If you’ve recently watched the Netflix documentary Pray Away, you may be curious about Jeffrey McCall, one of the people featured in the film. I’ve been aware of McCall for a few years. In 2018, he founded the first Freedom March, a public display of “Jesus followers who have been delivered from LGBTQ identities.” When McCall came on the scene, I started to pay attention and listened to several of his interviews.
Each time I listened to him speak, many of his statements struck me as implausible, exaggerated, or a bit manufactured. What he was saying was “off.”
McCall often states that he left a career as a history professor to become a full-time missionary delivering his “changed” message. This particular claim, to have once been a history professor, seemed particularly implausible.
I called the small college where he claims to have been employed and spoke to a woman in the HR department. I asked her if Jeffrey McCall had even been a professor in the history department. There was a noticeable pause. I sensed she too had heard this claim and was trying to formulate a diplomatic response. No, she told me, while McCall had been a student and then teacher’s assistant (TA) in the history department, he had never been a professor. He had been a TA for two semesters.
McCall says of himself, “I left my transgender life to follow JESUS.”
Yet, as I listened to interviews, even that claim didn’t line up. Again, so much of what he was saying was “off.” So, I decided to read McCall’s book “For Such a Time.” [Review here. I do not recommend it. It is the most poorly-written book I have read in the past many years. This is not hyperbole; it is sloppy on every level.]
I need to be cautious here. There is a widely used saying, “If you’ve heard one transgender person’s story . . . you’ve heard one transgender person’s story.” I’ve heard countless stories transgender people tell about their lives. I have countless transgender friends. There is a common thread involving a persistent “knowing” from an early age that one’s internal sense of self did not match the external body. This regularly-present “knowing” is noticeably absent from McCall’s narrative.
His life account more closely reflects someone unaccepting of his sexuality who becomes entrenched in shame and destructive behaviors. McCall lacked early relational connections, he abused drugs and alcohol, was sexually promiscuous, and constantly explored new outlets, one of those outlets being drag. His story doesn’t ring true as that of someone who is a transgender person.
There is a phenomenon in the evangelical Christian world where we love to hear about the compelling slime to sacred transformation. You know the type of story, the classic bad boy, really bad boy, to speaker/missionary/preacher story. It titillates us and supports our fears about what we’ve been told about the dark and evil located outside of us. The stuff we would never do. The stuff “they” do. The more radical the story, the bigger the stage.
As you watch Pray Away, you will hear echoes of this voiced by former leaders. Having been intensely shamed for who they were, they find a way to feel good, as Julie says “to become the good girl.” They are exalted for their promised sweeping change of sexuality, and step into the limelight. Over and over I see this in the numerous anti-LGBTQ books I read and review. They go from shamed to staged.
After the 2018 Freedom March in DC, McCall asked his social media followers to send him money because “God” told him to extend his stay in DC for an extra week. “God” told him to go speak with legislators in the congressional halls and share his testimony and his book. Unfortunately, “God” forgot to tell McCall that Congress was not in session that week; the legislators were on vacation.
So much of what McCall says and writes does not add up.
In Pray Away, we meet McCall, a representative of the “new generation” of those who believe being LGBTQ is a sin that must be controlled or conquered. They “struggle with homosexuality” or “same-sex attraction” are “no longer in the lifestyle,” or they are “former homosexuals,” or “changed,” or are “no longer same-sex attracted,” or, avoiding the topic of sexuality altogether, they say their “identity is in Christ.”
Christian change ministries began over fifty years ago. Since then, consistent pressure has been imposed on LGBTQ people to deny or change their natural sexual orientation. In Pray Away, the former leaders share their stories. They tell us they performed as they were expected to perform. They hid their own unchanged sexual orientation out of shame and in hopes of gaining acceptance by other Christians and God.
In contrast to their voices of experience, we see McCall.
Even though I know of McCall’s tendency towards embellishing stories for effect, while watching Pray Away, I had a great sense of sadness and pity for him. He’s a man tangled in same fraught and ineffective pattern experienced by the former leaders. The pattern has not and will not produce good, long-lasting fruit. McCall, in his role as a leader, will continue inflicting unintended damage on others likely while suffering unnecessary loneliness in his own life.
The pattern has been repeated for the past fifty years and will do so until we listen, learn, and make changes. Not changes to LGBTQ people, but rather changes to the relatively newly-created theology about LGBTQ people.
Watch the documentary on Netflix beginning August 3rd.
Listen to the former leaders in Pray Away.