3 Lessons Straight Christians Must Learn

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


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)

The Night I Betrayed My Best Friend

In honor of National Coming Out Day, I would like to share a part of my coming out story I’ve never shared publicly. I will share this story in greater depth in my memoir.

The Night of the Betrayal

 

It was around 9:30PM on April 15, 2008 when I sent an instant message to my friend Hunter on AOL. I didn’t know it then but the conclusion from this conversation would change the course of my life

Azariahtn: I don’t think I can live like this anymore.

Hunter87: What do you mean?

Azariahtn: I think I’m ready to come out. I’m tired of living a double life. I have nothing to lose. The show hasn’t been renewed for another season. Also, Logan doesn’t talk to me anymore since I told him I “struggle” with my sexuality. Maybe that’s why they haven’t renewed the show?

Hunter87: What are you going to do?

Azariahtn: I think I’m going to come out. I know I’ll lose the show and some friends but I can’t live this lie any longer.

Hunter87: They were never your friends to begin with if they abandon you now. I support you.

Azariahtn: Thank you. 🙂

After my conversation with Hunter, I drafted a press release which I sent out the same night. “Christian TV Host Announces He’s Gay” was the headline for the release. I didn’t think anyone would care enough to publish the story. I was wrong.

When I woke up the next morning, I had one Google alert.

The Google alert was for Out & About Nashville. The largest LGBT publication in Tennessee carried the story on their website. I could feel the anxiety begin to flood my mind and body. I started to doubt my decision to make this announcement. I dismissed the growing lump in my throat by telling myself, “Not too many people will read this, so, I’m probably fine.”

But after seeing the story published, I knew my train to living honestly had arrived. I was no longer going to be able to run from this truth. I could taste the fear. The fear and reality that I was going to lose everything I dreamt of doing since I was a kid. I was booked to emcee Cruise With A Cause for the second year that Fall. I was guest starring on other Christian TV shows. I was being invited to emcee events for EMI records. I was starting to make a name for myself. Sending out the press release was easy but getting on board with the train of truth – and realizing that the faith community I grew up in and was building a career in didn’t have any space for an openly gay man – was my challenge.

Within two hours of the story being published, I received phone calls and emails from around the country congratulating me. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) called to help me form talking points for the media. CBS Morning show called and wanted to have me on the next day. A producer for Fox News called to book me on the Alan Colmes show. Larry King’s producers were interested having me on the show. A friend told me even Lance Bass was asking about me.

I was beside myself.

I was excited, overwhelmed, and nervous. Maybe this would open doors for me that I couldn’t have imagined?

Even though people around the country were congratulating me, the news didn’t reach people within my immediate circle… yet.

Around six o’clock that evening, I received a phone call from a producer in Los Angeles. At the end of the call he said something I will never forget, “By the way, did you see yourself on the front page of Perez Hilton?”

That’s when I knew there was no going back.

Emails and text messages started to pour in by the hundreds. One text message read, “Father, I pray for Azariah. Be with him Lord and show him your will. Take away any confusion. Make yourself TRULY known to him Jesus. Amen.”

Then, after not speaking to me for nearly three months, I received a message from my best friend – Logan. His message simply read, “I just feel like you totally betrayed my trust. It’s making me sick.”

After reading his message I felt guilt begin to set in. Had I betrayed his trust? After all, he did ask me to let him know first if I was going to come out.

Logan was my best friend while I hosted my TV show. We became friends after I did some camera work for his show. The only reason I had a TV show was because of Logan and his dad, Jay Sekulow. Logan helped me create my pilot and his dad, Jay, got my show funded by the NRB Network.

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Logan and I at TBN studios in Nashville.

Logan and I hung out almost everyday. That all stopped in January of 2008.

While I was visiting my parents for Christmas that year, Logan messaged me on AOL Instant Messenger…

Lunarpunk: When are you back in town?

Azariahtn: I get back at the end of this week. Why? What’s up?

Lunarpunk: I think we need to talk about something.

I immediately knew what he wanted to talk about. It wasn’t the first time someone wanted to have a scheduled and serious talk with me. My pastor wanted to have this same talk when I was 13-years-old. That talk with my pastor was immediately followed by weekly exorcisms to expel the demons of homosexuality out of me. Once again I believed my sexuality was an affliction that would haunt me for the rest of my life. I wasn’t capable of seeing it as a gift yet. I was accustomed to living life as if my queerness didn’t exist. My true self worth had not yet been realized.

My friend, Amanda, comforted me that night as I cried and confided in her about the conversation I knew Logan wanted to have with me.

The Meeting

 

When that week ended, I made the eight-hour drive from wintry Indiana back to Nashville. I drove straight to Logan’s office. I was nervous but hopeful that maybe this was my chance to come clean and God would finally fix me. The only thing that needed fixed was my ignorance to the depth of my own worth and value as a gay man.

Logan had his own TV show titled, The Logan Show. He was the Christian version of Jay Leno except he wasn’t funny. I don’t say that to be mean. I honestly didn’t think his show was funny. I don’t think my show was good either but I digress. Logan had a large budget for his show. Somehow his dad was able take some of the $14 million he receives annually in donations to his Christian law firm, American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and funnel a fraction of it to Logan for his TV show. Logan’s budget allowed him to have his own TV set at NorthStar Studios and a beautiful, large office suite in the very wealthy town of Franklin.

After eight hours of driving, I parked my small, white Suzuki car in front of his two-story office building. When I opened the door to his building, I could still smell that newness of the building. I made my way up the stairs. A total of twenty steps. Logan’s office was in the very back.

He was already prepared for our meeting. I walked into his office and he was sitting behind his desk. On the wall behind him hung a painting of Alfred Hitchcock – one of Logan’s favorite filmmakers.

After a few minutes of small talk, Logan stated that an anonymous source told him I was seen going to some of the gay bars in Nashville. He then asked the question I was dreading but knew was coming, “Azariah, it’s okay if you are but I need to know. Are you gay?”

Isn’t that how it’s usually prefaced, “It’s okay if you are.” The truth is, it wasn’t okay and I was about to get exiled from his world.

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Logan and I stopped at Disney World while on tour with the Christian music festival, Shoutfest.

My mind quickly raced for an answer. An answer that would allow me to keep my friend and my TV show. This is the reality we queer people often face – lie and deny who you are to keep your seemingly good world intact or tell the truth and lose everything. At the time, I didn’t value myself enough to tell the truth and live it out, so, I told him as much of the truth I could bear to tell, “It’s something I struggle with, yes.” I replied.

That’s when he gave me the ultimatum.

The young 20-something-year-old Logan continued, “If you choose to get help, you can keep the show. If not, you will need to go behind the scenes or we will have to find someone else to do the show. Since my name and my dad’s name are attached to your show, I need you to tell me first if you choose to come out.”

He didn’t want to be the first to know for my best interest or safety – it was for his. What Logan didn’t understand that night in his office – or the night I came out and he text messaged me his disappointment – is that this was never about him or his dad. My decision to come out had everything to do with redeeming the boy who was forced to forget how to express himself freely. Redeeming the little boy who loved to play with Barbie dolls, makeup and prance around in his sister’s dresses. There was no strategy to betray anyone. I just couldn’t betray myself – that little boy – anymore.

The truth train has come a few times in my life. That night in his office was one of those times. Although I missed it that night I did jump on it the next chance I had. I’m forever glad I did because owning my truth has been the greatest gift I’ve ever given myself.

What’s your truth? What will it cost you?

I Love Jesus But I Follow Buddha

This past weekend was the most amazing weekend of my life. No exaggeration.

Let me tell you why…

One year ago, I was feeling dead inside. My spirit was dry as the desert. My brokenness was growing like an intrusive ivy beyond myself and started to overtake those around me. My shortcomings were casting a shadow over the person I was once proud to be.

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A year ago, I was deep in the dark forest of unhappiness which was caused by no one else but myself. However, while watching Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, I was inspired to search for a nearby Buddhist monastery. I was hoping my results would yield a solution to my suffering. My Google search listed Deer Park Monastery in the top results. I clicked the link to learn all about Deer Park and its practice of mindfulness in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. While I was roaming around the website, I learned they were going to have a young adults retreat the following month called, “Wake Up!” I was immediately intrigued and booked my spot for the retreat that same week. That was in April of 2015. I had an incredible time but that weekend was a mere introduction to the practice and healing which I desperately needed.

I chose to return to the same retreat this year. A year later my situation is a little different because I’m no longer in a relationship but I was still trapped in the same dark forest of unhappiness; feeling alone, broken, hurt, useless and lost.

Twenty minutes before I arrived to the retreat last week, I ended an argument with a family member saying I didn’t want to speak or visit for a long time. The conversation brought up a lot of pain and I arrived to the monastery feeling very angry. When I arrived I didn’t want to speak with anyone or really even be there at that point. Shortly after arriving and setting up my tent it was dinner time. I was thankful for the required “Noble Silence” during dinner as I was still fuming from the conversation just a few hours before. That night I went to bed still feeling livid. I couldn’t stop thinking that I will probably not talk to this family member for a very long time.

The next day, after morning meditation, breakfast, and working mediation; I made my way to the monastery’s bookstore. I wanted to buy Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Living Buddha, Living Christ (partly because Oprah said she has it on her nightstand). As I was searching for the book, one of the nuns approached me and pointed to a book on the very top shelf and recommended it for me. When I raised my eyes to read the cover of the book it was titled Anger. Part of me felt caught, embarrassed, offended, but also relieved. Will this book contain a path out of my darkness? I don’t know if it’s a book that she recommends to everyone or if my anger was just that evident. I sheepishly and discreetly purchased the book but secretly couldn’t wait to begin reading it.

I made my way back to my tent and began reading the book right away. Once I started, I wanted to consume the entire book and every line which felt like a healing ointment on a fresh burn. The book was opening my eyes to how my anger is a part of me, it’s my inner child which I need to embrace. My anger is the inner child that I need to invite to sit down and eat with me, climb the mountain with me, invite to watch TV with me. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches in this book that we need to care for this child because it is a part of us. While reading this book I started to feel resolve with the anger I arrived with that weekend and I began to come out of my shell and socialize with others attending the retreat. Over the next few days I started to make connections with others. I made myself vulnerable and I began to feel a sense of purpose and belonging once again. 12321198_10207233633936897_1877970217804756762_n

On Saturday, the last full day of the retreat, there was a Q&A planned. This was our opportunity to ask any question(s) we were dying to ask a monk or nun concerning the practice. It was held in the main meditation hall. More than 100 of us gathered to sit on the floor to ask our questions and hopefully gain answers to our suffering. Some questions inquired about life after death, celibacy, but the question that stood out was about gender roles and is there a place for transgender people in this practice. All the questions were echoes from our caves of pain and suffering. This question, although I didn’t ask it, was one I was wondering about also.

The monk who was tasked with answering the question of gender roles and the place of transgender people within the practice gave an answer which raised some eyebrows, unintentionally evoked the pain which we too often ignore and cover up, yet, at the same time created an opportunity of healing I personally did not expect.

While he gave his answer you could feel the energy of the room shift. Several people got up and walked out feeling rejected again by another spiritual community. It was obvious that his answer did not sit well with the majority of the people in the room. Little did I know, this mishap was going to bring about a healing that me and many of my LGBTQ siblings desperately needed.

Personally, as I sat in the big and open mediation hall listening to his answer, I felt the pain from the messages of my past, “We love you but…”, “You’re welcome here but…”, “You can practice with us but…”. The mediation hall which once felt full of love and joy was suddenly becoming hollow. Having been rejected in the past by my faith community for being gay, I couldn’t help but feel the same despair again. It felt like the spiritual community I was willing to trust again and become vulnerable with was going to keep me locked outside. However, in the midst of all these feelings I invited the children (anger, sadness, despair, and rejection) to sit and breathe with me. Together we breathed and I put the children to bed. I chose to understand that this brother answering the question is not originally from America, English is his fourth language, and comes from a culture that has long ignored confronting LGBTQ issues. Within that context, the answer was a little easier to hear but still not easy. More than likely, it was nothing more than a cultural misunderstanding and poor choice of words. However, the familiar pain it raised was real.

After the Q&A, our day continued as planned.

After lunch, one of my new friends asked if I was going to go to the LGBTQ breakout group. “There’s a LGBTQ breakout group?” I asked. One of the nuns had planned this breakout for those who wanted to express their feelings and thoughts concerning the answer the monk gave about LGBTQ people within the practice. Without hesitation I agreed that I would be there.

Dear god. Am I glad I went.

There we were. A good number of us gathered in the circle garden sharing our stories, pain, and concerns. I shared with the group about how I went through five years of ex-gay exorcisms and am still hurting from the blunt force of rejection from my past faith community and leaders. I expressed that I wanted to trust a spiritual community again but was scared and now I wasn’t sure if I could.

As we approached the end of our sharing, the nun who organized the event shared a story with us.

The sister shared about the time she visited a Christian monastery. While she was there, a priest shared with her the story of how a woman came to him and told him about the sexual abuse she experienced by her Catholic priest. Moved by the story, and wanting to help relieve her suffering, this priest she was confessing to knelt down on his knees and kissed her feet. An act of humility and kindness which helped the woman heal from her pain. After sharing this story, the nun asked if we would allow her to touch the earth for us. Not entirely sure of what that meant or how much it would mean, I nodded in agreement with the group.

The sister, with a shaved head, wearing a long brown robe, took her sandals off, stood up from her chair, walked to the center of the circle and knelt to her knees. She slowly put her face on the ground covered in pine needles and mulch, stretched her arms out before her and she stayed there. Then, the healing began.

As she touched the earth for us, like a film, all the past rejection I received and felt from my faith leaders played in my head. All the hateful messages. The exorcisms. The manipulation. The lies. The spiritual abuse. While she remained faced down on the ground before us, the images I was seeing turned from color and faded to black and white. The messages I was hearing in my head started to become mute. The anger I didn’t even realize was there matured to forgiveness and resolve. The pain faded away. The power of the past died.

She touched the earth for us.

For me.

A leader within my new spiritual community chose to humble herself and care for us instead of ignoring and rejecting us. She chose to be the doctor who saw our suffering and offered a cure, unconditional love and kindness.

Others in the circle began to weep and cry.

This was a holy moment.

As I replay it in my head, it remains a holy moment and one I keep revisiting since it happened.

It gives me hope.

It brings me healing.

It has given me a path out of my dark forest of unhappiness.

This was, hands down, the best weekend of my life. I arrived angry, empty, and dry but I left feeling healed and full.

This is the reason I love Jesus but I follow Buddha.

 

 

 

 

 

How I Forgave My Ex-Gay Counselor

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 getting 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 was ready to end my life.

Ex-Gay-Therapy-Switch-285x300I 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.

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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.”

That was all I needed to hear. After years of seeking freedom with this woman and now from this woman I FINALLY felt the grip of anxiety, fear, resentment and anger begin to loosen. I wondered if this was God’s way of answering my prayer. “You’re the student and I’m the teacher,” she argued. In that moment, I knew what she was doing. I was no longer the gullible 13-year-old boy. I learned to love myself enough to recognize the manipulation and spiritual abuse she was seeking to continue. Her game was over.

I will always remember that moment in 2010. I will always remember receiving the gift of liberation by choosing to forgive her.

For the thousands of other LGBT people who have gone through ex-gay therapy; the pain we experienced was excruciating. It’s unforgettable. I want to encourage you to – 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 choose to do – just lay down the sword, unclench your fists, soften your beautiful face and stand confidently in your truth. I promise you that forgiveness, as difficult as it is, will be the key that sets you free.

Be love,

Azariah Southworth

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)