A Note From The Curator:
“The Other Side” is a blog series hosted here on Patheos which takes selected stories submitted to the “Our Witness” project and shares them with a wider audience. The purpose of this series is the platform the unheard stories of LGBT+ Christians experience at Christian colleges and universities, and how they have overcome great pain at the hands of Christian leaders with their faith intact. It is my hope that these stories will counter the all too familiar narrative that once a Christian comes out as LGBT+, they’re no longer true Christians, and to raise awareness about the harmful tactics Christian colleges and universities use to deal with their LGBT+ students.
I was born and raised in Elgin, IL. My parents married young and both wrestled with their own share of bad choices and struggles. After an array of bad choices throughout their marriage, my mom ended up divorcing my dad and taking me to live with her best-friend, her husband and their two boys who were close to my age. All the while, my dad’s addictions held him in bondage and at a great distance from me. His battle with alcoholism and drug abuse consumed his life. None the less, when I was six it also came out that my mom had been having an affair with the husband of her best-friend, whose house we were living at. This resulted in a whole shift of my world once again. My mom and future step dad ended up renting a room in someone’s house and I was sent to live with my Dad who lived in my grandma’s basement.
This began a sick cycle in my life. Four times my dad would get a job, rent an apartment, and appear to be improving and then his alcoholism would catch up with him and he would act out and do something ridiculous. Every time he would break the law, we would lose everything and many times I would lose him, since he would go to jail for a season, but somehow he always got another chance.
During these times my dad wasn’t able to care for me. So my grandma picked up the slack. Whenever my dad would disappoint me, my grandma would always quote Psalm 68:5 which says, “God is a father to the fatherless and a defender of the widows.” Ultimately, it was this verse that laid a foundation for my faith. She loved the Lord very much and would drag me to church with her most Sundays. When I was six I would come home from church with my grandma and round up all the chairs in the house. With perfection I would line them up in the living room. Then I would proceed to place all of my stuffed animals on the chairs. I would grab my Bible and stand behind a broken down music stand and preach from my memory whatever six year old truths I took away from the pastor’s sermon that day. My grandma loved to sit front row at these Living Room Church services and egg me on with little shout outs like: “Praise the Lord, Preach it Jay”! It is interesting to me, how at such a young age God had instilled this desire in me to preach and follow him.
To continue my story, at a young age I was exposed to environments that ended up being very toxic as a little boy. As a result, I began to act out and respond to the chaos around me in unhealthy ways. At age five, I found myself sexually experimenting with neighborhood girls.
All the while, my father continued to be very inconsistent. He would go on binging raids and be gone for several weeks and sometimes months. None the less, he would inevitably return to take me away from the stability I had with my grandma and attempt to raise me again. I can remember nights when I was between 6-8 years old; he would tuck me into bed and when I awoke in the middle of the night, he was nowhere to be found. He was at the bar. I can remember returning to my room after realizing I was all alone. Afraid, I cried under my covers. It eventually got to the point where I wouldn’t allow him to leave my bedside because I knew he would leave.
However, these moments were always short lived. It was only a matter of time before I was back in the care of my grandma, while my dad became self-absorbed with his life, his women and his addictions. He finally remarried when I was eight and my mom ended up marrying the man whom she had the affair with.
Now that my mom was remarried and had a home of her own. She had every intention of giving me the life she had always wanted me to have. So when I was nine, the South Elgin Police pulled up to my grandma’s house and served her with papers that demanded she hand me over to their custody. So I kissed my grandma goodbye as the police ripped me from her arms and placed me in my mom’s. Now don’t get me wrong, I told my Grandma all the time that I wanted to be with my mom. But my Grandma had also been like a parent to me, I loved her; she was my rock when I was sinking and now I was being taken away.
But I went; I had no choice really. But there was a part of me that wanted to go. I thought maybe now things would be better. However, it only got worse, we ceased going to church and I began to act out in school. I was an extremely sexually confused child. Then, on top of all of that, I was addicted to pornography when I was only eleven years old. I was constantly getting in trouble in school but my mom was unaware of this because of my deception. Until one day, when I was in sixth grade, all of these things together, brought the school staff to call a meeting with my mother. I remember sitting outside the principal’s office, as they divulged the details of my offenses of the past two years. Then through a thin window next to the door, I saw my mom break down sobbing. The guilt I felt was unbearable. I was so ashamed. My mom walked out of the conference room and said to me “You better come home today!”
After the intervention at school, this began an interesting new chapter in my life. A family friend was a pastor at Highland Fellowship Church. He encouraged my distraught mother to bring me to there. Within a few weeks, this seventh grade trouble maker was hooked; I accepted Christ and wanted God to change my life. Sadly though, it wasn’t instantly. It has been and continues to be a sanctifying process. As I always say, I am still pretty bad but I am not as bad as I was and I am not as bad I could have been.
My family slowly began to see change in me. Then when I was in seventh grade the Children’s Pastor who led me to the Lord pulled me aside one Sunday and said, “Josh, I think God has a call on your life to be a pastor.” All I knew was that I wanted to be just like him, so I shook my head in agreement. Then he asked me if I would like to be his intern. I had no idea what that was; but I knew I would do anything for Pastor Bob, so I agreed. From that point on I began working at church for three to four hours a day after school. While all my friends were going to sports or music practice, I was going to church practice. By the end of my freshmen year of high school he had taught me the in’s and the outs of children’s ministry. So much so, that when he left, with the oversight of our senior pastor, I was asked to lead the children’s ministry.
All the while, when I was in eighth grade, God had placed a desire in me to start a ministry at my middle school. Within a matter of two weeks we had 40 un-churched students coming to our meetings. By the time we got to high school we had over 60 un-churched students involved. However, we had flourished into over a 100 student youth ministry on campus and the administration didn’t like it. So they encouraged us to meet at the church next to the school. When I declined, they turned up the heat some more. Eventually, we brought in Jay Sekulow at The Center of Law and Justice. After two months of legal battles, the district awarded us equal rights and ultimately the ability to have more influence in our school.
As I continued as an intern at my church and led this ministry at my high school, I was still greatly struggling with sexual addiction and identity issues. On the outside I appeared to have it pretty well together, but inside I felt very dissatisfied. There were a series of rumors that went around the school but I rarely paid any attention to them and the people who knew me often just ignored them. There was a part of me that wanted to keep my struggles hidden, but another part of me that was so desperately wanting God to put someone or something in my life that would set me free and help me understand my same-sex attractions.
In eighth grade my mom was made aware of the extent of my struggles when she found out that my best-friend and I had been sexually experimenting for two years and I had even begun sneaking boys from school into my bed-room window. Hurting, confused and blaming herself she searched for help. I begged her not to tell anyone at church for fear of being judged. My mom respected my request and sought counseling from a local Lutheran church in town. However, the counselor whom I met with had never dealt with these specific issues. In the end, he did more damage than good. In my desperate attempt to escape from these sessions, I told my mom that I was straight. I then continued to struggle internally alone once again.
The ministry at the high school, God continued to add to our numbers, to the point in which there wasn’t even a classroom that could contain us. Eventually, this became known around the city of Elgin, so one day I received a call from First Baptist Church of Elgin. They inquired about having us meet in the youth center in their church. We accepted and began meeting. Within a matter of a few weeks, the youth from their church had joined us. This led them to offer me a paid position as the Youth Director at age seventeen. I gladly accepted and left the church that I was serving as an intern. God continued to bless our ministry; but I continued to struggle internally with my sexuality.
However, now I confided in my pastors regarding my “struggles” with same-sex attractions. One afternoon, I came to the realization that I needed to confess that I had recently come close to a sexual shortcoming. He was filled with grace and compassion. In that moment, that was exactly what I needed. But sadly, my specific struggles weren’t something that the church was equipped to minister to. So a few months later, I ended up seeking out help again by joining a support group at a local mega church. However, after a few months of attending these meetings, they discovered that I was under eighteen and dismissed me for liability reasons and then a few months later dissolved the program.
Lost and wondering how I would ever be made whole, God kindled a deep friendship with my school counselor. He was in the midst of starting his doctorate in inner-healing ministry. For my last two years of high school, he poured into my life. I told him everything and he walked me through countless hours of counseling sessions. In essence, it was reparative therapy. At the time I believed it was helping me but in retrospect I think in some ways it only made me tie my sexual orientation to my childhood brokeness and left me believing that being gay was a result of a lack of nurture and not because of my nature.
After I graduated high school, my school counselor invited me to attend his church’s prayer meetings. After about six months of attending, the senior pastor asked me if I would like to preach at the church one Sunday. One thing led to another, and eventually I accepted a second pastoral job, preaching once a month at this non-denominational charismatic church. All the while, continuing my Youth Director position at First Baptist Church.
Simultaneously, I was dealing with a mixture of family crises; my great grandparents were both very ill and were in need of someone to help care for them. I saw this as an opportunity to help my grandparents but also as a way to escape from what had become a verbally and emotionally abusive relationship with my stepfather. My stepfather bent over backwards to supply for our family but when I was older he shared with me that he never felt he could love me because he was never truly able to be there to love his own children after he married my mother. For this reason, at seventeen, I ended up moving in with my great-grandparents. I told my mom it was because I felt led to care for them, as they were ill but the deeper reason was because I desperately needed to get away from my step-dad. However, this didn’t last long because six months later my mom and stepdad lost their home and came to live with my great-grandparents.
Nevertheless, my grandfather, on my dad’s side, had fallen very ill and died not long after. This left my grandma widowed. In her time of mourning, I decided to move in with her. Just like my grandma always use to quote Psalm 68:5 to me, I was able to finish that verse for her and remind her that God was also “a husband to a widow”. I have always looked back on that time and have been in awe of how God used that verse in both of our seasons of need.
After graduating high school, the Baptist church that I was working at, encouraged me to seek out attaining a pastoral degree. A few months later, July 2009, I was accepted into the Bachelors of Arts in Pastoral Studies program at Moody Bible Institute. My family wasn’t financially well off, so the church paid for my whole first year at Moody. It wasn’t easy going to school full-time and working at the church “part-time”. But by the grace of God I got the job done.
Preceding my freshmen year at Moody, while preaching for a year at the non-denominational church, a group of pastors from neighboring churches recognized God’s call on my life and ordained me when I was nineteen years old. This was extremely humbling.
However, a few months later, I was called into the senior pastor’s office at the Baptist church. He informed me that the church had to make serious cut-backs and that they needed to eliminate my position. This was one of the most devastating moments in my life thus far. My transition was smooth and supportive. At my farewell dinner, enough funds even came in to pay off my second year of college. I felt loved but yet broken. I went into my office. I picked up a picture on my shelf of the first time I preached and fell to my knees. I wept like I had never wept before. The ministry that I had started, and thought that no one could ever take from me was being ripped out from underneath me. I knew that the true reason I was being let go had much more to do with my sexuality and the risk I presented at a large conservative Baptist church.
God spent the summer of my freshmen year rebuilding me. I started working five days a week, eight hours a day, as an assistant to the Director of Academic Records at Moody Bible Institute. Every day when I got off work, I was struck with the reality that all of my friends were home for the summer and I was in Chicago. It was just me and God. I would sit in my room or on the roof of the dormitory and seek the Lord. This was the first time that I didn’t really have a ministry to be a part of. I didn’t have people looking up to me, whom I had to pastor or lead. I was simply being led. I can remember hearing God’s voice so clearly in that short chapter of my life. It was through intimate times with the Lord and Christian counseling through Moody, that I came to realize that I was running from my sexuality by burying myself in work and buiding my identiy in ministry so it wouldn’t be built in my sexuality. I also realized that I was doing a lot of good to try to make up for the same-sex desires I was “wrestling” with.
However, during this same season, I decided I would return to the church where I grew up. Sadly, my first Sunday back I was shocked to find out that the Senior Pastor had resigned just the week before. Well once the board and pastors realized I was back at the church, they asked if I would like to preach once a month until they found the next senior pastor. I agreed. By the end of the summer, they offered me a position to serve as an associate pastor with my primary responsibility being the Sunday morning preaching. This role included the teaching ministry and ministering to the 50+ age group as well. During my time of service at the church I was very honest with the Co- Senior Pastor about my “struggles” and he walked alongside me during my first year.
However, going to school full-time and then working at the church practically full-time all eventually caught up with me. I contracted a disease called fifths disease. It is commonly known as a child disease. However, whenever an adult gets a child’s disease the symptoms can be unpredictable. This disease ended up attacking my liver, muscles, and nervous system. The doctors concluded that the reason for all of this was “stress”. He encouraged me to slow down and focus on one thing at a time. It was during this season, lying in a hospital bed, that I realized I desperately needed a season to just focus on me. I was so concerned with the needs of everyone else that I neglected my needs.But long story short, the church weathered some very serious financial storms. Over the previous years and during my year of service, the church was simply treading water. After a year of service at Highland, our church was adopted as a sister campus for a larger Assemblies of God church. This couldn’t have come at a better time. Our new senior pastor and I decided that I should take some time to focus on my sexuality, education, and health. He also helped me see how over the years, well-meaning men of God overlooked my flaws because my gifts seemed more prominent. However, at the root of all of this was my sexuality. They wanted me to take time off to go through reparative therapy to change my sexuality. I agreed to resign to do this but after my resignation they never followed through on their commitments to get me “help”and so I never returned to that ministry.
Simultaneously during my leave of absence from pastoral ministry, I was feeling pressure from friends, family, pastors and my school to keep my mind open to the possibility that God could give me feelings for “a women”. I was so conflicted with this idea that I began to read several different books on the subject. I also continued seeking out counsel from a Moody professor. So, long story short, I began to kindle a deep friendship with a girl at Moody Bible Institute. I quickly, disclosed the details to her of my same-gender attraction and after much discussion, we decided that we would attempt to enter into a committed relationship. However, our prayer was that my sexual and romantic desire for her would increase in God’s timing. However, after several months, one evening she looked up at me, as I held in her my arms as we enjoyed a movie together and she asked, “You don’t really like me do you?” I sheepishly replied “Of course I like you.” She then gazed up at me and said, “No, you really don’t like me the way I like you.” I realized then she was right, I was only hurting her, I didn’t look at her the way she looked at me and I didn’t feel for her the way she felt for me. We decided to go our separate ways.
Since I was still living in Chicago at this time and completing my junior year at Moody, I decided to transition from Highland church since promises of enrolling me in reparative therapy were going unfulfilled. After a semester of searching for a church, I ended up finding a place of belonging at New Life Church, I then completed my summer internship at Poplar Creek Church the summer before my senior year and had the opportunity to share my story publicly for the first time.
All the while, I started to share with my friends at my Bible College that I had same-sex attractions. I got a lot of mixed reactions. I often had to explain to my fellow Christian brothers that someone possessing same-sex attractions wasn’t wrong, nor did it make them lost and unsanctified but instead,acting on those desires was considered wrong. I had some friends who loved me and thought no differently of me but I also had other friends who had to take time to adjust to this new found revelation. I can remember the first time telling my best-friend that I had same-sex attractions. He was unsure of what to say, so he just followed the 3 simple steps that our “ex-gay” professor had shared with the student body on how to respond when someone tells you they’re gay. He thanked me for sharing, reminded me he still loved me and reassured me he would help me maintain my purity and be a source of encouragement. I was asked to share my testimony on the dorm floor once every year at Moody, but usually by that point I had already had multiple conversations with new freshmen on the floor who heard there was a “gay guy” living with us. I met weekly with different guys to discuss how I was maintaining my purity, and I poured out my heart with grief, suicidal thoughts, frustration with God, and eventually, my questions about the Biblical understanding of homosexuality. Most of my close friends always listened, some even cried with me and almost all of them prayed fervently and consistently.
In the midst of this I began to realize that my same-sex desires were not simply driven by a desire to be sexual with the same-sex but they were much deeper than that. I became close friends with a fellow classmate who also had same-sex attractions. We spent a lot of time together and became close emotionally fairly fast. It was through my friendship with him that I realized I desired the same thing all of my heterosexual friends desired. I, like them, desired to have someone to call my own, to serve, to give myself to, to pursue and be pursued by, to love one another in the same capacity and to be committed to one another. My friend and I began to develop feelings. However, as these feelings grew, we became scared of one another and frightened by ourselves. I was often overwhelmed with guilt for desiring companionship in him and for the feelings I felt towards him. My friends encouraged me to cut ties or at least draw strong boundaries (i.e. don’t hang out, limit it to occasional texting). I let him go and determined that I could never have the relationship my heterosexual friends had. I decided I would have to learn to be content without that relationship.
Not long after this, I started seeing rainbow park benches or flags outside of certain churches. At some of these churches printed on the bench or flag were the words “all are welcome here”. I was curious, so I started googling and found out that there were several mainline denominations that had come to affirm same-gender marriages and openly gay pastors. I started reading and getting my hands on every book I could find that approached the topic of homosexuality from an affirming perspective. However, the more I studied, the more questions I had. I would find an answer to one question and that only opened another can of theological worms. I doubted, I questioned but in the end I really wasn’t sure I could hold an affirming view of homosexuality. It seemed safer and more respected to just hold the traditional view. In the midst of all of this, I started applying for Senior Pastor work. I sent my resume to over a 1000 churches, interviewed at 40 and had a handful of final inquiries in the end. The most difficult part of this process was the fact that often churches would call me back and be extremely interested until they found out I was single and even worse, gay. I can’t tell you how many doors closed because of that, how many ignorant comments were made to me and how much despair I often found myself in. At one point, a friend told me, “Josh, you don’t need every church to accept you, you just need one.”
And so, I found that one church, and the day after graduation I moved to Kentucky to pastor an independent-Christian church. After a few weeks, people in the community started referring to us as “the church with the gay pastor”. The elders came to me and asked me to no longer talk about my sexuality because it would divide and kill our church. Concerned for the health of my church and the possibility I might again be asked to resign, I agreed. In two years, we saw tremendous growth with 60 new members, 33 baptisms, doubling our annual budget, hiring 2 staff, renovating and modernizing the facilities and establishing new leadership.
However, personally, I was struggling with being single as my college friends began marrying and starting families. I became frustrated with God for calling me to be a pastor but allowing me to be gay. I began to fill with self-hatred for desiring companionship with a man. The theological views on sexuality that I had decided were the safer and easier route ended up just driving a wedge deeper between God and me. I couldn’t understand why God would create me with an innate desire for companionship with a man but tell me it was wrong. I couldn’t reconcile the fact that the passages in Scripture that condemned homosexuality weren’t describing the same-type of sexuality I desired to express. When the Bible referred to it, it referred to it in the context of rape, prostitution, molestation, adultery and sexual excess. I wanted to know if the Bible spoke of, and if God could bless, monogamous committed gay relationships. And so, in an effort to reconcile with God, I dug deeper into and intensely studied gay affirming theology for a year. I discovered that many had gone before me and laid a clear theological foundation from not just my generation but even as far back at Peter Gomes, the Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School, who in the early 70’s took a not so popular position on same-gender relationships. In his book “The Good Book, Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart”, he devotes a chapter to the theological positon that God does indeed bless same-gender relationships. After much reading, wrestling and revealing, I found the answers to the many questions I had left unattended in Bible College and I found the peace of reconciling my faith and my sexuality. I had told myself for years that I had to choose either a relationship with God and say goodbye to ever having a relationship with a man or I had to walk away from my relationship with God to be in a relationship with a man. However, now I could see clearly what I was once unable to see due to fear, doubt and uncertainty.
Finally, in May of 2015, I found the peace with God I had been desperately searching for. In June, I resigned and left the church I had a growing love for in order to seek the Spirit’s direction in pastoring in a gay affirming church. This was, hands down, the most difficult decision I have ever had to make to date, but one I have trusted God with as I am obedient to his leading. After leaving my church in Kentucky, I visited friends, family, former co-workers, pastors and some parishioners to express my change in theology and how this would personally impact my life. I am thankful to say that everyone in my family was supportive, however, the pastors and co-workers whom I had served with over my decade of service in ministry, all withdrew their support of me returning to the ministry and refused to serve as references for me in the future. Many of my best-friends from college, expressed their concerns, distaste and for some they decided they could no longer be my friend. I would say that the people group that’s rejection hurt the most was that of former parishioners. These were the people who I had walked through deep valleys with, who I loved unconditionally despite their hurts, habits and hang-ups. Now in my most vulnerable moment, many of them rejected me. For some a hurtful email or text was sent and for others they just simply ignored me, unfriended me or sat silent.
Eventually, I had to move forward and so I decided to move to Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was here in this college town that I found a multi-site Methodist Church and First Congregational Church (UCC) that truly welcomed all to come just as they are. They welcomed everyone despite their gender, race, sexual or religious orientation and social status. I can remember driving by a church sign just a few blocks from my home that read “Messy Progressive Religion”. I knew that was a place I needed to check out! I am thankful that in this community I have been able to find a place of belonging and acceptance. For the first time in my life, I have been able to stand in a pulpit and take off all of my masks, expose all of myself and allow God to use every created part of me. There is a Scripture that has defined my life for many years but just recently found new meaning. “And they have defeated Satan by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony. And they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die.” – Revelation 20:11. I finally understand that this verse means, I have overcome my guilt, my shame, my doubts, my self-hatred and my anger towards God, because I have overcome Satan by recognizing what Christ accomplished by his death, burial and resurrection. I found boldness to not be ashamed of who I am but to be proud of my testimony. I am so pleased with who God has made me to be that every time I can share the words of my testimony, I stand up straighter as I press my heel into the neck of Satan and declare “I have overcome!’
This story was originally submitted to the Our Witness blog. To read more stories like Josh’s or to submit your own, please visit Our Witness by clicking here. To hear more from Josh, visit his blog here.