My name is Samuel; I am 24 years old and I have the pleasure to serve as Ricky’s assistant in the office.
I have been a part of Living Hope for going on 9 years now starting 600 miles away as just another part of the online web forums.
I would like to start tonight with a few verses just to set some context for what I want to share with you all. At the beginning of the year, these words caught my heart and have been my meditation for the last several months as I thought through my story and what it is that God has done in my life.
17 Now the Lord[d] is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord,[e] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” 2 Corinthians 3:17-18.
When I look back over my life, I see key moments of transformations where God shown me himself and when I saw him for who he was, I couldn’t help but be different.
I was born in Tennessee, into a Christian home, whatever that means, My parents both said they loved the Lord. When I was born, my parents prayed that God would give them a gentle giant, meaning they wanted a child emotionally sensitive, and a giant in his faith. They for sure got the sensitive part, the second part is what we are still trying to work out I guess.
So my family. I have three younger sisters. My dad worked in R&D at P&G and my mom is a school teacher.
Because she is a teacher and my dad was out of the house a lot while I was growing up, my life revolved around my mother. She got us up every morning, had breakfast ready, and would put out six piles of clothes so that on the last day of the week, we would still have a choice.
What we didn’t know during these years is that my mom was falling apart on the inside. Sexual and verbal abuse that took place over much of her childhood and teens years and the death of her mother when she was a child had set her on a course that would set up the explosion Satan had for our family during my middle school years.
So I’m in this family with a mom who is falling apart, and a dad who is distant, but all the while sitting under incredible preachers. We were in church every time the doors were open. My dad was either minister of music or chair of some major committee at the church we were in so the inner workings of the church became a regular thing. My earliest church memories though include seeing “men of God” who shook my hand on Sunday morning and taught my Sunday school class say the most hateful things to each other and to my dad. So at a very young age I started seeing this contrast between what people were saying about Jesus and what the Gospel meant and what that actually looked like when you tried to live it out.
So I go to school, like every kid does and spend the next six years almost exclusively with my mother. As young as I was, I began a double life at very young age of stealing from the other teachers, and lying my way out of being punished. Eventually I was caught and forced to make right with the teachers, but this started a life-long struggle with compulsive lying as a way to avoid pain and punishment.
Soon after, our church had a week long revival where the preacher spent a significant amount of time talking about the theif who died next to Jesus and the forgiveness he found. So at a very young age, I became aware of a basic need for Jesus, walked an aisle, but not much changed.
Going into middle school, I was very awkward. I was very short, very overweight, my mom cut my hair at home and had a high IQ. Can you say mercilessly ridiculed? But in the midst of all that, I made a friend. My family has just moved and the guy who lived across the street from me was a grade older than me but would walk home the same way I did. Growing up, I didn’t have many guy friends and with as much time as I spent indoors this seemed like a good sign to my parents who were worried about my social interactions.
Unfortunantly, that friend starting using words like masturbation and pornography, words I had never heard before as a 6th grader, and started asking if I knew what those were and how to get them and all that.
Being a proud intellectual at the young age of 11, I lied and said yes, and then quickly went home to look those words up in a dictionary. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked those words up but a dictionary isn’t very helpful when it comes to graphic content.
All it took was one sick day home from school and a passing thought to the computer my family had just purchased.
So. No lie. The very first thing I ever typed into a Google search box was “Masturbation Videos” :Enter.
And at 11 years old I was introduced to a world of gay pornography that would turn into an addiction of almost 10 years. When I was finally confronted by my parents about it, I lied again, they had proof, but then made it clear they did not have the emotional energy to deal with my issues because their marriage was falling apart. My mom went into detail about her abuse, and my dad just got angry and quiet.
So I needed to get over whatever this was quickly.
So I got over it quickly, and in doing so got over them.
One afternoon, I was online looking for more porn when I stumbled across this website that was a referral ministry for people who were struggling with same sex attraction. I didn’t know that terminology yet, but I did know that this porn stuff was killing me and I needed some help. There was a link there for the LHM youth forums that became a small life line for me through what is about to take place. That afternoon, I signed up for the forums and joined a world of people who were feeling the same things I was and seemed to be making sense out of it all, but I was too proud and too stupid to really take advantage of what the forums were offering me.
When I got to high school, the name calling continued except this time it came from my “friends” at church. And with that I was done with church people, and set out to find a new group.
So I started looking for the people that no one really saw. They were the underworld of my high school. Drug dealers, wiccans, Goths. They seemed scary, but they were loyal. A particular group of them seemed to have an uncanny amount of control over their surroundings to the point that if something was happening they didn’t like, all of a sudden it wasn’t happening that way anymore. I saw it as a way to control my life.
All of you might refer to it as witchcraft.
So on top of some very confusing feelings about my sexuality, I add a bit of paganism to the mix, and it was intoxicating. I was dying on the inside but between the porn and the power, I was riding high, not really seeing how what I was doing was in any way in conflict with what I believed about Jesus because of what I learned from those men growing up and my peers that you could profess one thing and live something completely different.
In the midst of all this, I decide to go to a Baptist university.
I’m gay. I’m a witch. And I’m enrolled in the Biblical Languages Department.
And for the first time in my life I meet Christians. I mean Christ followers. I tell them about my struggles in an attempt to scare them off and they just called my sin what it was and said that Jesus had a better life for me. I’m still on the forums at this point, and one of our moderators encouraged me to use this moment to reconnect with my dad and get some counseling if my school offered it and suggested that God could actually be up to something amazing. I didn’t believe them at the time, but over the next two years, God began to show me something of himself that I had never seen before, namely that he had people who loved him who could love me exactly where I was.
And then my world changed forever. Again.
On February 5th 2008 an EF 4 tornado destroyed my university. It was 7pm. I stood at the bottom of the hill as God took everything from me that I thought was supposed to show me how good he was. But had that event not taken place I wouldn’t be here tonight.
In the following weeks I decided to go to this summer conference I had heard so much about on the forums but had never been able to afford with the leftovers from my insurance check. So out of the blue, I drive 10 hours from Memphis to Ashville, NC and meet the people of LHM for the first time. The guys who came on that trip are the guys who in the coming years would become small group leaders for our weekly support meetings, and I had a full week of being understood in all my mess for the first time.
I came to this conference to deal with my homosexuality, but God did nothing that week but tell me over and over and over how faithful he would be and to just trust him.
What I didn’t know yet was that during my absence by parents had received a letter from my university saying tuition had skyrocketed. I came home from this wonderful trip to the news I would not be returning to my school in the fall.
I was significantly into my major at this point so I needed a college that would take as many hours of biblical studies credits as possible.
That school was in Fort Worth Texas and with a little bit of mapping I found out that the LHM office was a short drive from my school.
So in less than a month of meeting Ricky, D’Ann and all of these wonderful men of God, I moved to Texas for group and for school.
That was four years ago this past summer. I had no job and no clue what to expect
Week after week money would show up in the mail in just the right amount to buy gas and groceries. The week the money ran out, someone anonymously bought me several bags of groceries. The last bowl of noodles from that food lasted until the night I got my job in retail.
When I moved, I thought that would be the end of my issues, but as you all probably know it was only the beginning. Group showed me how much bitterness I had towards my parents, how deep my addictions really went. In the safety of the LHM office we dealt with the real issues of my background in witchcraft and the consequences that followed me to Texas from all of that.
But most importantly, LHM showed me Jesus.
Not the powerless man I grew up learning about.
But the living ruling, loving Jesus that actually exists.
I got plugged into a church that loves Living Hope and loved me and gave me the freedom to live openly and honestly about my issues without fear of removal.
The last four years have been an amazing journey.
From being lovingly rebuked by D’Ann when some of my unresolved misogyny erupted on the forums, to being reminded weekly that life doesn’t require my intense face all the time, Living Hope has never allowed me to stay in my sin, but has never cast me aside because I was broken.
For the first time in my life, there is no pretense.
I can’t front that I am this amazing person with nothing to fix. Just walking into the living hope office is enough to dispel that myth.
After a few years down here, I was given the incredible privilege of not just being asked to lead one of our small groups, but to also work side by side with our office staff as Ricky’s assistant. As one who had been burned by the inner workings of ministry, I was afraid that LHM was going to turn out to be just like every other group I had known: caring on the outside and spiteful and petty on the inside.
And nothing could be further from the truth.
I remember being in the office one day when we got the call. One of our guys had gone missing and no one really knew where he was or what was going on. His parents called us hoping we knew where he was or what was up, and we had nothing for them other than we knew he wasn’t doing well or pursing Jesus. And the entire work day stopped.
From the outside, what happened that day wouldn’t make a lot of sense. LHM just runs support groups once a week right? People need to be self-motivated right? Not at all. That day and the weeks that followed I began to see LHM as a place that loved people deeply, and fully enough to be truly hurt when we chose something other than God’s best for our lives.
In what twisted world does the part time assistant get open door access to the Executive Director who is always just a text away when I need encouragement, get access to literally hundreds of hours of conversations with our Women’s Ministry Director D’Ann who daily lives out that strength of character and vulnerability of heart are not mutually exclusive in healthy femininity.
Who gets to see their board serve week in and week out in the lives of the people they seek to direct through the long range planning of an organization like Living Hope when at the end of the day it is one of those board members who stares down my demons and in the power of Jesus proclaims liberty over my present and my future.
You see, Living Hope isn’t just another non-profit coming to you for help. Living Hope is a group of men and women who show up every day to love those who have never been loved, to offer freedom to those who have only ever known bondage, and a promise to walk in strength to those who have only ever known failure and weakness. And it doesn’t come through a workbook, or a whiteboard. It comes solely through Jesus.
I stand before you all tonight, knowing good and well that there are still days that I am attracted to guys. There are still days that I want to do the things that will only bring death in the long run. But that in this room there are people I will never be able to repay for showing me the Jesus that is, not the Jesus I was taught.
We have all come into this room with something that we did not choose and that we cannot change on our own. For me that happens to be an attraction to men, a lying tongue and a prideful heart. But there is hope. No matter where you are coming from tonight, will you join me in looking hard after Jesus? For when we see him as he is, he promises us we will change.