An ex-member of an ultra-conservative Evangelical church in Kingston, Ontario alleges he experienced conversion therapy by the church’s leadership, which at the time included the city’s current mayor Bryan Paterson. Paterson previously served as a youth pastor before he was elected mayor in 2014 and had been involved with the church since 2000.
Ben Rodgers, a former member of the Third Day Worship Centre, told VICE News he was openly gay when he started attending TDWC in 2004 when he was 19 years old. But he says he was quickly warned by church leaders that homosexuality was a “sin” for which he must repent, and they repeatedly, over the course of a year, counselled him and prayed over him to “rid” him of the “demons” they said made him gay, and therefore unable to be a “true Christian.”
“Their version of ‘pray away the gay’ is what I ended up having to go through to make them believe that I wanted to be a Christian,” said Rodgers, who left the church in 2005 and is now 36. “It was a very scary thing, thinking back on it. I got through it, I survived.”
In an email to VICE News, Paterson denied “certain claims” made by Rodgers’ as “false or inaccurate.”
“I do not condone conversion therapy in any shape or form and I never participated in conversion therapy,” said Paterson, who added that he served as a part-time youth pastor at TDWC from 2005 to 2009, and had been attending the church since 2000.
“While I don’t agree with all his recollections as it relates to my time at TDWC, I do believe that these conversations are important as we work towards building an inclusive and caring community.”
Paterson previously came under scrutiny in 2014 during his mayoral race for his involvement with the church over videos that showed him discussing the “hypersexualization” of youth.
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Rodgers has gone public about his alleged experiences for the first time, including in a recent interview posted to Youtube, as the Third Day Worship Centre is already embroiled in controversy. Last month, widely circulated video clips of anti-LGBTQ+ sermons by the church’s lead pastor and founder Francis Armstrong prompted outcry and condemnation from community members. Armstrong is also shown spouting debunked conspiracy theories about the pandemic. The church, which livestreams its services that are primarily led by Armstrong, subsequently scrubbed its video archive of sermons from its website.
Video clips of those sermons that were uploaded onto Dailymotion were taken down this week after VICE News reached out to the church for comment for this story.
Within days of the news coverage surrounding those videos, Mayor Paterson announced in September on his website his decision to “step away” from the church after being a member for years, saying the views expressed in the videos “do not reflect my heart” or “the vision of inclusion and respect” he has for the city of Kingston, located about three hours east of Toronto.
Armstrong told VICE News in an email that his church stands “against hate and homophobia” and “have never offered or engaged in such conversion therapy.” Armstrong wrote that he “will not be available for an interview” and did not respond to a list of questions and allegations subsequently sent by VICE News. A woman named Debbie Wilson who answered the church’s phone told VICE News that Armstrong “did the initial email and that’s all he was planning on doing.”
Rodgers said the renewed public scrutiny of the church’s anti-LGBTQ+ messaging motivated him to speak out. Experts say survivor accounts such as Rodgers’ are important in order to draw attention toward religious-based conversion therapy, which continues to occur in various forms—often underground—across Canada and around the world, including in places where the practice is banned.
Conversion therapy is the widely condemned pseudoscientific practice of trying change or suppress someone’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. It has been shown to lead to serious mental health issues and increased risk of suicide.
Experts also say there can be disagreement over what actually counts as conversion therapy. For those who believe that being LGBTQ+ is incompatible with the Bible and with being Christian, and that it’s their duty to help “save” people from it, they likely do not perceve attempts to suppress or change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity as conversion therapy or something malicious.
“For us, it's clear: if you're trying to change someone's orientation, it's because you think there's something wrong with them,” André Gagne, a theology professor at Concordia University who researches the Christian Right, told VICE News. “But for them, they love the person, but they hate the sin … they're not against the person. They're against their behavior.”
Earlier this month, the Liberal government retabled its conversion therapy legislation that, if passed, would make it a crime to force someone to undergo conversion therapy against their will, ban conversion therapy for children, make it illegal for people to profit from conversion therapy or advertise for it. The proposed law, Bill C-6, would also allow Canadian courts to seize conversion therapy promotional materials and order it removed from the internet.
Consenting adults would continue to be allowed to pursue conversion therapy, or “reparative therapy,” as it’s sometimes called.
In 2015, Ontario became the first Canadian jurisdiction to ban medical practitioners from conducting conversion therapy; Ontario’s ban applies only to children under 18. Conversion therapy, which largely takes place within informal religious settings, has also been banned in a number of jurisdictions in the U.S., and five countries have imposed national bans, most recently, Germany.
Rodgers began attending Third Day Worship Centre in the summer of 2004—one year before Canada legalized gay marriage—after he moved to Kingston from Bancroft, a small town a couple hours away.
Rodgers said the church’s stance on homosexuality was apparent almost immediately after he started attending services, as Armstrong—who is also referred to as “Apostle” by church members—and other pastors repeatedly preached about how it was against God’s plan and was an abomination. Another former church member, Jenn O’Rourke, who knew Rodgers at the time, told VICE News that Armstrong, Paterson, and other leaders preached about how homosexuality was a sin, as was any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage.
“Can somebody be a homosexual and not practicing, and still be a Christian?” asks Armstrong in an undated clip of one of his sermons. “The answer is still the same: No! … Homosexuality is an abomination onto God; are you listening to me? And those that live like that are going to end up in hell!”
Video clips from as recent as 2019 show Armstrong making homophobic and transphobic remarks, including: “We were sleeping when the LGBT movement took over education and are trying to take over every other facet of our lives…until we wake up and hear the alarm of heaven, we are going to sleep as other atrocities come into our nation.”
Paterson said in the email that views regarding homosexuality within many churches 15 years ago are different from what they are now. “From what I can recall, the only time I spoke about this topic was in the context of the same sex marriage conversation, which at the time, was also very much a national topic of conversation,” Paterson wrote.
"However, my views like many others have changed during that time. I absolutely support and value our LGBTQ community.
Even though Rodgers said he was being told that his identity was a sin, he desperately wanted to fit in and believed he needed to follow the church’s teachings to be accepted.
“I was a Christian. I loved my faith. And these were my new spiritual leaders,” Rodgers said. “I was trying to become a better person. And the only way that these people saw that able to be possible was to condemn it, to repent, and to let them pray over me and to try to cast out the lustful demons and the demons of sex, homosexuality and to walk a new and holy path.”
By July of 2004, Rodgers joined the church’s young adult ministry and eventually started getting mentorship and counselling with church leaders including Paterson, he says.
“When I was involved in the youth ministry, I do remember Ben [Rodgers] and recall we had conversations about life and faith as I would with others in the church at the time,” Paterson wrote to VICE News.
During these counselling sessions and meetings is when Rodgers says he disclosed to Paterson, Armstrong, and others at the church that he had been sexually abused as a child, something he hadn’t told anyone before.
“That was a really big step,” Rodgers said. “My mother didn't even know that at the time.” But instead of feeling supported in his trauma, Rodgers said the church made him feel that the abuse was his fault—and that it had somehow caused him to become gay.
“They told me that I had let a male role model, an older male role model, take advantage of me. And the enemy was able to basically get his hold on me through that lustful nature and into me. And those sins of lust and immorality became the demons of homosexuality over me,” he said.
Paterson denies that Rodgers told him about his experience with sexual abuse. “[T]his was not disclosed to me and I would never make that statement to him or anyone else. This is the first I’m hearing this, and I find it incredibly disturbing that anyone would say that,” he wrote.
That August, Rodgers says he was encouraged to carry out a three-day fast in order to prepare for a church service during which he would be prayed over, in front of everyone, specifically in an attempt to make him straight.
“God, I confess to you my sins of Homosexuality and I humbly ask for your forgiveness,” Rodgers wrote in a journal he kept at the time, dated August 4th, days before the service. “Help me, God, to be rid of this Spirit of lust and homosexuality.”
At the service the following Sunday, Rodgers said that Armstrong and other leaders laid hands on him and yelled out prayers that called for “casting out the demons of homosexuality.” Rodgers said he could not remember whether Paterson was present at this service.
Paterson said he does not recall such a service, “nor did I pray over him [Rodgers] or anyone in that way.”
O’Rourke, the other former TDWC member, does not recall a specific church service during which Rodgers was prayed over in an attempt to turn him straight. But, she said she saw him being prayed over often—and this type of practice was not unusual—although she wasn’t aware of the specific reasons for it. “I do recall Ben being prayed over many times,” she said.
Rodgers said that he did not know what conversion therapy was at the time, he has now concluded that is what these alleged efforts amounted to.
Nick Schiavo, the founder of No Conversion Canada, an advocacy group for conversion therapy survivors that supports banning the practice, said that survivors may only come to see what they experience to be conversion therapy years later.
“When you are experiencing conversion therapy, particularly when you are young or vulnerable, that is your reality, you take that on as truth. And that is why it is so damaging,” Shiavo told VICE News. “So I think for many survivors, not all, it takes many years to kind of come to terms with the fact that that narrative wasn't true.”
While these events and interactions with the TDWC church made Rodgers feel scared and uncomfortable at the time, he thought their efforts would make him “normal.”
One of the last times Rodgers said the church tried to make him straight was during the spring of 2005, shortly before he left the church for good. Rodgers says he was called into Armstrong’s church office and asked to confess and repent for an unspecified sin. Rodgers said he assumed Armstrong found out he had been participating in an online chatroom for gay men, and so he says he confessed that.
Rodgers said that others at the church joined him and Armstrong in the office to once again lay hands on him and pray to “cast out” the “demons of homosexuality.” He said he was not certain whether Paterson was there at that time.
“In my head it felt like I was in that office for hours … I felt like something was wrong,” said Rodgers. “I can remember the image of the office and the light coming in from the window. I remember it was nice outside because I wanted to get out.”
Paterson said he was not there and did not witness this.
Eventually, Rodgers said he left the room. He says he held out hope that their attempts had worked this time. They never did.
“I don't think there was ever a true moment in my brain and my heart that ever said that I was straight,” Rodgers said. “The more I tried to be like them, the more it hurt inside. It felt like I was trying to be like everyone else, but I didn't know how.”
Within a couple months, Rodgers says he left the church after realizing he would never fit in. His relationship with them fizzled out and he didn’t look back. He eventually attended college where he says he finally began to feel like himself.
It took years for him to truly come to terms with and embrace his sexual identity.
“I was too afraid to do anything then, I can't be afraid now,” said Rodgers, who currently serves on the HIV/AIDS Regional Services’ board of directors in Kingston.
“I now have a level of courage to speak up when other people can’t.”
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