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CONVERSION THERAPY-LINKED PASTOR FIRED FROM SOUTHERN OREGON HOMELESS SHELTER ORG

by LCRW STAFF

Pastor Chad McComas is officially an unemployed bigot.

McComas was the founder of Rogue Retreat, the largest provider of publicly funded homeless shelters in Southern Oregon, and served as the organization’s executive director for 24 years. McComas was terminated by his own board of directors on August 16, 2022, after local activists exposed his ties to anti-LGBTQ “conversion therapy” earlier this year.

In recent years, Rogue Retreat has dominated the homelessness industry in Southwestern Oregon. Serving over 500 individuals a night in Jackson and Josephine counties, Rogue Retreat receives millions of dollars in public funding. In June 2022, Rogue Retreat was scheduled to receive $500,00 from the City of Medford to open a navigation center, with an additional $1.5 million allocated to establish a new “sanctioned encampment” run by the nonprofit.

On June 9, 2022, local activist groups Siskiyou Abolition Project and Siskiyou Rising Tide published a 26-page report outlining Pastor Chad’s role in promoting anti-LGBT literature as part of his church’s Celebrate Recovery programming. Celebrate Recovery, a Bible-based 12-step program, considers homosexuality to be a sinful addiction. In 2018, Pastor Chad’s church had distributed a Celebrate Recovery pamphlet entitled “Same Sex Attraction: The Problem and Solution for Men.”

Pastor Chad’s bigotry created an obvious problem for unhoused LGBTQ people. “Rogue Retreat is supposed to be low or no barrier, but when you have bigotry involved, bigotry itself is a barrier,” Cass Bic, a volunteer with the street outreach group Judi’s Midnight Diner, told local news.

Rogue Retreat began as a “ministry” within Pastor Chad’s evangelical church Set Free Ministry, and there were blurry lines between the two organizations. According to Siskiyou Abolition Project’s report, Pastor Chad is well-known for distributing Bible tracts to people at Rogue Retreat, and if residents staying at Rogue Retreat’s Urban Campground in Medford needed to do laundry or take a shower, they would be bussed to Set Free.

Campaign information page on the Oregon Secretary of State website for Pastor McComas’s failed campaign. LCRW has redacted addresses and sensitive information.
Campaign information page on the Oregon Secretary of State website for Pastor McComas’s failed campaign. LCRW has redacted addresses and sensitive information.

Pastor Chad’s connections to conversion therapy raised questions of whether public funding was being used to promote anti-LGBTQ doctrines. Documentation obtained by LCRW corroborate a far-right Christian Nationalist pattern of mixing evangelical Christianity with nonprofit activities and political campaigning. In 2020, Pastor Chad registered the Chad McComas Political Action Committee as part of his failed bid for Medford City Councilor. Official election documents listed a Rogue Retreat number as Pastor Chad’s “work phone,” and he used his church as a mailing address. Charlie Hale – who served as the PAC treasurer, and is a pastor at Set Free as well as a Rogue Retreat employee – provided his Rogue Retreat email address and listed a Set Free phone number as his “work phone.”

Everything changed on the morning of June 9th at Oregon Health Authority’s local Housing and Homelessness Summit, where Pastor McComas was one of the keynote speakers. While the Siskiyou Abolition Project report was being distributed to news outlets and social media that morning, advocates approached McComas and verbally confronted him about his connections to conversion therapy.

Originally on-site to report about the summit, local news shifted their coverage to focus on the confrontation. Pastor Chad downplayed his connection to conversion therapy, but that night Channel 10 news aired a damning interview with the bigot. When reporter Christina Giardinelli asked McComas, “Do you believe that same-sex attraction is a sin?,” McComas laid down his cards. “Clearly, the Bible points that out,” he said. “I do believe that.”

Local housing advocate Maig Tinnin, who worked on the Siskiyou Abolition Project report, believes the interview affected how the community responded to the allegations of conversion therapy.

“Pastor Chad was at that housing summit as a representation of Rogue Retreat. To say in that context and at that time that he believed being gay is a sin,” Tinnin says it had a major impact. “He was willing to say that publicly, and he was willing to say it while he was at work.”

Within days, the City of Medford called for an investigation into the city-funded programs at Pastor Chad’s church, to determine whether there were instances of anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Local LGBTQ and housing advocates began organizing actions to demand Pastor Chad’s resignation. Queers activists dropped a banner at Medford Pride that read “Pastor Chad Hates Fags & We Hate Him Too, Fuck Rogue Retreat.” A group of teenagers staged a demo at Pastor Chad’s church. The Rogue Retreat office was inundated with phone calls while stickers with slogans like “Pastor Chad eat my ass” appeared around town.

There was no centralized organizer of these protests, which were reported by Instagram pages Siskiyou Street News and Rise & Resist Media as autonomous actions. On June 15, there was a kiss-in and dance party at Coldwell Banker Commercial Northwest’s office, the business operated by Thomas Fischer, Rogue Retreat’s board chair. A reportback on social media read: “Tommy boy, we hope you liked the show. Just remember, there’s a war on the poor & queer communities right now, so if you’re enabling homophobes like Pastor Chad & exploiting unhoused people, well… someone just might come to your office!”

Instagram post about the protest against Pastor McComas viewable here.
Instagram post about the protest against Pastor McComas viewable here.

As Rogue Retreat took heat, it became clear that Pastor Chad was creating a major liability for the organization. Tinnin says they heard from a handful of Rogue Retreat funders expressing urgent concerns about the implications of Pastor Chad’s bigotry.

On June 16, the Medford City Council was scheduled to discuss a $1.5 million dollar land purchase tied to Rogue Retreat. There was a simultaneous “Rave Against Rogue Retreat” planned outside of Medford City Hall, which also served to mobilize people for the council meeting. But before the council meeting began, Rogue Retreat announced that Pastor Chad was placed on paid administrative leave pending an outside investigation.

Flyer for “Rave Against Rogue Retreat” posted on Instagram and viewable here.
Flyer for “Rave Against Rogue Retreat” posted on Instagram and viewable here.

Pastor Chad was officially fired by Rogue Retreat in mid-August amidst a disorienting “Battle of the Story” surrounding the reasons for his termination. Local news reported that Rogue Retreat laid off a total of 25 employees, but according to Rogue Retreat none of this was related to Pastor Chad’s bigotry. “Our decision was not at all based on the discrimination allegations or the things on social media being said,” says Rogue Retreat board chair Thomas Fischer. Rogue Retreat requested McComas resign but he refused, forcing the organization to terminate him.

While hinting that he may sue his former nonprofit, Pastor Chad gave multiple interviews with local news, right wing talk radio, and Christian nationalist media. Appearing on theDove, which was banned by YouTube in 2021 for promoting election disinformation and COVID denialism, Pastor Chad told his sob story of a “spiritual battle” between good and evil. The man who promoted conversion therapy said that Rogue Retreat “put me in a closet and the shut the door” because “these liberal organizations, they cannot tolerate the fact that we have an opinion.” For housing advocates like Maig Tinnin, ousting McComas is an important step but unhoused people continue to face significant barriers to housing. These issues extend beyond LGBTQ rights and into intersectional forms of discrimination, mistreatment, and criminalization.

Announcement post from Siskyou Street News about Pastor McComas being fired, viewable here.
Announcement post from Siskyou Street News about Pastor McComas being fired, viewable here.

Tinnin is working with Judi’s Midnight Diner to survey unhoused people in Medford about their experiences with Rogue Retreat. Tinnin provided LCRW with access to responses from 39 individuals in the ongoing survey. When asked “Do you believe Rogue Retreat staff treated you differently because of physical or mental health (disability), being non-white (race), being gay or queer, or any other personal characteristic?,” 49% percent of survey respondents said yes.

When asked to elaborate, one respondent said, “I believe it’s because of being Mexican and Native American.” Another person stated, “They see my disability as something like more work for them rather than helping me with it.” Other respondents described being discriminated against because of their medical conditions, PTSD, religion, criminal background, and more.

“There’s so many people left out from the way [Rogue Retreat] has been structured,” says Tinnin, who hopes that the surveys can serve as a blueprint for much needed changes. When asked “What suggestions do you have for improving services at Rogue Retreat?,” unhoused respondents talked about human dignity. “Treat people, even if they’re poor, like human beings not garbage,” said one respondent. “Treat people more like a human and not like a dollar sign,” said another.

“The Rogue Retreat staff remind me of the Stanford Prison Experiment,” said one survey respondent. “The mindset of Rogue Retreat needs to be ripped out at the roots. Trying to gain control by threatening people, it doesn’t work.”

LCRW STAFF

LCRW staff wrote this article under the supervision of Editor in Chief Abner Häuge.

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