a couple months later in January 2010, when someone else overheard Perry and Mackenzie being intimate and reported it to church leaders including Francis Armstrong.
“I don't know what she heard to this day, but whatever she heard was incriminating enough,” Mackenzie said.
Perry said she was quickly kicked out of the house and asked to stay with a married couple who belonged to the church instead. Mackenzie continued to live at the residence, but the pair weren’t allowed to see or speak to each other. Nonetheless, they still saw and spoke to each other in secret.
The following month, in February, Perry hit an all-time low. She attended the Sunday evening service at the behest of the couple she was living with, but left early. She made her way home and overdosed on Gravol behind a school in an attempt to take her life. Mackenzie showed up with a Kingston police officer and Francis Armstrong, and Perry was rushed to the hospital.
Even though Mackenzie was in the waiting room, Perry said Armstrong wouldn’t let Mackenzie see her. Perry ended up being held in the hospital on a three-day psychiatric hold, and the pair didn’t see each other during the duration of her hospital stay.
“I had basically no contact with the outside world. So I didn't know what was going on. I was left abandoned,” Perry said.
During this time, Perry said that Armstrong and another church member went through her phone and her messages and found intimate texts between Perry and Mackenzie.
Mackenzie said the church leaders made her change her phone number and delete Perry from her own phone the following day.
Three days later, Perry said she was picked up at the hospital at about five in the morning by two men from the church. She said they drove her to the Toronto airport and put her on a plane to British Columbia where her mother was living.
“I wouldn’t have left Kingston if I had any choice,” she said. “My brain wasn’t really functioning. I wasn’t in a right frame of mind.” Perry said that, at this time, the church and its members were like her family in Kingston—she had no other close contacts. And because she was in a poor mental state, she didn’t feel able to push back or go against them.
After leaving Ontario, Perry was diagnosed with anxiety and PTSD and has only recently healed from the experience.
“It's not something I would want anybody else to have to go through,” she said.
Nearly five years later, in 2015, Perry heard that her cousin from New Brunswick, Ashley Waugh, was planning to attend Third Day and join the Esther program, just as she had. Perry and Waugh weren’t really close and didn’t speak much, but Perry said she told her mother to try to warn Waugh and her family not to let her go.
The warning didn’t work.
That June, Waugh was 23 years old and struggling with drug and alcohol addictions. She was trying to get on waitlists for treatment programs across Canada, and generally in search of meaning in her life. That month, she said, Francis Armstrong attended her family’s church in St. George, New Brunswick to give a guest sermon.
Armstrong then met with Waugh and her father, she said, and told them about Esther House, saying they would help Waugh with her addictions and help her live a Biblical life.
Waugh thought Armstrong’s proposal would save her. “It sounded perfect,” Waugh told VICE News. “At this point I just wanted the help.”
She arrived in Kingston within a week and moved into Esther House with a group of women. Waugh said she had to go cold turkey off drugs and alcohol. She said it wasn’t ideal, but she ended up getting sober, and she appreciated the sense of community she began to feel.
She quickly became friends with another young woman at the church. Within a few weeks, Waugh said they began a romantic relationship and spent much of their time together. She had never been with another woman before, and was falling in love. She said she realized that she was gay, although it was something she struggled with because she was taught from a young age that being LGBTQ+ was a sin that “ultimately, damned you to hell.” This idea was also preached and taught frequently at TDWC.
And so, like Perry and Mackenzie, they told no one about their relationship.
“We were terrified. And that's the biggest reason why it was such a secret,” Waugh said.
One night, Waugh said her girlfriend accidentally pocket-dialed someone at the church on her cell phone as they were discussing their relationship and how they were nervous about it.
“She looked down at her phone and saw that she had made a call,” Waugh said. When they realized what had happened, they planned for possible punishment and repercussions.
“We were so scared. We were trying to make a plan, we were like ‘are we going to lie’?”
The next day, Waugh said she was called into the office of another church leader, Gerry Wein. Waugh said that Wein had been her counsellor and they had been meeting once a week to talk about her addictions and life.
“She told me that if I called myself a lesbian, then that label would be stuck to me for the rest of my life; that it would doom me,” Waugh said. “The way I felt during the meeting was, if I ever called myself a lesbian, that would be the end of it, and I can't come back from it. That I would be going to hell…that it would ruin my life forever.”
Waugh said that Wein told her that her father had been called by the church’s secretary, who told him she was being kicked out of the church and needed to leave as soon as possible. Waugh said they made her girlfriend block and delete her off of Facebook and that they blocked her number from her phone.
Wein did not respond to calls and texts from VICE News.
The following day, Waugh said she was put on a flight back to New Brunswick. She and her girlfriend ended up reuniting shortly after and living together for a couple of years before they ultimately broke up.
Waugh said the experience caused her intense emotional trauma that continues to stay with her.
"Up until this year, I never called myself a lesbian because I was so scared,” said Waugh, who now works with vulnerable and homeless youth at a centre in New Brunswick. “Now, five years later, I'm slowly trying to, in my words, ‘un-brainwash’ myself, and let myself be who I am and be OK with that.”
“I’ve finally found my voice and I’m not ashamed. I want the younger generation to know that they can fight back if they ever go through something like this.”
Amber Baker began attending TDWC in the fall of 2010 when she was 16 years old after her friend, Kristina Lane, recommended she join the church’s youth group. Baker was struggling with the death of her father and depression.
“At the time, I genuinely believed that because she was dealing with a lot of personal issues at the time that the church was something that could help her,” Lane told VICE News.
Though Baker now identifies as straight, she had a girlfriend she had been with for a couple of months at the time. She said another young member of the church approached her after a service one weekend and asked if she was gay, and she said yes. Baker had come out as gay two years earlier when she was 14.
One weekday night, a woman from the church asked Baker to come to the church’s “healing clinic” to help get rid of the “demons” that she said were making her gay, and therefore sinful. “They wanted to pray the gay away,” Baker said.
According to the church’s website, the healing clinic, referred to as The Kingston Healing Clinic, has “trained teams [ready] to pray and believe with you for your healing.”
“It was made to be seen like a good thing,” Baker said. “I was definitely nervous. But I was hopeful that they would be able to help, because I really felt like that’s what they wanted to do is just help me and make a better life for me.”
Baker said she remembers sitting in a chair in an office at the church and that the woman and another woman from the church prayed over her by laying hands on her for about 20 minutes. She said she can’t remember every word they said, but she said, “I remember them saying ‘rid the demons, rid the demons’ … it was all pertaining to sexuality.”
After the praying was finished, Baker said the two women told her to stop talking to her girlfriend and take down the gay pride flag that she had hanging in her bedroom, and to get rid of any other items that had rainbows or pride symbols. Baker did stop talking to her girlfriend, but kept the flag up.
Baker said she was also told by someone else at the church to stop taking her antidepressant medications “because God would heal.” So she went off of the medications, which she said resulted in intense mood swings and angry outbursts.
After three months of not taking her medication, Baker had a particularly violent outburst one day outside of her house located in downtown Kingston.
“I was super angry and couldn't control myself. I was yelling at people that I knew, and I couldn't calm down. I was threatening to harm myself, too.”
A friend took her to the emergency room. Baker said she wasn’t admitted to the hospital, but the doctor put her back on antidepressants and warned that she shouldn’t just stop taking them without consulting medical advice. “I started to feel better within a couple of weeks,” she said.
Baker didn’t tell anyone at the church about going to the emergency room, and never told them that she went back on the medications. “I think that they were happy that God healed me, supposedly, in their mind,” she said.
A few months later, by the summer of 2011 and by the time she was 17, Baker said she started getting more friends outside of the church and eventually left altogether.
“When I started going there, I didn't have a lot of friends. I didn't have a lot of family. So I appreciated that support,” Baker said. “And then as I started getting out and you know, making my own friends and relationships, that's what kind of made me go, ‘This isn't right. They're not accepting me.’”
“In the end, no one ever contacted me again,” she said.
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter.