A Lesson In Forgiveness

It’s no secret I blew the whistle on faith and culture writer, Jonathan Merritt, back in 2012. Since then I have been conflicted and bombarded with questions if what I did was right or out_gay_conservative_rectwrong. I’ve already responded to those questions in my article on Salon as well as in a Huffington Post interview. If you want to do your due diligence in research, you can read that post here and watch the interview here.

Tomorrow, April 1, Jonathan will release his new book, Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined. From what I’ve gathered,  this book is about experiencing the grace of God, healing, and finding freedom in living an honest and authentic life.

Since the announcement of Jonathan’s new book and the excerpt of his book being published in Christianity Today, I’ve received many emails asking me how/if I will respond. To be honest, I didn’t even want to write this post. I want to leave this situation in my past. Alas, here I am… writing about it. This post isn’t about Jonathan or me though, it’s about forgiveness. Learning to forgive myself.

The guilt and shame I felt for outing Jonathan kept me from writing for a long time. The shame made me feel like I lost my message. The guilt convinced me that I lost everyone’s respect.

Everyday, I have to choose to forgive myself for the wrongs I’ve committed. Outing Jonathan without speaking to him first is one of those wrongs. I see this moment as an opportunity in a lesson about forgiveness. When there is an opportunity to stand in your truth and demonstrate a lesson of forgiveness – it’s worthwhile. That’s why I’m writing about this situation when there is nothing more I would like than to leave it in the past.

Don’t allow your guilt and shame to prevent you from becoming your best. Choose to forgive yourself, that’s where you find freedom. Freedom will never be found in guilt and shame.

Start with this daily mantra…

I am not my failures or mistakes.

I have done wrong.

I will make mistakes.

I am worthy of love.

I am worthy of acceptance.

I am worthy.

You are worthy. We are worthy. We are all messed up but we are worthy.

Forgive yourself.

Jonathan, I’ve forgiven myself. Can you forgive me?

Be love,

Azariah Southworth

 

 

 

American Family Association: Let the Children Die

Yesterday, World Vision – an organization that gives aid to hungry children and their families in third world countries – announced they would recognize the same-sex marriages of their employees.

Screen shot 2014-03-26 at 7.05.52 AMWorld Vision is a Christian based company whose primary donors are Evangelical Christians. As you can imagine, unfortunately, their announcement to recognize same-sex marriages made waves – tsunami size waves.

The son of Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, released a statement stating, “It’s obvious World Vision doesn’t believe in the Bible,” Franklin continued to say, “I am sickened over it.” (His statement online has been updated to use more subtle language)

For Evangelical Christians like Franklin Graham and Tony Perkins, this is like their best friend of 30 years coming out as gay. They feel betrayed, shocked, and “sickened.” What they fail to realize is this is not about them.

When I woke up this morning, I scrolled through my emails on my phone while laying in bed, like I do every morning. When I saw an email with the subject line “World Vision Compromises, Abandons Teachings of Bible” from the American Family Association (AFA), I opened it and became “sickened” myself.

In their email to more than one million supporters – the AFA instructed “Christians who support World vision” that they “should stop as should all artists and authors who raise money for them.”

The American Family Association exists to, “inform, equip, and activate individuals to strengthen the moral foundations of American culture, and give aid to the church here and abroad in its task of fulfilling the Great Commission.”

I was aghast at the instructions AFA was giving to their supporters – stop feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and being a friend to those in need. Was this not how Jesus said we would be judged? (Matthew 25:31-36) Allow me to be bold enough to say, right now, I am that crazy prophetic voice in the desert and here is what the Divine is saying to the leaders of AFA, Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins and the like, “You’re dead inside.”

Your worship is empty. Your prayers are selfish. Your heart is void of God.

This has bWorldVisionChild1een the prophetic message to the AFA, Tony Perkins, and the like for years but THIS, this is an inexcusable manifestation of their empty worship, selfish prayers, and hearts void of God.

The AFA and their supporters are asking people to make a political statement by abandoning children like Frodilite (to the left) and allow him to go uneducated, without vaccination, and without proper nutrition. Is this how the AFA goes about “fulfilling the Great Commission” as their mission statement proclaims?

When you would rather make a political statement than continue to help a poor and starving child – you have not only lost touch with reality but your heart has grown cold.

These are the words of the Divine to the AFA…

You’re dead inside. Your worship is empty. Your prayers are selfish. Your heart is void of God.

I don’t know about you but I am making my way to World Vision’s website right now and I am choosing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and be a friend to those in need. I choose to fulfill the Great Commission.

I hope the AFA, Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins and all their friends will find their way back to love.

Be love,

Azariah Southworth

 

 

Forgiving My Ex-Gay Counselor

Three years ago I decided it was time to let go of the anger and bitterness I held towards the pastor that counseled me through five years of ex-gay therapy.

At age thirteen my parents suspected I was gay. Maybe it was playing with barbies when I was really young, kissing other boys when I was five-years-old, or gettinForgiveg excited to wear make-up for the church Christmas play that gave it away. I’m not sure what gave it away but there were a slew of stereotypical behaviors and evidence that screamed, “This child is faaaabulous!”

Whatever tipped them off, my parents scheduled a time for me to meet and talk with the pastor. They told me, “Pastor Rosene wants to speak with you after church Sunday night.” I wasn’t told why she wanted to meet with me. They made it seem like the pastor initiated the request. I thought maybe she had a prophetic word for me or she just wanted to check in and see how I was doing. I was excited to have a private moment with the Pastor. I looked up to her. I admired her.

After church that Sunday evening in October, Pastor Rosene and I made our way to the back of the church where her office was located. I remember it was October because 98 degrees was performing just fifty miles away. I remember sitting in her office, glancing at the clock and thinking, “They’re probably taking the stage at this very moment.” I was excited to be only fifty miles from my teenage crush, Nick Lachey.

Rosene asked some general questions then she shared a story with me that she saw on the news. The story was about someone who was molested as a young boy by an older man. When he grew up, he ended up molesting other young boys as well. As she shared the story, I thought that this was the life of all homosexuals, I didn’t know any better. However, I knew I was a homosexual. I’ve known that ever since I was five-years-old when my friend Elijah and I made out with each other every Sunday after church. Rosene finished the story and said, “Azariah, I feel fire behind my eyes.” This was typical spiritual lingo in our church. In this moment, it was her abstract and confusing way to say, “I know you’re gay.” I was becoming nervous, I started to feel shaky and scared. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt. I thought, if all homosexuals molest little boys like her story argued, I didn’t want anything to do with it. I thought I could change and she could help. Tears flooded my eyes and like the ugly crier I am, I confessed for the first time in my life, “I-I-I’m g-g-g-gay.” At this point, the only way I could breathe was with big gasps of air.

That night in October was the first of many nights we attempted to rid myself of homosexuality through pentecostal style exorcisms and unlicensed counseling. The pain and torment this counseling caused was tremendous. I was being asked to deny who I am and be something artificial. There were many times I wanted to kill myself. I remember one night in my room, I wrote a goodbye letter to my family, I pushed the dresser against the door and had a knife in my hand. I gently pressed the blade against the skin of my forearm to get an idea of what the pain would feel like. I wanted to know what to expect. There were two serious moments – while I was receiving ex-gay therapy – when I had everything set up and I Ex-Gay-Therapy-Switch-285x300was ready to end my life.

I wanted the same-sex attraction to end but God wasn’t answering my tear filled prayers and the ex-gay counseling wasn’t making the feelings go away. I thought the only way out was to end my life. Looking back, had I been empowered to live my life authentically and honestly, this torment would have never happened.

After coming out in 2008, I had a lot of bitterness and resentment towards Rosene. I would often talk poorly of her and the church. I was very critical and cynical of Christians. I had a growing animosity towards Christians and only wished ill feelings towards them. However, in the fall of 2010 I was ready to move on and let it go. I realized harboring that animosity was doing nothing more than hurting me, causing me to live in the past, and hindering me from being whole.

After not speaking for years, I called Rosene. She sounded happy to hear from me. I told her I wanted to come in and speak with her. We scheduled a time to meet for the following week.

I hadn’t been to the church in years. I walked in the side door, made my way through the kitchen and found Rosene walking up the hallway. She no longer had the big puffy hair, instead, she had it pulled back in a pony tail. Other than that, everything about the church and her was the same as before. We went into the nursery room and sat down. After catching up for a little while, I told her why I came. “I’m here because I want to tell you that I forgive you. You don’t know this, but those years that you counseled me to become ex-gay caused me a lot of unintentional pain and torment.” I explained how it caused me pain and that I was suicidal during that time. She was quiet and listened. When I finished speaking she began to share. “Azariah, I have been doing this for many years. I know the spiritual world. This is like the student trying to teach the teacher. You’re the student and I’m the teacher.”

Boom! There it was! I was set free! Eleven years after the counseling started, I FINALLY felt set free. God had finally answered my prayer. “You’re the student and I’m the teacher,” she argued. In that moment, I realized what she was doing. She was negating my life experience and attempting to position herself in a place of power and influence over me once again. However, I wised up too much and her game was over.

I remember that moment from three years ago very well. I remember the feeling of being set free by choosing to forgive her. That moment is still very real for me to this day.

For the thousands who have gone through ex-gay therapy, the pain we experienced was excruciating. It’s unforgettable. I want to encourage you, when you’re ready, choose to forgive. Whether you meet face-to-face with the person/s who did it to you, you write them a letter, or you go into the wilderness to scream out the pain. Whatever you do, let it out. I promise you that forgiveness, as difficult as it is, WILL be the key that sets you free.

If Pastor Rosene reads this…

The Divine is trying to teach you that your capacity to love and accept the Samaritans of today’s society is bigger than you’re allowing it to be. Pause. Reflect. Choose to grow.

Be love,

Azariah Southworth


[Samaritans were despised by the Jews in the Bible. They were considered unclean and the lowest of society in that time by the Jews.]

Fred Phelps, You’re Loved

The media is reporting that Fred Phelps is near death. As Fred prepares to leave this earth, let us not speak words of hate, but rather let us consider the power of love. “Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear.” 1 John 4:18

In May 2010, Ray Boltz and I were in Long Beach, California as part of our national tour, Living True, and so was the Phelps family of Westboro Baptist Church.Fred Phelps, You're Loved

The Westboro Baptist Church  primarily consists of the Phelps family. They’re famous for protesting American soldiers funerals and gay events, such as the one Ray and I were attending. Their signs such as, “God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers” have infuriated people all over the world. Their hateful message has even led to a lawsuit which ended up before the Supreme Court.

I heard the Phelps family would be in Long Beach the same weekend as Ray and I, but I didn’t expect them to be outside my hotel.

When I woke up that Saturday morning, I heard shouting outside my hotel room. I went over to the window and pulled back the curtain. There they were, ten stories below me, with their infamous signs in tow.

I immediately became excited. I had wanted to meet the Phelps family for years. There were so many things I’d thought about saying to them. However, since my transition from a faith based in fear to a faith based in love, I no longer had the desire to provoke them. I wanted to show them love instead.

Instead of responding to them out of fear, I could only think, “How can I show them love?” What would that look like? 

I found a corner store nearby and bought five bottles of water. I figured it was warm that day and they might be thirsty.

Estranged son of Fred Phelps, Nate Phelps, has recently started speaking out about his experience of growing up in the Phelps family. In an interview with The Standard, Nate revealed his father, Fred, would physically beat his mother and siblings for hours.

Because of that interview, when I saw them outside my hotel window that Saturday morning, I no longer saw people who hate me because I’m gay; I saw victims of Fred Phelps. I saw people who have never experienced love and are controlled by the fear of going to hell.

As I approached them, I grew nervous, but I went up to each one and asked, “Are you thirsty?” All of them declined as I thought they would. “Well, if you get thirsty, here is some water. It’s warm out, you need to stay hydrated.” Before I walked away, I looked at each of them in the eyes and told them, “I want you to know you’re loved.” Only one of them responded, her name is Mara Phelps.

With her soft spoken voice she told me that we must obey all the laws of God or face his judgment. I asked Mara, “When was the moment you experienced the love of God?”

Mara looked down then up again at me and said, “I don’t even know if God loves me.” 

It was then I reassured her that God does love her. I continued to share with her the moment I experienced the love of God which has changed my life. Mara listened, I thanked her for listening and one last time, I looked at her in the eyes and said, “Mara, you’re loved.”

If it wasn’t for God’s love transforming me, I would have only joined the 50+ counter protesters and argued with the victims of Fred Phelps. However, I chose to retire my angry thoughts and instead show love.

That Saturday morning I made a new friend. Her name is Mara Phelps and God loves her.

Be love,
Azariah Southworth

Life’s Most Important Lesson

In a TV interview, Sherri Shepherd from The View revealed that she believes LGBT people are going to hell. Her interview reminded me of the most important lesson I’ve learned in life so far.

As humans everything we do is a response out of two things… fear and love. Every choice we make derives from these two emotions.

The thing which hinders us from fulfilling our New Year resolution to be healthy is fear. The decision to not forgive a friend or family member comes from a place of fear. When we don’t fulfill our career goals or even create goals it’s because we are allowing fear to control us. However, operating in love will inform you to forgive the friend or family member. Love for yourself will compel you to keep your resolution. Love will motivate you to achieve your goals.

My journey of letting go of fear started when I stopped fearing hell.

For me, growing up in a very religious home, the fear of hell was deeply instilled in me. I remember the countless sermons that ended with, “If you left here tonight, died in a car accident, where would you spend eternity?” If I wasn’t sure, I would be one of the first to raise my hand to be saved. Jesus was my way out of hell. However, love didn’t lead me to Jesus, it was fear. However, the Jesus that fear led me to was a counterfeit Jesus.

While I was on the 2008 Equality Ride, I was confronted with the same question from hundreds of students and community members opposed to our message of LGBT inclusion. Everyday I was asked, “Aren’t you afraid of going to hell?”


After I was asked this question at an Assemblies of God school in Texas I came to a conclusion. I decided that I would not let fear control my life or inform my decisions anymore. After choosing to not let fear inform my decisions, when I was asked again, “Aren’t you afraid of going to hell?” My answer became a solid and resounding, “No.” My reason being is this, if I choose to accept Christ as my savior because I don’t want to go to hell but heaven instead then I have only accepted Christ out of fear because I want to save myself.

So, no, I am not afraid of going to hell. That question exposes the selfishness and fear which has come to be the very foundation for so many who call themselves a Christian. A relationship based on fear and selfishness will never last. I believe this to be the main contributor to so many ignorant, angry, and religious Christians. They have not yet fallen in love with Jesus. They have not allowed love to be the foundation of their relationship with him. At the end of the day, Jesus is not their loving Savior, rather, he is their ticket out of eternal torture.

I do not choose to be in a relationship with Jesus because I don’t want to go to hell. I choose to be in a relationship with Christ because his compelling message of love and forgiveness has saved me and healed my many wounds. I choose to follow Christ not because of my fear of hell but because his radical and endless grace sets me free.

This is why I pursue Christ. This is why I walk with Christ. Heaven is not my goal and hell is not my fear. To know and love Christ and share that with others in this life is my purpose and goal.

So, here is life’s most important lesson (according to me)… Begin to recognize when fear informs your decisions. When you start becoming aware of when and how fear informs your decisions, ask yourself, “What would love do?” When you have your answer, do what love would do instead.

Don’t allow fear to control you.

Forgive when you think you can’t.

Exercise when you think you’re exhausted.

Pursue your goals like it’s a race for your life.

Don’t let fear win. 

Be love,
Azariah Southworth

I would like to note, I do not believe a literal hell exist. That can be a post for another time though.

3 Lessons Straight Christians Must Learn

If you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) you’ve probably received an email like this one. Image

I’ve received emails like this one since I’ve come out. I’ve received them from old friends, strangers and in this case from past fellow church members. People who are reaching out to me in hopes for me to “see the light” and come out of this “lifestyle”—for me to deny my identity. 

There was a time when I would have been really hurt by an email like the one from Connie. People don’t realize that we aren’t talking about an abstract theological concept. When you talk about homosexuality—or really same-sex sex—you’re talking about a piece of me. I didn’t choose this anymore than you choose to be straight. This is my road to walk and you can critique from the sidelines on how I should live all you like, it still is my shoes making the journey. 

Above anything, I just wish Connie could know the Jesus I know. The one that delivers us from fear, breaks the bondage of ignorance, the one that loves and affirms all people; regardless of their sexual orientation. 

I’m not hurt by Connie’s email because I know she means well. She has reached out to me time and time again, she truly cares and wants the best for me. However, Connie is confusing her best with God’s best. Connie has done what countless others have done and continue to do; they have made God nothing more than a mere reflection of themselves. 

Faith is a journey, it’s a personal journey. When you stop traveling in your faith, you stop growing and you stop learning. I believe the Divine is knocking on the church’s door and asking, “Will you love my LGBT children as I love them? As I affirm them? Will you choose to know them as I know them?” 

To all the Connies out there, here are three important lessons to learn… 

– First, When you tell me my life would be better as x,y,z; you’re minimizing my relationship with Christ. I have a different interpretation of a couple verses in the Bible. I have reconciled my faith and sexual orientation. There has to be respect for my personal journey with God. 

– Next, ask yourself have you actually done your research on what the bible says or doesn’t say in regards to homosexuality as we understand it today? My friend Eliel Cruz says, “You’ve read six Bible verses, listened to a 45-minute sermon and have deemed yourself well-versed on the multifaceted subject of homosexuality. How quickly you have become an expert on the lives of thousands. An expert on my life.” (Watch Eliel’s moving video with his spoken word, “Where Were You?” HERE) There are many, many interpretations out there from different theological perspectives. A great book is “Bible, Gender, Sexuality” by James Brownson. Wrestle with your beliefs, I have. 

– Lastly, just get to know me. Come into genuine fellowship with me. I’d love to have a mutually respectful dialogue about this subject. It is only through genuine fellowship that we can both truly see each other, learn from each other and grow in our faith together. 

Remember, this is a journey and it’s not over. 

Be love, 
Azariah Southworth
(co-authored by Eliel Cruz)

Her Name Was Stephanie

272586961_640+copyDriving to church was a dreadfully boring experience. There was nothing but corn fields and dirt roads the whole way. Occasionally, my sister Amanda would try to entertain us by singing, then, my other sister Sarah, would try rapping the song, “Jesus Freak.” I would join in on occasion but I spent most of the time staring out the window wishing the drive was over. Driving to Sunday evening service the night that Stephanie came was no different.

Every Sunday evening the church service was dedicated to congregants sharing testimonies of what God has or is doing for them. My dad was always the first to testify. He is a man of routine. Just like he would go through every room in the house praying the same prayer for each of his kids every weekend, he also gave the same testimony every Sunday. After my dad would speak then Carla would share. After Carla shared, a lady named Stephanie walked on the stage, she adjusted the microphone and began to speak.

Stephanie was not a part of the typical Sunday lineup. This was different, in more ways than one.

Stephanie had long brown hair and wore a floral print dress with tennis shoes. I don’t remember the words she spoke but I remember she reeked of sadness, fear, and desperation like heavy cheap perfume. There was an odd tension in the room when she took the stage, as if she didn’t belong up there.

When the church service ended, members of the congregation gathered around her in the back. At a young age I knew what this meant; they wanted to convert her. But, why? I didn’t understand.

As we drove the dirt roads home that night in our grey Chevrolet station wagon, Amanda didn’t sing and Sarah didn’t rap. Instead, we talked about Stephanie.

That night as I closed my eyes to sleep, Stephanie closed her bedroom door for the last time. A few days later my mom told us what happened.

Stephanie had just been released from jail. After Stephanie visited our church as a last attempt to find love and acceptance, she went home. It was there that someone tied Stephanie to her bed and murdered her.

The conversation we had about Stephanie on our way home from church that evening was how her birth name was Stephen. The tension in the church sanctuary that testimony night stemmed from the fact that Stephanie was a transgender woman. The reason why members wanted to convert her after the service is because they thought she wasn’t right with God.

It was us, the church, who wasn’t right with God.

On that testimony night, Stephanie spent her last evening in a place she hoped would show her love and acceptance. Instead, our testimony was one of rejection and hate for who she was.

On this Transgender Day of Remembrance, consider who the Stephanie’s in your life might be. Love them. Accept them. Make sure they know it.

Be love,
Azariah Southworth

We Are Human: Gay In Uganda

As I was doing research for a school project I came across a documentary title, God Loves Uganda. Watch this video for the trailer…

If you would like to learn more about the film, go to the website here.

Back in 2011, I interviewed Frank Mugisha who appears in the documentary. If you would like to learn about the plight of LGBT Ugandans and the pending law which seeks to add the death penalty for being gay then listen to this interview…


Stay up-to-date with Frank and the film on Twitter:

TWITTER: GOD LOVES UGANDA

TWITTER: FRANK MUGISHA