22 Aug 2019
Harvest USA: The Early Years
Thirty-six years ago, my life went in a completely different direction than I had planned. While attending Westminster Theological Seminary in the suburbs of Philadelphia, one of my professors was the late Harvie Conn, and it was his influence that changed the direction of my life.
One day, Dr. Conn, who taught a class called “Missions and Ministry,” informed us that he was going to talk about an unreached and hidden people group that the church had not only overlooked but also had actively ignored.
What he said upended all my future plans.
Harvie told us that the gay and lesbian community was one of the largest and fastest-growing unreached people groups in America (this was 1983). This was partly due, he explained, to what was a hands-off approach by the evangelical church, which looked upon the gay community with uncertainty and even hostility.
Then Harvie went on to talk about another hidden people group, one that was even larger in size and scope. These were the men and women in our evangelical and reformed churches attempting to follow Christ—yet trapped in hopelessness, fear, shame, and guilt about their ongoing, crippling, and seemingly unconquerable struggles with sex and sexuality. Their struggles were often exacerbated, he added, by the silence and condemnation of the church.
Here was a man I deeply respected, saying that the church was failing an entire group of people and that this kind of ministry was desperately needed.
Here was a man I deeply respected, saying that the church was failing an entire group of people and that this kind of ministry was desperately needed.
After class, I inquired if there was any kind of work going on in this area to better minister this way. Harvie said he didn’t know of anything in the Philadelphia area, but I’ll never forget his next words. “If there’s one church which might be interested, it would be a church in Center City Philly, Tenth Presbyterian Church. Everything that’s hidden in the suburbs is ten feet from their doorstep, 24/7.” Tenth was in the middle of the gay community.
Thus began my thirty-six-year journey with Harvest USA.
The Holy Spirit would not let me forget what Harvie had shared. I called Tenth and spoke with Glen McDowell, one of their pastors. He said they had a few elders and their wives already meeting monthly to pray about such an outreach. There were a few other people who wanted to help, including one other seminary student. Glenn encouraged me to come and talk with him, and the rest is Harvest USA history.
With the visionary leadership of Tenth, the four praying officers and their wives became the official steering committee of Harvest (as the ministry was called in its first nine years before we had to add “USA” because another ministry owned the name). We launched a Bible study/support group with men and women from the gay and lesbian community. These meetings sought to bring the love and transforming power of Christ to a hurting, ostracized, and marginalized group of people. Through bulletin announcements, and in carefully worded ads in local newspapers, people began to respond. Ads tailored to reach questioning hearts, like, “Gay and Unhappy? God Cares for You,” and “Homosexual Struggle? There’s Hope in Christ” struck a chord with many. (As did later ads like, “Does Porn Have a Grip on You?”) Soon we were getting as many as twenty calls a day in our little office manned by a handful of phone volunteers.
Those who called for help were interviewed to gauge the seriousness of their struggle and desire for help and then were invited to the support group. The only requirement? You had to believe that your life wasn’t working well and that you were willing to hear what the God of Scripture said about your struggles. It was in those first small group meetings that I saw God begin to show up big time in hearts and lives. Having a safe and encouraging place where people could both wrestle with the gospel and bring all their hurts, anger, doubts, questions, and fears became fertile ground for the Spirit to work in hearts. I remember leaving one of the meetings thinking that the kind of desperation, gut-level honesty, and hunger for God I saw in this group should be true of the church in general. That’s when I became convinced that God wanted me, in some fashion, at this new fledging ministry.
But probably only as a volunteer, right? I was still in seminary, pursuing being a pastor, which was why I was there in the first place. But then a friend said, “John, what if this is what God wants you to do with your life?” He said that he saw too much spiritual fruit from my work there for me to just walk away. But, how would I do that? The steering committee challenged me to raise my support, like missionaries or campus staff.
After nine months, God had fully provided all my support. In February 1985, I became Harvest USA’s first official founding staff person.
In those early days of our ministry, God seemed to provide special oversight and care, as well as unique responses to the gospel, as he often does in the fledging years of any new gospel work. One Bible study/support group became two, then three as God added to our numbers. Parents also saw those ads and began calling—families with a loved one who had embraced a gay or lesbian identity. So we started care groups for parents.
We began specific groups for women and wives as more women responded. Both my wife, Penny, and another woman from Tenth, on staff with The Salvation Army, became the first women’s ministry leaders. God also brought us over a dozen volunteers to help out in our groups and answer the telephone in our one-room office in a huge brownstone on Spruce Street, home of our first office. One of these included Melissa, a 30-year-old former nun who had begun to attend Tenth and who had a heart for the gay community.
We saw people come to faith in Christ through our groups, as well as struggling believers who began to give Jesus ownership of their lives and struggles. We helped get them involved in local churches for more discipleship and service into the larger body of Christ. Of course, many of those from Center City Philly usually wound up at Tenth Presbyterian. The gospel-centered, reformed preaching, together with the church’s sincerity and support of Harvest USA made it a safe and attractive place where people from Harvest USA could become involved. This kind of environment led many of these men and women to become very vocal about what God was doing in their lives through their involvement in Harvest USA, and many shared their stories and testimonies from the pulpit of Tenth. Their love of Jesus, awareness of his work, and the gratitude they had seemed to overrule any fear or stigma about their particular issue or problems. They were living examples of what the psalms say, “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.”
But it wasn’t just people from Philly who heard about us. God brought people to us from the most unexpected places. I remember the man who found one of our ministry brochures in the seat pocket of a plane. Another man, having just broken up with his partner, walked into a church for the first time in twenty years and found a brochure about the ministry. Then there was the household of three gay men who began attending one of our groups. They all eventually made professions of faith. One man, Jack, later married that former nun office volunteer! Another man and woman, fresh out of the gay community, began to attend, came to Christ, married, and later attended seminary, eventually becoming missionaries in Romania. We saw so many men and women come to Harvest USA and experience God’s love. It was that love that empowered them to live godly, transforming lives, and become blessings to their church as single people or those who married when they had least expected to do so.
We simply had to celebrate what God was doing! So, we began for many years hosting annual banquets where we gave thanks for God’s provision and his ongoing work. Those early banquets were labors of love for all involved. Volunteers cooked all day in Tenth’s kitchen preparing the food. My children, now all grown up, still have vivid memories of their dad driving the family van down to the Italian Market in South Philly. With my wife and children waiting in the idling van, I’d jump out at various vendors, buying forty pounds of roast beef from this vendor, chicken breasts from another, and then green beans from still another. Within a few years, we had outgrown the church fellowship hall and had to move the annual banquets to larger venues.
Of course, the highlight of these events were the personal stories people shared about the gospel of grace that God was working in their hearts and lives. On those special evenings, it was not unusual to see people deeply moved by the work of the Spirit. It wasn’t uncommon for some people to attend a dozen banquets, being drawn back to celebrate God’s work and hear the stories year after year.
But those early years were not without obstacles. Many were not supportive of the ministry, Christians and non-Christians alike. Unfortunately, some believers felt we were wasting our time with “those kinds of people.” Sadly, they often put the gay and lesbian community (even believers struggling with homosexuality) outside the scope of the gospel itself. I still cringe when I remember the time an elder told one of our staff, “I don’t care, let ‘em all go to Hell!” This, of course, deeply grieved us, and we often found ourselves needing to call these leaders to repent of their hard and self-righteous hearts.
It was also routine, back then, to receive anonymous messages on my phone machine. One woman said, “I pray daily for the demise of your ministry.” Another left a message telling me that our staff needed to check underneath our cars before we started them because one day a bomb would explode. At the time when we just had a Post Office box, one threatened that he wished he knew where we were so that he could “show up with an Uzi.”
Other flaming arrows were aimed in our direction. College students held a candlelight march around the building when our staff spoke on campus. Someone pranked the Pennsylvania Attorney General by using fake Harvest USA stationary to invite him to publically declare his homosexuality (and I first heard about this on the local evening news when I saw him rail about it)! As a result, we were investigated by the FBI.
There was the time a dead body turned up in the Schuylkill River, and the only identification found on the body was a soggy card with the words “Harvest USA” and our telephone number. The local DA wanted to know why that was so. Once, a man masquerading as a potential ministry candidate turned out to be a warlock and cast a spell on me in the office. Then there was the time posters were placed on buildings around Philadelphia saying that Harvest USA was “Enemy #1” of the gay community.
The very existence of Harvest USA and all that has followed . . . in the past 35 years is an amazing testimony to God’s goodness, faithfulness, and lovingkindness.
However, it was during the height of the AIDS epidemic that some of the most dramatic efforts to shut us down occurred. In 1986, AIDS was having a significant impact on those in the gay community. Christian doctors and nurses found themselves tending to AIDS patients, and I would get phone calls from them asking if I would come visit and pray for those patients who requested it. They said they were unable to cross professional boundaries and spend time praying with them.
So I found myself invited into many hospital rooms and prison cells to pray with patients and prisoners because guards and, even chaplains, were often afraid to go into prisoners’ cells and patients’ rooms. This part of the ministry continued to grow and eventually became the Word-and-mercy-focused ministry, Hope. Often these visits and mercy efforts were seen as suspect and threatening to many in the gay community, especially the politically-driven AIDS organizations. One day in 1991, in a media-orchestrated move, a large group of demonstrators tried to burst into the offices at Tenth Church.
One of the things that helped us weather all these incidents over the years was the reality that our message was welcomed by some and very threatening to others. We learned to take resistance in stride, knowing we were opposed by many—but embraced as an oasis in the desert from others.
We continued to grow as an organization and entered our maturing stage, becoming an independent 501(c)(3) with a board of directors. This broadened our impact among more churches and denominations. It also helped ensure more financial support. We also left our small office in Center City Philadelphia and stepped up to something bigger elsewhere in the city.
In the mid-1990s, the arrival of the internet brought pornography into the privacy of the home through personal computers. We started receiving calls from men, pastors, and wives, seeking help and ways to help. Women called about their own struggles with pornography. That’s when the ministry went from its original focus as an outreach to the gay community to include those dealing with sexual brokenness on several levels. Our ministry to parents also expanded. God was faithful in bringing us additional gospel-driven, caring staff along the way as a ministry force.
While Harvest USA has always been about the gospel and people, in the late 1990s we adopted a dual focus and mission. In addition to our life-on-life discipleship for sexual strugglers (which currently can include over a hundred people in groups and personal discipleship on any given week), we began a concerted effort to be an educational and equipping resource for the local church. This became a much-needed focus welcomed by many churches who wanted to become equipped to more effectively care for their people impacted by sexual brokenness, temptations, and sins.
As I write this, I see afresh God’s hand on this ministry as an undeniable reality through all the stories and places and situations that God has led us through for 35 years. In the beginning, it was just me, a few volunteers, one room, a telephone, a typewriter, and a budget of $16,000. Today, we have a staff of twenty, multiple volunteers and interns, two office locations, lots of phones and computers, and a two-million dollar budget. This is incredible growth, a tangible sign of God’s presence and blessing.
The very existence of Harvest USA and all that has followed in this ministry in the past 35 years is an amazing testimony to God’s goodness, faithfulness, and lovingkindness. A very real part of God’s blessing includes the faithfulness of our ministry partners, the people who enable us to minister the truth and mercy of Jesus Christ, here in Philadelphia, around the country, and even, internationally, every day. That’s why I’m so excited about where God is taking us in the future.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.