In the spring of 1997, Eric Harrah descended on State College, Pa., the leafy, church-filled little college town that is home to Penn State University. His close friend, abortionist Steven Brigham, had sent him to open the town's first abortion clinic. Mr. Harrah was a veteran clinic planter; he'd already opened and operated several in the Northeast. But he hated State College, which he saw as insufferably pedestrian compared with the glitzy, gay New York nightlife to which he was accustomed.
After a short, bizarre odyssey in which Mr. Harrah boomeranged from deviance to confession and back again, he would hate it even more.
To lay the groundwork for the opening of the new abortion clinic, Dr. Brigham sent Mr. Harrah ahead as the human equivalent of napalm. Imposing at nearly 300 pounds, he was the kind of hyper-feminine, in-your-face gay male that homosexual-equality activists would rather hide during election season. He whirled through the town's sleepy streets wearing makeup and nail polish. He shrieked obscenities in the faces of pro-life protesters. Reining in his flamboyance when expedient, he worked the local press to make his case for "choice." Though citizens opposed to the new clinic fought it bitterly, State College Medical Services opened in September 1997.
Mr. Harrah hated Christians. "I would do anything in my power to make them miserable," he would later tell church audiences. But there was one Christian Mr. Harrah tried to make miserable and couldn't. Steve Stupar, a local business owner and an elder in the State College Assembly of God, felt God was leading him to reach out to Mr. Harrah. So he staked out the town's new abortion mill and waited.
For Mr. Harrah it wasn't love at first sight. His first words to Mr. Stupar: "Get the [expletive] off my steps! ... I'll have you arrested!" Mr. Stupar calmly weathered the ensuing verbal storm, until Mr. Harrah finally asked, "Why did you come here?"
"Because you prayed for me to come," Mr. Stupar replied.
Mr. Harrah would later tell reporters that the hair stood up on the back of his neck. Only the month before, the story goes, he had prayed. Not specifically for Steve Stupar; but that if his involvement in abortion was wrong, that God would send someone to show him the right way. Still, Mr. Harrah put up a tough front for Mr. Stupar that first day: He threatened to have Mr. Stupar beaten up if he ever showed his face at the clinic again.
"Jesus loves you and so do I, Eric," Mr. Stupar reportedly replied. "And I'll see you tomorrow."
So began a tenuous friendship between the clinic operator and the Christian. Mr. Stupar says Mr. Harrah gradually began to confide in him. The Stupar family opened their hearts and home to Mr. Harrah. Ultimately, their kindness would lead Mr. Harrah to declare faith in Christ, and Pastor Paul Grabill's State College Assembly of God would become his new church home.
Mr. Harrah proclaimed his faith on Nov. 4, 1997. It is unclear whether much discipling of Mr. Harrah took place, but within two weeks he was sharing his "testimony" with other churches. It was also just two weeks before his new pastor began acting as Mr. Harrah's booking agent. One national speaker's bureau rejected Mr. Grabill's new protégé based on that agency's belief that Mr. Harrah's story was not credible. "We asked Eric about his conversion, and whether he could provide verification for his stories [about his past]," said Wes Yoder, president of Ambassador Speakers Bureau, the group that represents Cal Thomas, Gary Bauer, and other prominent Christian speakers. "We got no good answers on verification, and I think our questions made him angry." In the end, Mr. Harrah and Mr. Yoder mutually agreed that Ambassador wasn't the agency to represent him.
But Mr. Grabill pressed on, tapping his contacts in ministries and media, and encouraging Mr. Harrah to speak publicly. Funny and likable, Mr. Harrah quickly became the hottest new face on the pro-life speaking circuit. At churches, crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), and state right-to-life groups, he held audiences spellbound, even helping some CPCs break fundraising records.
But opposing forces pulled at Mr. Harrah. As his reputation as The New Pro-Life Convert grew, some pro-lifers began sounding the alarm that he might not be credible. Susan Rogacs, a veteran activist from State College, was particularly critical of what she saw as lies and hype. For example, Mr. Harrah claimed in church talks to have been not just an abortion business operator but at age 22 the sole owner of 26 abortion clinics. He also said he'd been shot at by pro-lifers, but no records existed of shootings at clinics he had operated. Mr. Harrah admitted to WORLD this summer that he embellished stories while on the speaking circuit.
Ms. Rogacs forwarded her criticism to several Christian organizations, but some dismissed it as showing personal pique. Mr. Harrah largely gained publicity through Christian media interviews in which he would make statements on camera such as, "It is well with my soul." But by February 1998, Mr. Harrah's noises about solid faith in Christ were a façade. "Within two to three months after my conversion ... I was over it. I didn't want to be involved in Christianity or the pro-life movement," he told WORLD last month. "All the public things I said about how much love I felt and how people had accepted me, that was all lies." Mr. Harrah says he continued speaking publicly despite his doubt "because I thought if I held on as long as I could, eventually [Christianity] would become real for me."
Meanwhile, his behavior grew increasingly unstable. During a June 1998 restaurant lunch meeting with a Pottstown, Pa., CPC staff, Mr. Harrah exploded in a rage, at one point shouting at a male CPC board member something like, Have you ever slept with a man? ... I have and I liked it!
On at least three occasions, he accepted deposits from pro-life groups for speaking engagements and then did not show up, but kept the money. He borrowed a car from a church member but never returned it. Police later recovered the car. Mr. Harrah also returned to abusing drugs. Often, he would call Mr. Stupar's State College home in the pre-dawn hours, Mr. Stupar said, "crying and high and feeling guilty that he's speaking to thousands of people about Christ ... and then at night he's out doing drugs."
Mr. Harrah denies calling Mr. Stupar, but admitted to WORLD that he abused drugs during this period. He blames pressure brought by skeptical pro-lifers for his "getting hooked once again on sleeping pills, uppers and downers, and everything else." Other unstable behavior, he says, was his reaction to a newfound celebrity whose hidden edges were ugly and sharp: "It was horrible, night after night, telling people every single bad thing you've ever done, knowing full well they're totally against what you were.... Many nights, I'd go back to my hotel room and cry."
Mr. Harrah's reputation as a reliable speaker began to slip. In August 1999, Heartbeat International rescinded its invitation to Mr. Harrah to speak at the group's annual banquet, based on "physical problems and emotional turmoil over ... issues people were confronting him on." Mr. Harrah's final break with pro-lifers occurred early this year. Late in 1999 he moved to Denton, Texas, to work with the pro-life investigative group Life Dynamics, but that relationship soon ended. In March 2000, Mr. Harrah went to Planned Parenthood in New York and swore out an affidavit alleging that Life Dynamics stole records from a Kansas Planned Parenthood clinic.
Now Mr. Harrah lives with his mother in Delaware and has returned to a flamboyant homosexual lifestyle. He says he still believes abortion is wrong, but told WORLD in July he wishes he had not "converted" to Christianity three years ago. He wishes, in fact, that he'd never set foot in State College, Pa., or the Assembly of God church where he made his confession of faith. "It will be a cold day in West Jamaica," he said, "before I ever set foot in a church again."