Warning: This story deals with incidents of self-harm and attempted-suicide, and may be disturbing to some.
Former members of Third Day Worship Centre, a non-denominational church in Kingston, Ont., say they experienced conversion therapy at the church.
LGBTQ2 members say they went through dangerous fasting, exorcism-type ceremonies, isolation, ex-communication and shunning at the church because of their sexuality.
Earlier this year, clips of the church’s founder, Francis Armstrong, surfaced in a video where he can be seen preaching passionately against homosexuality.
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“You cannot be a homosexual and be a Christian,” he says on camera, while the crowd cheers in agreement.
Following the leaked videos, Armstrong released a statement:
“I, as senior pastor of Third Day Worship Centre apologize for the hateful tone that came through … that is not a true representation of my character, heart, or the heart of this church.”
Kingston’s second-term mayor, a long-time member and leader at Third Day, stepped away from the church after the video leaked, saying in part:
“I know many of you were hurt by these comments, confused, angry, or felt personally attacked or undermined. For that, I’m deeply sorry. The views expressed in these videos do not reflect my heart, my core beliefs or the vision of inclusion and respect I have for our community.”
But former members have come forward, arguing that distrust and disgust for members of the LGBTQ2 community were integral to the church, and that they do not feel Armstrong was being truthful in his recent apology.
These former members say their treatment while at Third Day prompted them to hate themselves, causing them to self-harm, abuse drugs and alcohol, and even attempt to kill themselves.
Following continued criticism, and in response to specific allegations made in this piece, on Dec. 12, Armstrong provided the following statement:
“We know that there are always going to be things that we don’t have the same opinion on: other expressions of faith, lifestyles, political expressions; we are sorry if those differences sounded like the ‘main thing’ to us in the past. We believe in the full counsel of the Word of God, which always directs all of us towards our need for a Saviour, one we believe is found in Jesus Christ. We will be intentional in going forward that our message, a reflection of the gospel of Jesus, is centred on the things that we are for, not the things that we are against.”
What is conversion therapy?
According to No Conversion Canada, an organization that works to fight against the practice and support victims, conversion therapy is “any practice, treatment or service designed to change, repress or discourage a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, or to reduce non-heterosexual attraction or behaviour.”
Just recently, the federal government reintroduced legislation to criminalize the practice in Canada, which would include making it illegal to cause a minor to undergo conversion therapy, removing a minor from Canada to undergo the practice abroad, causing a person to go through conversion therapy against their will, profiting from providing the practice and advertising conversion therapy. Although the definition of “conversion therapy” in the proposed legislation is similar to that of No Conversion Canada, it is not identical.
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Kristopher Wells, Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth, says conversion therapy is not one thing, and is mostly taking place in faith communities that are considered “far right, evangelical, ultraorthodox or Christian.”
Although not referring to Third Day Worship Centre, Wells says it can include extreme practices like shock therapy, chemical castration or even lobotomies, which were practised during the 20th century.
“So it goes from those extreme practices — and many would say now that those aren’t occurring, we’re against those kinds of more abusive practices — but it’s now shifted to be much more, more subtle in many of the forms,” Wells says.
Often, he says, this is done through some type of talk therapy, based on outdated psychology on gender roles, or rituals like fasting, isolation or being forced to read Biblical scripture.
None of these practices, Wells says, are effective, and often end up being torturous for the person being subjected to the so-called therapy.
“It’s really important to be clear that conversion therapy is not therapy at all. It’s not a recognized form of treatment. It has no scientific or basis in evidence or fact that you can actually change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity,” Wells says.
Fifteen years out of Third Day Worship Centre and now looking back, Ben Rodgers, who first shared his story in Vice, says he believes he experienced conversion therapy at the church.
A year after coming out as gay, Rodgers moved from Bancroft, Ont., and in with his brother and his mother in Kingston, so that he could take music theatre at St. Lawrence College. He says his family were members of Third Day, and encouraged him to join.
At first, Rodgers says he loved the experience and felt accepted at the church. Eventually, that feeling changed.
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“Basically, if I wanted to continue on with a true walk with God, you can’t be Christian and be gay,” Rodgers says.
Rodgers says his family did not accept his homosexuality, and that he experienced discrimination while in Kingston, including people throwing food at him from a passing vehicle and calling him a homophobic slur.
Meanwhile, as a part of Third Day Worship, Rodgers joined the youth group, where he made friends, and connected with the music and his family. He felt a part of something.
Rodgers says as soon as it was agreed upon that he would continue on with the church, a plan was made. He would go through mentoring and counselling, where Rodgers says they attempted to “pray away the gay.”
At one point, Rodgers revealed to his mentors at the church that he was sexually abused by a male close to him as a child. He says church leaders attributed his sexuality to that abuse.
“They dealt with lust and that type of sin, which is how the sin of homosexuality gets you through lust and through past things that may have happened to you,” Rodgers says.
Wells says this is a common trope used in conversion therapy, especially used by faith organizations.
“They believe fundamentally that as an LGBTQ person, you’ve either suffered abuse as a child, physically, mentally or sexually, or you had an overbearing mother or a distant father,” Wells says. These theories have been fundamentally proven to be untrue.
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As part of his conversion, Rodgers says he was instructed to do a dry fast, where he could not eat or drink for three days.
Following that fast, Rodgers described being prayed over in front of the congregation to rid himself of “the demons of lust and homosexuality.”
Although his memory of the event is foggy, Rodgers says he can still feel the pressure of the hands on his head and hear the people shouting around him speaking in tongues and casting out demons.
“I didn’t eat or drink for three days, and then these people, literally, they scream and yell at you, they make you feel like this is right, and you feel like this is what you have to do to be right,” he says.
Wells says fasting or exorcism ceremonies are a signature of conversion therapy in Canada today.
“Many of these practices would be considered tantamount to forms of cruel and inhumane treatment or as some have called them, torture,” Wells says.
He says he had to turn away from music theatre at St. Lawrence College. He says he was told it would lead him back to a “sinful life.”
Instead, he says he was told that God called upon him to go to the school’s Bible college. Rodgers says he was offered a “golden ticket” by getting free tuition for the first year.
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With Bible college five days a week, services four days a week, youth group and volunteer opportunities, Third Day would become Rodgers’ world.
During the remaining time, Rodgers says he was surveyed and reprimanded while he was at the church. This would lead to other instances where Rodgers says he was prayed over, something he now describes as a scene from a horror movie.
Among other reprimands, Rodgers says Bryan Paterson, who was the youth pastor at the time, came to him and told him he was no longer allowed at the children’s end of the church, with no explanation as to why.
Paterson flat-out denied this allegation.
Rodgers, who had experienced sexual abuse as a child, and who says he was told his homosexuality was rooted in that sexual abuse, felt like the church and its leaders had decided parishioners no longer trusted him around their kids.
Third Day Worship Centre did not comment on this allegation, but Paterson says he was never made aware of Rodgers’ history of sexual abuse.
“I’ve said openly this was not disclosed to me and I would never make that statement to him or anyone else. I find it incredibly disturbing that anyone would say that,” Paterson says in an emailed statement.
When confronted, Rodgers says the leadership dismissed his concerns. Rodgers says he left after being slowly pushed out of the church.
Now, years later, after his second coming out, he says he suffers from social anxiety, and still shudders when remembering his time at the church.
In August 2006, Nicole Perry was 18. She says she was having a rough time with her family when she took a trip from her home in Alberta to visit a friend in Kingston. This friend brought her to Third Day Worship Centre.
“That’s a common thing that attendees do. They want to bring everybody to their church,” she says.
Perry says the experience was so awesome that shortly afterwards, she agreed to move to Kingston permanently, and join Third Day Worship Centre, despite never having belonged to another church before. She signed up for the church’s Bible school, and eventually, she was chosen to be part of the church’s Esther program.
The Esther House is a program where a few select young women receive special guidance to help “propel them into the future,” Perry says. This would include one-on-one prayer readings with leaders of the church, including Francis and Edith Armstrong, and allowance for groceries and special mentoring dinners with other women leaders.
According to Armstrong, the program was established to provide a “place of transit that would help young women in the different areas of their lives.”
“We had a team working with them in developing a destiny statement and set up different training sessions that were meant to help them with establishing budgets, finding employment, running and maintaining their homes, being active in service to church and community,” he says.
Armstrong notes that the women in the house were asked to “live by a set of standards that were clearly communicated to them and agreed upon before they took residence in the home.”
Throughout the years, Armstrong says, the program has been a learning experience for both the leaders in the church and the “willing participants.”
“We are determined to keep learning and growing through all of this,” he says.
According to Perry, being an Esther girl was an isolating experience.
“They weren’t allowed to talk to us, apparently, like anyone at the church,” Perry says.
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Perry says she began to feel depressed, and she found support in another member of the Esther House, Jelisa Mackenzie.
“We started just confiding in each other. We were both going through a rough time. She knew that my depression was bad. She was also kind of struggling with similar stuff,” Perry says.
Their relationship became romantic, and at one point, Perry says one of the other women living in the Esther House overheard Perry and Mackenzie in their room.
“They called Pastor Francis and they tattled,” Perry says.
Perry says she was quickly moved out of the house and told to stay with members of the church, while others came to the home to pray and rid her room of “demonic spirits.”
Perry says, despite the church trying to separate the two, she and Mackenzie continued to meet.
By this time, because of her depression, Perry says she had become dependent on Gravol to help her fall asleep, taking multiple pills a night.
When she tried to reach out to the church counsellor for help with her depression, Perry says she was told she was dealing with demons, and that she needed to read her Bible and pray more often.
When asked about this particular incident, Armstrong says the church has a pastoral counsellor, Gerry Wein, who works within Third Day’s team to “lend support and scripturally based guidance.”
“Any counsel that has been given would have come at the request of a person seeking it and we are very careful to pray for people who ask for prayer, never against their will and certainly not without some time to go through their reasons for requesting it. It was never our intent to have it communicated as a means of control or manipulation, it is sacred to us; a communication with God.”
As her depression worsened, Perry says she started cutting herself.
“I should have had stitches. It was that bad,” Perry says.
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According to Wells, self-harm is common during situations of conversion therapy.
“When everyone around you — in your community, in your family, in your faith — tells you that there’s something wrong with you, the internalized hatred that happens often leads people to engage in self-harming behaviours or deal with incredible amounts of stress, anxiety and depression,” Wells says.
After several months, it all became too much. One day in February 2010, Perry left a Friday service and walked to the liquor store.
“I was just so fed up with all of them. I’m just like, I’m done. So I went down by the water and I got super drunk,” she says.
Perry says she ended up on the phone with Mackenzie, threatening to kill herself. According to Perry, Mackenzie alerted the family Perry was staying with, and they brought her to the hospital.
By Sunday, Perry says she was back at the church. She left both Sunday services halfway through. After the second, she says she tried to kill herself.
“I walked to the drugstore and I bought a whole bunch of pills, I just was like, I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore,” Perry says.
Perry says Kingston police were called and Perry was admitted to the intensive care unit.
“My heart stopped twice,” she says.
According to both Mackenzie and Perry, Mackenzie was not allowed to visit Perry while in the hospital.
“When I tried to go visit Nicole at the hospital and bring her some necessities, I was interrupted by a phone call from Francis forbidding me to see her again,” Mackenzie says in an emailed statement.
Perry was then held in the psychiatric ward for three days.
“Nobody called my parents, which they could have, even though I was technically an adult. They could have called my parents,” she says.
She says she received two visits from two families at the church, but Mackenzie was not to see her.
The day she was released, Perry says the church bought her a plane ticket to B.C.
“Two guys picked me up from the hospital at five in the morning and drove me to the airport,” Perry says.
According to Perry, she longed to go back the minute she left.
“I was so connected to them and so emotionally connected to these people, they became like family to me. I kept asking, what do I have to do to come back?”
Mackenzie says after both women left the church, members were advised not to get in touch with either her or Perry.
It wasn’t until eight years later, and a clinical diagnosis of PTSD, that Perry says something clicked, and she finally let go of Third Day.
“They never cared,” she says.
At the age of 23, Ashley Waugh was living in New Brunswick with her parents and struggling with drug addiction.
Her parents were supportive and looked for rehabilitation programs for her, but either the waitlists were too long or they couldn’t afford to send her.
“They had this rule that if we were living under their roof, we had to go to church with them,” Waugh says.
This is where she met Armstrong, a guest pastor from Kingston who suggested the Esther House might be a good fit.
“At that point, I had nothing to lose. I was a college dropout and struggled with substance abuse,” Waugh says. So, she packed up her things and moved to Kingston.
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She says the experience was positive for her, but it didn’t last.
“I was making a lot of progress, but I started having a relationship with one of the girls that was living in the house,” Waugh says.
This was Waugh’s first experience with a woman. The relationship was thrilling, but also full of shame, because she says Third Day taught that same-sex relationships were sinful.
“They weren’t pure feelings and it was only lust, because you can’t actually love same-sex in that way,” she says.
Wells says this is common for faith communities who participate in conversion therapy.
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“What undergirds all conversion therapy practices is this disbelief — or some would say more strongly, this hatred — towards LGBTQ people, that they are disordered, they’re immoral, they’re possessed by demons, and the only way to live a healthy, happy, fulfilled life is to change them.”
Not long after the relationship started, Waugh says her partner accidentally pocket dialled a leader in the church while they were in the midst of an intimate conversation.
The next day, during a counselling session with Gerry Wein, Waugh says that she was confronted, that she was told somebody was calling her parents, and that she would have to leave.
“So Francis assigns the secretary to call my father and she says, ‘You need to come and get Ashley ASAP or you need to get her out of Ontario immediately,’” Waugh says.
She booked a flight for the next day, and she never came back.
Waugh says she ended up struggling with addiction issues again, but now she’s in a good place and in a relationship with a woman she loves.
But for her, church is no longer a safe space.
“Once you’re literally banned and shunned from a church, you’re not going to set yourself up for that again, which is unfortunate because it is such a huge part of my life.”
Nikki Hamilton left the church in 2018 after she says her child, Nik, a trans man, tried to kill himself at the age of 16.
“I was in and out of the ER over the course of eight months before my kid actually tried to kill himself, because he was battling so badly with these tendencies and with self-esteem and identity issues,” Hamilton says.
Around the age of 14, before Nik’s transition, he came out as a lesbian.
According to Hamilton, this prompted members of Third Day Worship Centre to tell their children, who had been friends with Nik for years, not to associate with him.
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“One person told me straight out that she told her daughter to stop hanging around my kid because she didn’t want her daughter caught up in ‘all that,’” Hamilton says.
Hamilton says while at the church, members were conditioned to automatically think being LGBTQ2 is wrong. She says she remembers seeing some of the sermons posted in the leaked videos, and feeling both uncomfortable but also powerless to speak up.
“I remember being there cringing in my seat going, ‘That’s not a very loving attitude coming from someone that’s supposed to actually be a man of God,’” Hamilton says.
Around that same time, Hamilton says Nik sat in on a sermon where a guest pastor was preaching “disparaging remarks” about the LGBTQ2 community.
“I don’t remember exactly what she says. I’m sorry, I don’t. But I do remember the effect it had on my kid because my kid never came back to the church,” Hamilton says.
Hamilton says the next few years were like “hell’ for Nik.
“I saw the deterioration of my kid’s emotional and mental state after that,” Hamilton says.
Hamilton says when she spoke to leaders at the church about issues with Nik, she was made to feel that he was struggling because of his “lifestyle” choices.
“That’s the feeling that you got, basically, that the struggle with everything that my kid went through was all because my kid was gay or trans,” she says.
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After Nik’s transition, Hamilton says he came to visit her at the church, where many people were glad to see him. But, she says they refused to call him by his chosen name.
“They would not at all acknowledge his given name, his chosen name. They kept calling him (by his previous name),” Hamilton says. “It hurt.”
Then, after years of turmoil, Hamilton says Nik tried to take his own life. Hamilton says she feels her son’s time at Third Day amplified the feelings of loneliness and isolation he was already feeling.
“I’m not saying it was the direct cause, but because of all the stuff that happened, it led to eventually my kid doing this,” Hamilton says.
The mayor’s place
Several people who spoke with Global News say their interactions with Mayor Bryan Paterson at the church were positive.
“He loves people. He genuinely cares about people,” Hamilton says.
Perry, who like many in this story first told her story to Vice, says she feels empathy for Paterson.
“He started there a long time ago, and so he’s technically in the same place I was. He got fed the same lies,” Perry says.
Waugh noted that she did not know him well, but says she believes Paterson should have stepped away from the church long ago.
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“If I was a young person going through what I went through, I would be ashamed of him, really, thinking that the leader of my city agrees with (Francis Armstrong) that I’m worthless,” Waugh says.
Although Paterson stepped away and condemned the church’s teachings on LGBTQ2 matters in September, Wells argued that if a leader in a community actually wants to show allyship with its community, Paterson should take action.
“If you are not acting to interrupt, you are part of the discrimination. You become part of the problem that allows it to continue to flourish,” Wells says.
Wells noted that the best way for politicians to fight against conversion therapy is to put their weight behind legislation to ban it, like the federal government has done with Bill C-6, which would criminalize the practice.
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Wells pushed Paterson and Kingston’s municipal government to show they are committed to ending conversion therapy by enacting local bylaws.
“One of the most important things they can do is introduce a conversion therapy prohibition bylaw in the city of Kingston that will end this practice completely, no matter who it targets or no matter where it happens, whether that’s in a nonprofit organization or within a faith community,” Wells says.
When asked if he would support such a bylaw, Paterson noted that he does not condone conversion therapy in any form.
“I support Bill C-6, a federally introduced bill to ban conversion therapy, and I supported the provincial ban introduced several years ago. As for a municipal bylaw, I believe the province and the federal government have both passed laws and have the proper jurisdiction to bring about legislation that is effective and enforceable. As a municipal representative, I give my voice and support to those bills,” he says.
Paterson did provide a statement on recent disclosures:
“Over the last few months, I’ve learned for the first time about some of the negative experiences people have had in the church. It’s hard to hear. I feel for those who have been hurt or felt they weren’t valued in the church, I feel for many of the parishioners who have been painted in a certain light, and I feel for the community as we have these difficult conversations.”
This is part two of Global News’ three-part investigative series into Third Day Worship Centre. Part three will focus on the lack of oversight of non-denominational churches and what happens to former members after they leave. See part one here.