New Brunswick

Controversial 'anti-LGBTQ therapy' group plans retreat in Rothesay

A Christian organization that aims to heal 'sexual brokenness' is drawing fire over its plans a retreat in New Brunswick, which have since been cancelled.

Journey Canada's teachings 'extremely damaging,' says professor

Journey Canada's planned retreat at Villa Madonna in Rothesay is drawing fire from LGBTQ activists like STU sociology professor Erin Fredericks, who calls the Vancouver-based organization's programs 'anti-LGBTQ therapy.' (Submitted by Erin Fredericks)

A controversial Christian group's plans to hold an event in Rothesay are drawing fire from LGBTQ activists.

Vancouver-based Journey Canada, formerly called Living Waters, is a non-denominational ministry focused on healing "the relationally and sexually broken."

According to the group, a wide range of sexual acts outside of heterosexual marriage — including homosexuality, "oral sex, mutual masturbation, pornography use, and compulsive masturbation" — violate God's boundaries for sexual expression.

Living Waters changed its name to Journey Canada in 2015.

The organization, which received $666,548 in donations last year, ministered to 9,100 people in 42 cities across Canada, according to its 2017 annual report.

'God's intentions' for sexuality

Journey Canada is advertising an intensive retreat at Villa Madonna Retreat House, which is owned and operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saint John, from July 22 to 28.

While the group already runs courses in Halifax, the intensive week would be its first known event in New Brunswick.

Fredericks and other LGBTQ activists are planning a protest at Villa Madonna. 'If we can create a situation in which Journey Canada cannot find a space or host an event here, we can effectively keep their message out of the province,' Fredericks said. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Journey Canada did not respond to a request for details of the content of the retreat and credentials of its facilitators.

Villa Madonna, a 41-hectare facility founded in 1931, hosts events for a wide range of faith-based groups.

The Journey Canada retreat — which has a $1,200 price tag — is targeted to pastors and other church leaders seeking a safe place to "experience deeper healing," with subject areas including "God's intention for relationships and sexuality" and "gender and identity."

A map released by Journey Canada in the group's 2017 annual report, which states the organization ministered to 9,100 individuals in 42 cities across the country. The event planned for July would be the group's first known event in New Brunswick. (Journey Canada)

Erin Fredericks, a St. Thomas University sociology professor, said such teachings have no place in New Brunswick.

"This isn't an organization that we want training local leaders to work with youth, or to work with other leaders of their faith-based communities," Fredericks said, describing its practices as "anti-LGBTQ therapy."

A spokesperson from Villa Madonna would say only that the decision rests in the hands of Bishop Robert Harris.

In a short phone conversation Tuesday, Harris stated that he was "working on the issue" and declined to comment further.

Bishop Robert Harris stated he's 'working on' issues that have been raised in relation to the intensive week planned at Villa Madonna, a retreat house in Rothesay owned and operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saint John. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

Group denies 'conversion therapy' link

On June 1, Journey Canada issued statement denying any link to conversion therapy or ex-gay therapy — a discredited form of psychotherapy which claims sexual orientation can be changed from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual through spiritual intentions. 

This isn't an organization that we want training local leaders to work with youth, or to work with other leaders of their faith-based communities.- Erin  Fredericks , professor and activist

Conversion therapy was banned in Ontario in 2015, and other provinces, like Manitoba, are working to follow suit. 

"As a discipleship ministry, we do not seek to change the sexual orientation of the people who participate in our programs," states the Journey Canada website.

But further on, it continues to state "a majority" of participants "experience a reduction in the strength or power of same-sex attraction/orientation and increased hope, strength, desire, and ability to live in accordance with their personal beliefs regarding sexual ethics," with the caveat that such changes are "neither [the program's] primary aim nor a litmus test for its success."

Saint John activist Sam Blue, who plans to protest the event, called Journey Canada's programs a "throwback to a different era when different types of people were not tolerated."

"[Journey Canada] has been careful not to call it conversion therapy, but it's ultimately a form of denial ... after decades of coming to understand how being gay or transgender is very much a biological thing and part of our nature.

"Practices like this are ultimately harmful and promote a culture of self-hate."

The planned Journey Canada retreat is drawing fire from organizations like Moncton Pride, TransAction NB and Saint John Pride, pictured. (Saint John Pride/Facebook)

'Extremely damaging'

Fredericks said the statement doesn't necessarily reflect the practices of the organization.

"Of course we know that the group will deny that they're doing that," Fredericks said.

"The language 'conversion therapy' actually comes from the LGBTQ community. This isn't language that faith organizations would use to describe themselves." 

Among those who participate in [Journey Discipleship Course] due to felt dissonance around same-sex attraction/orientation, a majority experience a reduction in the strength or power of same-sex attraction/orientation.- Journey Canada, 'Position: Sexual Orientation Change Efforts'

It's harmful, she said, that the organization "suggests that in order to remain part of that organization or live a life in line with God's wishes, you have to live a heterosexual or cisgender life."

"They might not be saying that you have to be straight, but they're certainly saying that you can't be LGBTQ and live a life that god wants you to live," she said.

"We know that being LGBTQ and not being in a supportive environment is extremely damaging for individuals and increases suicide, self-harm and chronic stress-related diseases."​

She and fellow activists from across the province are planning a protest against the retreat.

"If we can create a situation in which Journey Canada cannot find a space or host an event here, we can effectively keep their message out of the province."

About the Author

Julia Wright

Information Morning Saint John host

Julia Wright is a born and raised Saint Johner, and the host of Information Morning Saint John on 91.3FM. She has been with the CBC since 2016.