“What I did was wrong. It was so wrong,” says Randy Thomas, former vice president of Exodus International, late in Kristine Stolakis’ deeply moving and personal documentary, Pray Away. Any director who attempts to document the stirring battle of conversation therapy has a rough road ahead of them, but Stolakis turns her focus on those who were essential to this movement. Instead of condemning those men and women who turned their backs against their own community, Stolakis encourages us to listen to their experiences in order to keep fighting.
The opening sequence of Pray Away is an eyebrow-raising one when we meet Jeffrey McCall, a self-proclaimed former transgender woman. McCall wanders around outside a strip mall and simply asks people if they need any prayers or well wishes, and he offers to share his own journey. His voice is gentle and soft and a few people listen to what he has to say. Hearing one person talk about what their religion means to him is a reminder of how one’s faith is very personal. Pray Away shows us how a religious institution formed influential organizations and hurt hundreds of thousands of people, but seeing McCall talking to people about his own experience is a reminder of what one’s personal religion can mean to someone.
Exodus International was an organization that, seemingly, was formed in earnest and in fear. A number of men and women didn’t want to feel unwanted or wicked and they took the initiative to form support groups that eventually became the model of conversion therapy. In almost every testimony in Pray Away, those who led meetings or became figureheads in Exodus participated because they wanted to “become better” or “cure” themselves of their homosexuality. The fear of not being loved is a deeply emotional thing for a lot of LGBTQIA+ people and that is why religion can be so scary to us. For communities steeped in religious teachings, it’s quite literally the bedrock or foundation for how people live their daily lives.
Julie Rodgers’ story is especially hard to watch because she is so open about how much she loves her faith. As she prepares to get married to her wife, Amanda, she looks back at the relationship between her and Ricky Chelette, the man who was in charge of a lot of Julie’s therapy sessions and guidance. Rodgers loves God and her resilience is so inspiring. Chelette, who refused to be interviewed for this film, still runs Living Hope, the program that Rodgers participated in.
Can the gay community forgive those who turned their backs on their own for so many years? Everyone weighs forgiveness differently, and Stolakis gives them a space to ask for that forgiveness. Pray Away doesn’t shy from the pain that these people inflicted, and honors those who took their own lives or are still privately hurting in the shadows are deeply present through the documentary. Pray Away is hard to shake but Stolakis leaves us with light and beauty even though the darkness is still a threat. I can’t imagine what this film might mean to a queer youth afraid to tell their parents that they are not straight.