Pastor Jim Venice practices the Lord's work in near-obscurity, tucked away in a church basement several dozen miles west of St. Louis. In fact, so guarded is Venice about the location of Pure Heart Ministries that his Web site fails to include its physical address. When arranging a first-time meeting, the pastor furnishes visitors with two hand-drawn maps: The first navigates them through a labyrinth of access roads and St. Charles County subdivisions; the second steers them to the church's side entrance and the stairs that descend to his workplace.
"I'm busy, really busy," Venice announces as he plops his bulky six-foot-one frame onto one of the two overstuffed couches. "It's a double-edged sword, really. It's bad that so many people need help; it's good they're seeking it."
Bent on a mission to turn gay men straight, Venice gets his fair share of hate mail calling him a crackpot and a fraud. But on this autumn afternoon, an agreeable smile creases the pastor's clean-shaven face. He's dressed in faded blue jeans, sturdy brown shoes and a casual oxford-cloth shirt. He keeps his blond hair buzzed short, a look he describes as more "butchy" than the slightly longer coif he used to sport.
The 39-year-old Venice speaks in a hushed, soothing voice that all but conceals his nasal twang. Around his midsection he's added a good twenty pounds in recent years, lending him a sort of teddy-bear softness. His cell phone rings to the Peanuts cartoon theme song.
"Charlie Brown was always the reject or the outcast, the nerd or geek who didn't fit in," says Venice. "That's how I felt big-time growing up."
The disarming Venice is good at what he does, and that's getting his male clients to bare their most repressed thoughts and desires: pornography addictions, chronic masturbation and, most of all, a deep sexual longing for other men.
Once gay himself, Venice listens with an attentive ear before counseling his homosexual patrons to summon the strength to "walk away" from it. "These are people with unwanted same-sex attractions," explains Venice. "They come wanting answers to their feelings. We show them the truth and a better way hope in the midst of hopelessness."
Venice says he has a solid track record of putting his clients back on the straight and narrow, but, until now, he has shunned publicity in the secular press.
"Stories like mine are a dime a dozen, but you won't ever find them on the five-o'-clock news, because the media is pro-gay," he says.
When asked for an interview for this story, Venice spent two weeks "praying on" the matter before agreeing to a series of meetings. His only caveat: the location of his ministry must not be disclosed. He's afraid gay activists will descend on the church, threatening his clients' confidentiality and safety.
Though media-wary, Venice is not shy about revealing his own personal triumph over homosexuality. In fact, his anguished, 4,200-word account of it can be found at www.pureheartministries.org.
"No one chooses homosexuality," says Venice. "And most people, if they knew a way out, they'd latch onto it. Well, there is a way out. I'm living proof."
Exodus International the world's largest referral service for ex-gay ministries today lists Venice's Pure Heart Ministries as the only conversion ministry of its type within 150 miles of St. Louis. As such, Venice says demand is high, with people traveling hours to seek his help.
Over the past three years, Venice claims, a thousand troubled patrons have landed at his door, learning of the ministry through word of mouth, by way of hundreds of flyers mailed to area churches, and from periodic appearances on the Reverend Larry Rice's KNLC-TV (Channel 24).
Venice deals with the men, while associate Donna Thornhill a 65-year-old grandmother who hopes to help her adult son abandon homosexuality ministers to the women. Venice's wife, Debbie, leads a therapy group for wives affected by their husbands' struggles. Nearly half of Venice's gay clients are married.
As Thornhill imparts: "We teach that sexuality is designed in the word of God: normal, natural and healthy."
In some ways, Don represents Pastor Venice's prototypical definition of a gay man.
Speaking on the condition that only his first name be used in this article, the heavyset and soft-spoken Don says his father worked nights and died when he was twelve. Girls became his best friends. He thought of men for only one thing: sex. Although married for a year and a half, Don spent most of his adult life living as a closeted gay man.
"I learned growing up that homosexuality was wrong, and if you were gay there was nothing you could do about it," says Don. "But having to learn to live with something you're not happy with is hard. Finally I chose not to live with it."
Still, it would take four canceled appointments before Don at last built up the nerve to meet with Venice. As he does with all new clients, the pastor began the meeting by showing Don the videotape Reaching into the Closet. The film opens to the rhythm of a thumping bass guitar as a well-groomed narrator walks along an empty beach. After a dozen or two determined steps, the man turns to the camera and announces: "Hi. I'm Victor Powers. I used to be gay!"
The half-hour video goes on to outline several tenets of the ex-gay ministry, namely that there is no "gay gene" and that homosexuality is a treatable disorder, no different from alcoholism or depression.
Soon after that first meeting, Don signed onto Venice's regimen for sexual redemption, a process the pastor calls "filling your bowl."
The theory, which Venice says he concocted following his own conversion, maintains that before developing an attraction to the opposite sex, people must become comfortable with their God-given gender. Most people, Venice asserts, achieve this before adolescence through relationships with their parents and same-sex playmates. Those who don't have a good chance of becoming gay.
"At age five or six, a boy will tell himself, 'My pee-pee is not like her pee-pee, and my pee-pee is like Daddy's pee-pee, so I must be like Daddy," Venice explains. "At this time boys start learning from Dad what it means to be a man, how to be masculine and do boy things like play in the dirt, roughhouse and catch frogs, et cetera.
"For girls it's the opposite," Venice continues. "They're filling their bowl with femininity and things that are soft and pink and pretty and pajama parties and hopscotch and jump rope and Barbies and tea parties."
At each meeting, Venice asks his clients what they've done to "fill their bowl." For a man, that might be weight-lifting, fishing or catching a Cardinals game with a male friend (provided he's heterosexual).
The goal, adds Venice, is for his clients to participate in activities with heterosexual males that will reaffirm their masculinity. He calls it "buddy time," the type of child's play most people enjoyed as kids.
During his treatment, Don dropped all contacts with his gay friends, even going so far as to move from place to place to further distance himself from temptation. He also completed a twenty-week course offered through the ministry. The class, titled "Living Waters," required Bible readings, homework and weekly meetings that incorporated hymns, worship and group therapy, akin to Alcoholic Anonymous meetings.
Including his one-on-one counseling sessions, Don spent as many as twelve hours each week focused on ridding himself of homosexuality.
During each visit, Venice asks for a donation to the ministry based on 1/1,000th of the client's income. A client earning $30,000 per year, for example, pays $30 per session. Venice accepts all major credit cards.
"I want the weight of the gift to be the same across the board," the pastor explains.
The ministry took in a modest $46,000 in donations last year, according to audit records, but Venice maintains he's doubled the incoming largesse each year.
The time it takes to complete the program, Venice says, depends on how far the person has fallen. For teenagers Jim has counseled children as young as twelve it may be just a matter of weeks. For one of Venice's clients, a 67-year-old retiree who often services men in the stalls of an adult bookstore, it might take years.
Three years after beginning his journey away from homosexuality, Don says he's happier with himself but readily confesses to having an impure thought every now and again.
"My attraction level went down, but it didn't go away," he says. "It's a daily thing. It's not like you're going to go to a class and you're healed instantly. I'm not going to tell you that."
For Venice, though, Don represents another success story and boasts that 75 to 80 percent of people who adhere to his program eventually cleanse themselves of homosexuality.
"Let me ask you," Venice begins. "What if over the course of the year someone's attraction level went from a ten to a one or a two? Would you say that's successful? I would, and most people who continue with the program will see their attraction level eventually go down to zero."
Jim Venice was born in St. Louis to teenaged parents. He was just four years old when his father went to prison purportedly for a crime so distressing that Venice still won't talk about it. With three baby boys to feed, Venice says, his mother worked two jobs, often leaving little Jim and his brothers with female babysitters. Twice, he claims, the sitters molested him. He declines to elaborate.
"What does it matter," he asks brusquely, "if I was molested or raped? Molestation is traumatic no matter how it's performed."
More important, says Venice, is that people understand the roots of homosexuality which, in his mind, can be largely attributed to sexual abuse during childhood and the lack of a strong father figure.
Suffering both, Venice says he quickly became a "mama's boy" and a "sissy," traits that lingered like his inability to throw a ball "like a guy" long after his mother remarried.
"I never bonded with my step-/adoptive father," the pastor writes in his online testimony. "You see, the damage was already done. I didn't like men. Men were bad. I was never affirmed in my masculinity. I didn't want to be mean, rough and tough. I didn't know anything about sports."
Adolescence brought further trauma, watching girls he trusted as friends develop crushes on male classmates. Without realizing it, Venice says, he began to envy these boys, seeing them as somehow more masculine. Alone in his thoughts, he wondered: What would it be like to be one of those "cute" boys?
"My fantasies turned to lust, and I began to have a problem with masturbation. I needed help desperately."
Searching for a place to fit in, Venice turned to the church, joining the youth group and Bible quiz team. Four times during the 1980s, his quiz team won the national finals, with Venice the team's ringer being named "Quizzer of the Year" in 1986. Had he not been overwrought with sexual guilt and confusion, Venice says, he might have joined the ministry straight out of high school.
"I knew what the Bible said about homosexuality and perversion," he muses. "But I still had my secret problem with fantasizing and masturbation. It became my thorn in the flesh to keep me humble and continually on my knees asking for God's forgiveness."
Least likely to suspect his homosexual yearnings was Venice's girlfriend, Debbie. The two met at church youth camp and became fast friends, attending sweetheart banquets and church functions together. Still, Venice says he never lusted after his girlfriend, not the way other high school boys do. The couple split up after graduation.
Then, the unexpected happened: Venice found his first male friend. The two became roommates before their relationship blossomed into something more.
"I blatantly sinned against myself and God," admits Venice. "Neither of us wanted to be homosexuals. Our sexual relationship only lasted a few months. I knew it just was not right and could not live that way."
Venice says he returned to Debbie, and they married six months later. For years he repressed his feelings, all the while praying God would make him straight. When divine intervention never came, Venice again turned his sexual attentions to men.
"I bought into the lie that since God had not changed me, there must be a reason," Venice recalls. "For the first time, I accepted myself as a homosexual and was glad about it."
Venice told Debbie the painful truth and they agreed to separate, but not before learning she was pregnant with their son. For the next eight years, Venice lived as an openly gay man in Boston and Washington, D.C., becoming involved in two long-term relationships.
By 1996 Venice had all but renounced God until one day, after visiting the church of his youth during a trip back to Missouri, he remembers being swept up by the spirit of the Lord. He prayed, saying: "'Lord, I know that you love me, and if you can change me there is still no one who would want it more than me.' We prayed for what seemed like hours. There was no divine flash of lightening, no glorious transformation. But when I got up, I knew that I did not want to be a homosexual any longer.... I was a brand new man, a new creation without a past. I was no longer a homosexual!"
Debbie's photos on the ministry's Web site reveal a woman in bright red lipstick, with jet-black hair cropped close to her ears. She declined to be interviewed for this story. In her defense, Venice says, "I chose to make my life an open book. My family didn't."
A month after Venice's about-face, the couple remarried and, less than a year later, Debbie was pregnant with their second child, a daughter.
Venice's conversion didn't happen overnight. As Debbie writes in her own testimony, a copy of which also appears on the Pure Heart Web site, the couple became active in an ex-gay ministry in Oklahoma City.
"We still had so much to learn about how Jim had gotten into this situation and what we would need to understand to protect him from falling into sin again," writes Debbie. "In His loving providence, God had provided a ministry which would help Jim learn the roots of homosexuality, how to break the hold that this sin had over his life, and how to walk in complete freedom."
God, says Venice, called the couple home to St. Louis three years ago to begin their own ministry.
"I think most people in the gay community would consider Venice a crackpot," says John Lovin, president of Pride St. Louis, the city's largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered organization.
"If I could wake up one day and be straight, I'm sure my life would be easier," Lovin adds. "But that's not going to happen. I think most people realize this is something you're born with and a burden you have to bear."
"It's not about a cure; it's about willpower," argues Wayne Besen, author of Anything but Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth. "But if you believe you're going to Hell because you're a homosexual, well, that's a pretty big penalty. Jim and Debbie get to walk down the street and be quote-unquote normal. A lot of people desperately crave that. They're willing to deny who they are to fit in."
Some of the biggest charlatans, says Besen, are the very people behind the conversion movement. The ex-gay ministry has weathered many scandals, perhaps none greater than the one involving Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper.
Two founding members of Exodus International, Bussee and Cooper made names for themselves in the late 1970s as former homosexuals who'd gone on to marry women and rear families as heterosexual men.
A few years later, they sent shock waves through the ex-gay movement when they announced that, during their time as spokesmen for Exodus, they'd fallen madly in love with each other. The men divorced their wives, held a commitment ceremony and became outspoken critics of the ex-gay movement, telling their story to producers of the 1993 documentary One Nation Under God.
Besen got inspiration for Anything but Straight when he outed ex-gay spokesman John Paulk in a Washington, D.C., gay bar in 2000. At the time Paulk was arguably the world's most famous ex-homosexual, having appeared on 60 Minutes and the cover of Newsweek magazine.
Reached by phone last month, the New York-based Besen says Venice has kept a fairly low profile within the ex-gay ministry.
"Perhaps Jim and Debbie are sincere, but I think regardless, the leaders of Exodus show a lack of sincerity in that you have to willingly uneducate yourself about your identity and follow quack theories," Besen says. "Praying away gay doesn't work."
Trying to convert homosexuals is nothing new. From a medical standpoint, the practice reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, with researchers attempting various procedures to change one's sexuality, including shock therapy.
When the American Psychiatric Association (APA) scratched homosexuality off its list of mental illnesses in 1973, most conversion therapies practiced by medical institutions fell by the wayside. In their wake rose a bevy of church-sponsored ministries claiming to "heal" homosexuals through a combination of prayer and love.
Exodus International currently lists over 150 affiliates in 17 nations. The ministries' growing popularity concerns psychiatrist Jack Drescher, chairman of the APA's committee on gay, lesbian and bisexual issues. One of his chief complaints is the way the ex-gay movement trumpets its success cases, even though scant research exists on the subject.
"What little research there is is mostly all anecdotal, and they never report the side effects," says Drescher when reached by telephone at his New York office. "Then, when some of these side effects have come to light, they're quick to blame gay-rights groups for undermining them. It's like the cigarette industry arguing that only the anti-smoking lobby believes tobacco is harmful. I mean, hello!?"
Ordained in 2003 by Fellowship Evangelism in Alabama, Venice has no license or degree in psychotherapy and refers to his sessions with clients as "pastoral care," always careful to draw a distinction between his line of work and that practiced by mental-health counselors. After graduating from Herculaneum High School in Jefferson County, Venice took courses in computer science at vocational schools but never received a college diploma.
"There's nowhere you can go to get a degree that teaches people not to be gay," he says. "It doesn't exist. I got my education through the school of hard knocks."
Drescher says scientists still do not know the cause of human sexuality, with most medical researchers agreeing its roots are part biological and part environmental.
"At its core this is a political issue," Drescher asserts. "The modern gay-rights movement has implicitly adopted the biological argument to make their case. If being gay is some intrinsic part of who you are, then you shouldn't be discriminated against because of it."
Venice says his ministry's status as a nonprofit prohibits him from espousing one political party over the other, but clearly his allegiance lies with the Republican Party. A window sticker on his car reads: "W. Still the President."
"This morning I was nauseated with the Today show, with some of their agendas and slamming the president and their liberal bias," he says. "I finally had to turn the TV off."
But Venice directs most of his venom toward the church as an institution and believes a conspiracy is afoot within such denominations as the Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches.
"What I think what we're seeing is a small percentage of people who've infiltrated the offices of these churches to turn them pro-gay," Venice insists. "They've bought into the notion that people are born gay."
Jim Venice and the Reverend Carol Trissell share a flair for questionable art.
Venice's subterranean work station is decorated with a quasi-paint-by-numbers portrait of Jesus and a print of a hazy, tranquil waterfall. Trissell's sunny, second-floor office in south St. Louis sings a nautical tune, full of pastel paintings of austere lighthouses and windswept seascapes the type of work that shows up at starving-artist sales.
Beyond this bond, the pastors are worlds apart. And the same holds true for their ministries. As senior pastor for Metropolitan Community Church of Greater St. Louis, the openly lesbian Trissell heads a congregation of 350 people. The overwhelming majority of them are gay.
"We don't ask their sexuality at the door," says Trissell, whose ministry holds its Sunday services within a Methodist church in the Central West End. "But probably 95 percent of our congregation is homosexual. We believe God created us all. God created diversity and sexual orientation is part of that."
Venice dismisses such churches as nothing more than homosexual dating services. "God didn't create Adam and Steve," parrots Venice, echoing an oft-recited adage of the ex-gay ministry. "These gay-affirming churches are not following the Bible and God's authority."
At least six passages in the Bible touch on homosexuality, the most vitriolic being Leviticus 20:13: "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them."
Trissell argues such scripture needs to be placed in context. The authors of the Bible weren't so interested in homosexuality, she says, as they were in ensuring a large population.
"Safety and dominance came in numbers, and their goal was procreation. That's different today," the bookish Trissell says. "Also that same list of verses said you can't have sex with a woman during her period, wear clothes of blended threads and eat shellfish. I don't know about you, but I had shrimp for lunch."
Trissell further labels Venice's form of evangelism "spiritual abuse" and says she and her church are all too often left picking up the pieces when the conversion fails.
"Most people I know leave the program having not changed, and it's incredibly damaging to their self-worth and identity," says Trissell. "They try so long to be someone they're not. It takes a long time to rebuild their self-esteem."
One of those people, David Belt, began attending Trissell's church two years ago. A 39-year-old graduate student with a shaved head and oval glasses, Belt grew up on a west Kentucky farm where his family attended the Holiness Pentecostal Church, a denomination he describes as "liberal Amish."
"Women had to wear dresses and couldn't cut their hair. We couldn't go to movies, but we could drive cars and eat in restaurants," Belt explains. "We frequently heard sermons where homosexuality was discussed as the big sin."
Twice Belt walked down the aisle, only for his marriages to end when he could not rid his mind of homosexual desires. In 2000, toward the end of his second marriage, Belt began reading literature put out by the ex-gay ministry.
Out of view from his wife, he pored over books like Homosexual No More and Pursuing Sexual Wholeness. Belt even completed an online version of the twenty-week Living Waters course. But it wasn't until he attended an Exodus support group (then held at church in west county) that Belt concluded the ministry and its message was not for him.
"I could suppress acting on being gay, but it didn't make me happy or whole," he says. "The irony is, had I not done Exodus I don't think I'd ever have come out. I'm a bit of a rebel, and when they started telling me what to believe and how to act, my natural reaction was to go against the grain."
People like Belt, says Venice, realize there is a way out of homosexuality but don't want to change for fear of losing the life they've known or come to expect. And, says the pastor, that's OK. At its root, Venice adds, his work is really no different from housebreaking his eleven-month-old dachshund, Grace. The purpose is not to admonish but to offer subtle guidance.
"They used to teach you when the dog makes a mess, you rub its face in it," says Venice. "But that doesn't work, and that's not we do. We don't preach a message of 'turn or burn.'"
Venice believes once people realize this, he can become more open. In the next few years, he imagines moving out of his church basement and setting up shop in a highly visible office suite, where anyone can access his ministry.
"I'm thinking somewhere convenient for the majority of people in St. Louis, perhaps around Highway 40 and Interstate 270," he says.
Until then, Venice's most celebrated public performance will likely remain the coup he pulled off two years ago during PrideFest in Tower Grove Park.
Believing the city's annual gay-pride festival would be the perfect place to spread his message, Venice and his board members drew a crowd when they handed out dozens of free bottles of water. Included with the beverages were flyers for Pure Heart Ministries emblazoned with the message, "God loves you and so do WE!"
It wasn't until festival-goers read the fine print that they realized the purpose of Venice's ministry. Soon, Venice says, a PrideFest organizer arrived to angrily demand that he and his group leave the park. In so doing, the woman let slip what Venice regards as the unspeakable truth among homosexuals.
"Amid all the queer power and rah-rah spirit, the first words out of her mouth were: 'Do you honestly think anyone wants to be gay!?'" Venice recalls. "I could tell right away she wanted to take it back. I was like, 'Yeah, I know. That's why we're here!'"