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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!'"
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