In more ways than one, faith can’t be touched in “Pray Away” as it tells the history of Exodus International, the ministry that pioneered gay conversion therapy during the 1970s. It’s understood from the beginning of Kristine Stolakis’ compassionate feature debut that no matter how much the Bible has been used to justify a practice that has never held much, if any, weight anywhere else, the core tenets of Christianity aren’t what’s at issue for the former leadership at Exodus she interviews or disciples of its affiliate churches, but how the strength of their beliefs have been ultimately used against them to suggest that their spirituality and physiology are not intertwined. There’s a more sensationalized version of the Exodus story that is made reference to throughout “Pray Away,” as Exodus itself is co-opted by conservatives looking for the culture wars to get voters fired up and scum with psychiatry licenses that could line their own pockets by lending their credibility to the cause, but the filmmaker resists it in favor of a sober account that sinks in deeper and deeper as her subjects come to realize how much damage was done to them and in some cases, how much they were responsible for in parroting talking points that never had a foundation in reality.
Fittingly in the introductory moments of “Pray Away,” one only needs to look at Jeffrey McCall, a young man from Royston, Georgia who may or may not even be aware that the ministry existed, to see the legacy of Exodus. Once thinking he might transition into becoming a woman, McCall describes how he decided instead to make a radical change in his religious life, devoting his life to Christ and becoming a full-time advocate for the cause of convincing others who may be attracted to the same sex to suppress those urges. It’s one aspect of Stolakis’ considerable sensitivity that McCall is presented with as much standing to convey his truth as anyone else is, and to another that the film is wisely engineered to present him as the latest version of a number of people throughout the years that have carried a message without fully understanding where it’s coming from, and aside from the specific subject at hand, Stolakis captures the fascinating power dynamic between those with personal experience they cannot explain and those who speak with certitude about things they cannot know, giving rise to specious concepts such as conversion therapy that can’t be easily challenged.
As Michael Bussee, one of the co-founders of Exodus, explains, this wasn’t how he saw the ministry operating when he started meetings for those attempting to reconcile their same-sex attraction with religious teachings in 1976 as an outgrowth of other support groups that his church had offered. Leaving only three years later when it became obvious to him that the “reparative therapy” that emerged as an end goal of the group wasn’t effective, Bussee is the first but certainly not the last in “Pray Away” who sees a part of something he believes in contributing to something larger he couldn’t abide by and as Stolakis chronicles how Exodus grew in influence, with both conventions that pulled in thousands and a place in Washington D.C., she allows some of its strongest public advocates over the years to look back at themselves with as much uncertainty they had then, only instead of it regarding their sexual orientation, it’s in reconsidering how their personal stories gave oxygen to a campaign that might’ve run out of steam without any other evidence to back it up.
Beyond providing real insight into how the idea of conversion therapy captured the imagination of religious leaders across the nation, as well as political operatives as a wedge issue, and continues to have credibility amongst parishioners, “Pray Away” opens a larger window into the growing sophistication of how extreme ideology is fashioned to enter the mainstream and the considerable human toll that is of no consequence to those that are pushing it the hardest. Although many allusions are made to those who were led to cause harm to themselves as a result of their inability to conform to Exodus’ teachings, the film doesn’t need to leave its central interviews to witness the pain the ministry inspired as they sit aghast at old clips where anything they once said would curtail the freedom they feel now, and in reflecting their capacity to change their minds over the years with such nuance, “Pray Away” leaves one hopeful that it can change even more.