Cover Story

Star makers, heartbreakers

Some Christian groups, desperate for sensational conversion stories, may be hurting those who switch sides

Issue: "Star makers, heartbreakers," Sept. 2, 2000

November 4, 1997, was the day Eric Craig Harrah, an abortion clinic operator and open homosexual, publicly proclaimed faith in Christ. He walked away from the State College, Pa., abortion mill he operated and, within a week, testified of his conversion in an Assembly of God church. Within two weeks, he was giving his testimony in other churches. Within three months, he was giving interviews to reporters. Within six months, he was on the pro-life speaking circuit, giving talks at fundraising banquets put on by crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). Soon the media divisions of some major Christian organizations were interviewing Mr. Harrah and running his conversion story. Rejoice, print and broadcast stories proclaimed: Mr. Harrah believes the Bible is true, and that Jesus Christ has saved him.

Mr. Harrah doesn't believe that now.

During 1998 and 1999 Mr. Harrah was the anti-abortion hero, the trophy convert, the hottest new face at pro-life fundraising events. But early this year he abandoned pro-life activism, forced out under a cloud of unstable behavior and suspected theft, lying, and drug abuse (see sidebar). Now, at 32, he has renounced Christianity and returned to homosexuality.

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The wreckage of Mr. Harrah's short and dazzling pro-life career evokes questions. Did Christians closest to Mr. Harrah push him toward celebrity too quickly, short-circuiting his healing process? Did prominent ministries and Christian media ignore warnings about his credibility and thereby fuel his meteoric rise with their own star power? Had he been sheltered from the Christian "star system," with its voracious appetite for fresh faces and sensational testimonies, might things be different?

Joan Appleton, formerly the head nurse at a Falls Church, Va., abortion clinic, believes so. Ms. Appleton now works with Pro-Life Action Ministries and The Centurions, a group that helps former abortion workers and activists to reorder their lives-a process that can take many years. "Eric Harrah was never put in a position where he had to make changes in his life or take steps toward healing before he began speaking on behalf of the pro-life movement," she said.

Some Christians foresaw problems. During Mr. Harrah's arc through the pro-life firmament, two factions emerged to warn ministries, media, and even Mr. Harrah's first post-conversion pastor Paul Grabill not to promote him too quickly. The factions had different motives. One group consisted of pro-life activists who felt Mr. Harrah's stories were not credible; they believed he would ultimately damage the movement. The other group believed it unscriptural to trot a new believer so quickly into the spotlight, particularly a spotlight as harsh as that of abortion politics. New Christians, they contended, needed time to grow in their faith.

Former abortion clinic director Carol Everett was in the second group. "I told Paul Grabill that he needed to disciple Eric, hold his hand, and help him," said Ms. Everett, who says the Christians who helped in her conversion from abortion to Christ discipled her daily for nearly two years before letting her go public. "I begged him not to let Eric continue speaking. I told him, 'When someone gets in Eric's face and asks him how he thinks he can be forgiven after what he's done, he has to know who God is," and that forgiveness comes from God. Ms. Everett said Mr. Grabill "patted me on the head over the phone" and told her Mr. Harrah would be fine.

Referring to the sensational conversion of the woman whom liberal litigators used as "Roe" in Roe vs. Wade, Ms. Everett says, "I believe Paul Grabill wanted Eric to be his Norma McCorvey."

Did he? "Yes," Mr. Grabill told WORLD. "It was a father-son thing ... he was living under my roof." Mr. Grabill now admits he made mistakes. He told WORLD his own pride made him believe he could shelter Mr. Harrah from criticism, both fair and unfair, that would come with an early spotlight. Mr. Grabill believed he could "accelerate Eric's discipleship process.... I was sure he was the exception to the rule."

The desire for hero-converts, says Pro-Life Action Ministries director Brian Gibson, is one factor that drives the pro-life star system. "We in the pro-life community so desperately want to have things we can point to as victories, that show we're winning the hearts and minds of the people. We in leadership have taken those who have left the [pro-abortion side] and held them up as our trophies," Mr. Gibson explained. "That hasn't been the original intention, but it seems to be the net result."

Cel Levatino agrees. A former abortion clinic nurse who left the industry in 1985 along with her husband, former abortionist Tony Levatino, she grieved when seeing Mr. Harrah and Ms. McCorvey thrust into the public eye so quickly. "When someone like Norma or Eric renounces abortion, it's almost impossible for us to restrain ourselves from wanting to use them," Mrs. Levatino said. "Exploit is a bit of a strong word, but it's applicable."

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