Samantha emailed me from the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), “Paul Sr. told him to pull your show from the air immediately.” Everything I dreamt of doing since I was a kid was coming to a forced end. Not by just anyone either. It was from Paul Crouch Sr. himself. Someone I grew up watching on TV and idolizing. Most evenings, after dinner, our family would tune in together and watch TBN’s flagship show, Praise The Lord! Hosted by the founders of TBN, Paul and Jan Crouch.
On this show they would showcase the biggest names within the Charismatic Christian movement – Benny Hinn, Karen Wheaton, Jesse
Duplantis and John Hagee were some of the biggest crowd pleasers. Benny Hinn and Karen Wheaton were my personal favorites. My sisters and I even played a game we called, “Benny Hinn”. The rules were simple – if you’re Benny Hinn you get to make the other person fall over by waving your hand over their head. We played as if we possessed the same powers we believed God granted to Benny Hinn. When you live in the middle-of-nowhere and you’re a devote Pentecostal family, these are the games you come up with. Everything else is too worldly.
A separate email from another friend I had at TBN read, “They edited you out of the episode you starred on.” I was a guest on one of JCTV’s original productions called, Cruise With A Cause. This was a reality show that was taped onboard of a one-week Christian cruise to the Bahamas. I was the emcee for the cruise and was also onboard filming for my own show that week. This reality show was as dry as the Christian cruise. It was painfully vanilla. Being edited out of it should have come as a relief.
It didn’t hit me how much the news from that email would hurt until I saw the newly edited episode myself. This wasn’t just a horribly vanilla Christian reality show. For me, it was directly connected to the faith community I grew up believing in and loving. A community I desperately sought acceptance from.
About two years after coming out, I was back living in Indiana. It was the Spring of 2010 and I had just moved into my then boyfriend’s apartment in downtown Indianapolis. I finished setting up my TV in the living room, plugged in the antenna then turned on the TV. As I flipped through the over-the-air channels, JCTV flashed on my screen. I’m not sure if I believe in coincidences. Looking back now, this definitely was not one. Not only was that horrible reality show Cruise With A Cause streaming on my TV that very moment, so was my episode. The episode I was edited out of. My immediate thought was, “No way.” Stunned by this happenstance or perhaps Divine appointment, I decided to make myself comfortable. I sat back into the couch and watched to see if they really did edit me out.
On this episode, they were setting up one of JCTV’s staple on-air female personalities on blind dates with some of the other Christian entertainers on the cruise. I was one of her four blind dates for the episode. Sure enough, they edited me completely out of the entire episode. They wanted to erase my existence from their network. That was painful for me to accept. The leaders of the world I grew up believing in and loving intentionally chose to forget I ever existed since I revealed I am gay.
This wasn’t the last time something I loved tried to erase me. It’s something that has been happening to me since I was a kid who liked playing with Barbie dolls and putting on my sister’s dresses. For me, it was fun to play pretend, but, to the adults around me, it was a threat. A threat to their social status. A threat to their hard earned position in heaven. A threat if anyone else found out this child is queer.
I know I’m not alone in this.
There are countless other stories, like mine, about LGBTQ people who have been erased from the memories and archives of their faith communities. The deletion of our queer existence doesn’t occur only after we leave our beloved faith communities. It happens while we’re there. It starts with trying to get us to forget who we are. This is done through ex-gay counseling like I went through. It’s also done through what seems like normal correction. For example, I was physically and verbally disciplined every time my dad caught me playing with my sister’s dolls. Playing with my sister’s dolls became an act of defiance and great courage.
From a young age I was taught through physical, emotional and spiritual abuse to hide the most honest and genuine parts of myself. The unhealthy habits this created in my life are still unfolding and I’m learning to identify them. However, as the unhealthy habits reveal themselves through these stories I’m sharing and the book I’m writing, one question keeps emerging: Can you see me now?
Our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, shares that with each step we take we can say, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” This is a way to practice mindfulness and gratitude. This past weekend, I took more than 10,000 steps in the San Diego Pride Parade with Deer Park Monastery and each step was taken with gratitude and love. In this post, I would like to share about that day with you.
For the first time in the Plum Village tradition, the monastics of Deer Park Monastery marched in the San Diego Pride Parade. This historical moment by the monastics sent a message of love, compassion, and acceptance to their LGBTQ brothers and sisters. The path that led us all here was not an easy one though. It came about through an unpleasant moment.
This past April, during the Wake Up! Retreat’s Q&A session, one practitioner asked if there was a place for gay and transgender people within the practice. The answer that was given by one of the monastics was very difficult to hear but it created the space to where we are now. It created an opportunity to “go home” as we say, look deep within, then share and grow as a community.
After the Q&A Session, many of us were hurting from the answer given. Seeing the hurt, Sister Mai Nghiem and Brother Phap Hai organized a LGBTQ breakout group. Many of us participated and gathered together in the Circle Garden at Deer Park to share our pain. It was in the Circle Garden where we had a sacred and holy moment. Under the tall beautiful trees, years of my own pain and anger were erased due to a simple and humbling act by Sister Mai Nghiem.
As I’ve stated in my post, I Love Jesus But I Follow Buddha, whenever I have come out to my past spiritual communities I was always met with rejection. However, when I shared my story in the Circle Garden, Sister Mai Nghiem took on our pain and suffering rather than negating it. Sister Mai Nghiem asked if she could “touch the earth” for us. I was not sure what that meant but I nodded in agreement with everyone else. At that point, Sister Mai Nghiem removed her sandals, stood up from her chair and walked to the center of the circle. Sister Mai knelt down to her knees, placed her face on the ground, and stretched out her arms before her.
This is when the healing began.
This simple, beautiful, and humble act erased the pain and anger from five years of ex-gay exorcisms, rejection by friends, rejection by family, and rejection by my past spiritual communities. It healed years of spiritual and emotional abuse. Lastly, it gave me a path out of a very dark time in my life through the practice of mindfulness.
So, my decision to drive from Las Vegas to San Diego for the Pride Parade had nothing to with anything more than wanting to be with my spiritual community for a historical moment and express my gratitude with each step I took.
Right before we entered the main street to march in the parade Sister Mai Nghiem turned to me and said, “This is a happy moment.” I couldn’t have agreed more. I was exactly where I wanted to be, filled with happiness and gratitude.
Surrounded by people with painted faces, shirtless men, large parade floats and thousands of people, I paused. A happy moment indeed.
It was not only a happy moment but a sacred moment as well. I was standing next to one of my greatest teachers, Sister Mai Nghiem, and surrounded by my community.
For me, it was a moment of victory. It was a healing moment. It was a moment filled with gratitude for her, the other monastics, for our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, our community, and our practice. In that moment, I found peace in these understandings and chose to make that my focus as I walked.
As we stepped out onto the main street to begin our march I observed everyone around me. I heard the laughter. I saw the smiles. I felt the energy of love and kindness.
With each step I said, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
With each step I felt peace.
With each step I felt togetherness.
With each step I felt forgiveness.
With each step I felt whole.
Each step was not only a step of gratitude but it was also a step towards ending the pain and suffering of others. We didn’t just march in the San Diego Pride Parade. We were walking to end the pain and suffering for all beings.
As we marched passed the angry street preachers, understanding and compassion for them grew within me. We were walking to end their pain and suffering too. Their angry shouting and cruel words are the manifestation of their pain. What they really want to say is, “I am hurting and I don’t know how to love you.” Our response simply needs to be said lovingly, “It’s okay. I am here for you.”
There is a way out of our pain and suffering.
We can all begin our journey out of it by walking mindfully.
“We have been proud and thought we were better than any other race, any other people. Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to stumble into hell because of our pride.” These are the words of Billy Graham documented in the 2009 book, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, by Steven P. Miller.
If we could juxtapose these wise words by Billy Graham with the recent words and actions of his son Franklin Graham, we would find what I believe to be two opposing messages. Billy spoke these words in 1953 as organizers were setting up ropes to keep blacks separate from whites during one of his large crusades. Billy spoke these words at a time when our nation was on the edge of advancing social justice in regards to racial equality. Billy spoke these words one year before the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Brown v. Board of Education.
Now, here we are 61 years later and Billy’s lineage, Franklin, is in the same situation. Our nation is on the edge of advancing social justice in regards to marriage equality. The United States Supreme Court is expected to rule any week now in favor of marriage equality.
Franklin has taken the reigns from his ailing father and one would assume he too would err on the side of justice and equality like his father. Right? Nope. What we’re learning is that Franklin is no Billy Graham.
Instead, Franklin is insistent on keeping the rope up at his crusade. Franklin is insistent that the LGBTQ community remains separated from his community of believers. Franklin is insistent at keeping the culture war alive. He has demonstrated that he will keep the rope of segregation up most recently by announcing that he will move his ministry’s bank accounts from Wells Fargo (because they’re supportive of LGBTQ rights) to a bank which does not support LGBTQ rights. What does this really accomplish though? The only message the LGBTQ community takes away from this (again) is they are not welcomed, accepted, and loved by evangelical Christians like Franklin Graham. Further, the only message Franklin’s followers are going to walk away with is to remain segregated from the LGBTQ community. This is the last thing we need and certainly the last thing Christ would have wanted for us.
Christ himself tore down the ropes of segregation when he called Zacchaeus, the tax collector, down from the tree. Again, Christ tore down the ropes of segregation when he told those gathered around Mary Magdalene whoever was without sin to “cast the first stone.” Lastly, Christ tore down the ultimate rope of segregation when he said that we are worthy of the Divine’s love and forgiveness.
Franklin Graham’s latest words and actions do not only fall short of his father’s widely regarded legacy but they do not align with the message and life of Christ whom he claims to serve.
Go ahead and move your bank accounts Franklin. It’s a free country. However, consider the message you’re sending to your followers and the LGBTQ community. Consider the ropes of segregation you’re building with your words and actions. Finally, don’t, as your father warned, “…stumble into hell because of [y]our pride.”
Do your parents believe God can still “change” you?
Have many of your conversations with your parents ended the same as mine, “We’re praying for you. God’s doing a work in you. He’s not finished with you yet. I believe God’s going to change you.” Although hearing this causes pain and feels like rejection, it’s important we understand it comes from a place of wanting what is best for us as their children. My response was often argumentative and the conversation was ultimately unproductive. It wasn’t until I set three boundaries that my relationship with my parents improved and our dialogue became productive.
During one of these painful conversations, I took a new approach. I decided to set the following boundaries that I hoped would improve our relationship.
1. Who I am is not up for debate.
My struggle to accept and proclaim the truth of who I am is over. Anyone who desires a relationship with me is not welcome to question this anymore than I am welcome to question any of their identities.
2. You are not allowed to tell me I can change.
No one has permission to tell me I can change. I spent the majority of my life pursuing the fairytale change some preach. The individuals who are preaching change are not the ones who have to undergo the change, therefore, they can not comprehend the impossible request. They have the choice to continue to believe the lie but there is zero space to speak with me about it any longer.
3. I will not leave my spouse behind.
If you’re like me, your parents have invalidated your LGBT identity and same-gender relationship in a variety of ways. One way is by not acknowledging the relationship between you and your significant other. Another way is by refusing to allow your significant other to participate in family gatherings. The final boundary I created was my gay identity is real and to have a healthy relationship with me, this is the reality we all must operate in. The reality is this – as a gay man in a relationship – when Christmas comes around, our families must decide if they want my partner and I present. I am no longer a one-man show, there are two of us. We’re a package deal and we can’t be sold separately.
It’s been one year since I’ve set these boundaries with my parents. Since creating these boundaries, I feel our relationship and communications have greatly improved.
I share this knowing many of you have and are experiencing the same struggle. I hope this helps you and your parents in your journey to learning to love each other in a deeper and more significant way than before.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
I would like to note, I do not believe a literal hell exist. That can be a post for another time though.