Growing up in rural southeastern Ohio, I always knew that I was gay, but I resented that part of myself. I wanted to be “normal,” to be like everyone else. In 1996, at the age of twenty, when I encountered a church that assured me that God could set me free from my same-sex attractions, I latched on.

Over the next 13 years, I began seeking God’s direction and forging my own path in my effort to live out this life of being an ex-gay. Along the way, I discovered Exodus International, the now defunct ex-gay organization that served as an umbrella for ministries of this nature across the country. I would read some of the articles and testimonies on their website and be encouraged by them. I often wished that I had someone in my life who was further along on the journey than I. I wanted a role model to look to.

One of the men at my church had lost a brother to HIV/AIDS and people in the church would talk about his brother and how he had renounced his homosexuality prior to his death. That story sustained me more that anything else.

As time progressed, I began to date women and believed that I was making progress. I thought that if I could just meet the right person and connect with them, I could eventually have the life and the family that I wanted. I thought I was moving forward and living my life in the way that God wanted me to.

In late 2008, two young men began attending services as part of our church’s youth group. They were gay and they were dating each other. And, shockingly, they felt no need to change or apologize for it. Convinced that I was the best person to be able to help them become aware of their sin and guide them away from it, I approached the pastor about starting an ex-gay ministry in our church. He agreed and in the spring of 2009, I began having conversations with the leader of an ex-gay group in Columbus. At that time, they were currently on a break. I was frustrated because I wanted to be able to help these young men, and I already had begun engaging them in conversation and sharing with them about my own journey.

They were always very polite and respectful of me and my story, but they seemed to feel no compulsion to follow in my footsteps.

Finally, in May of that year, I began making the one-hour drive each week to observe the ministry in Columbus. Each week the men in the group would gather and we would listen to some recorded contemporary worship music which would be followed by either a video or a speaker. Then we would gather around a large table, and each man was expected, when it came to be his turn, to share how his “sexual brokenness” had manifested it self each week.

As I began to get to know these men better, I was struck by how truly broken their lives were in other ways. Many of them were married and had children, the things that I thought would make me feel complete. A fair number of them, both single and married, were still looking for and finding ways to connect with other men.

Finally, after a couple of months of attending the group, the moment that broke me arrived.

One of the men broke down sobbing when it was his turn to share. It took him a bit before he could speak, but, when he finally did he shared with us that he had been sexually intimate with his wife earlier that week. For those of us in the group, this should have sounded like a good thing, but he was clearly troubled by it. He went on to explain that they only way that he’d been able to do so was by fantasizing about another man. In that moment, something snapped inside. I remember sitting back in my chair and asking myself what I was doing there. In that moment, my paradigm shifted. It ceased to be about whether or not it was okay to be gay, and it became about what it is to live a life that is honest and authentic. I didn’t know what the future held for me at that point, but I knew that everything had changed for me in that moment.

Over the next few months, I would take the steps to separate myself from my church. I knew that I needed to leave, but I also knew that I needed to keep my reasons for doing so to myself. I knew that my church community, at the time, would not be supportive of me asking the kinds of questions that I was wrestling with.

Once I had parted from my church, I began the long process of discerning what the future held for me. I began looking for that answer in books. I wanted someone to just give me the answer. It didn’t take long to find that there were many people, most of them far more academically and theologically qualified that me, who had laid out an intellectual, scriptural, or theological argument for any path imaginable.

Finally, one day, I was venting to a friend about my frustrations with not being able to find the answer. He gently but deliberately, grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “You can read all you want. You can pray all you want, but, tomorrow morning, you’re going to wake up, and you’ll still be you. Only you can decide what to do with that.” I realized that he was right. I had to take ownership of my own life and seek a path that was right for me.

In 2010, I was reluctantly dragged by another friend to the Columbus Pride festival. I was prepared for all of the craziness and outlandish attire (or lack thereof) that can come along with Pride, but I wasn’t prepared to see mainstream businesses, politicians, and churches in the parade. As the parade moved by me, I took pictures of all of the church banners. Later, as I looked through the pictures, I noticed that the majority of them represented United Methodist Churches. One phrase that I saw repeatedly was, ‘All Are Welcome.’

I wanted to trust that phrase, but I was afraid to. My old church would have told me that I was welcome. I needed more. I needed to know that I was safe.

It would take months and making a few more connections before I would finally walk through the doors of Broad Street United Methodist Church, the church that I now call my church home. I have been blessed with the church family that I have found there and with the larger Reconciling community with which I have become a part.

Joshua is contributing to a movement in Ohio to ban conversion therapy for minors. Read more about his story at his personal blog here.

Joshua Culbertson

Joshua Culbertson lives in Columbus, OH and is a member of Broad Street UMC.He is currently working on a Masters of Arts in Counseling Ministries at the Methodist a Theological School in Ohio.After seminary, he hopes to work as a counselor, working primarily at the intersection of sexuality and spirituality.
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