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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 Peanutscartoon 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!"