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Panel members tell moving stories of brokenness, change

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Panel members tell moving stories of brokenness, change

A panel of three Adventists who formerly lived gay lifestyles addressed the denomination's sexuality summit on March 18. From right: Ron Woolsey, Virna Santos, Wayne Blakely. At left is Bill Knott, editor of the Adventist Review magazine, who moderated the panel. [photo: Ansel Oliver]

Trio tells their journey to denomination’s sexuality conference

March 20, 2014 | Adventist Review/ANN staff | Cape Town, South Africa

A panel of three Seventh-day Adventists who lived gay lifestyles told their stories last evening during the denomination’s summit on sexuality, discussing their journeys away from homosexual activity.

Addressing the summit were Ron Woolsey, an Adventist pastor and founder of “The Narrow Way Ministry,” Virna Santos, president of “By Beholding His Love” ministry, and Wayne Blakely, founder of “Know His Love Ministries.” The Adventist world church this week is holding the “In God’s Image: Scripture. Sexuality. Society.” summit at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.

“We are here tonight to listen to testimonies,” said panel moderator Bill Knott, editor of the Adventist Review magazine. “We’re here to listen to believers tell the stories of how God has redeemed them.” 

Knott invited the panelists to share their experiences at several different life stages.

Woolsey said he grew up in a “good Adventist home,” but was molested as a child by a family friend.  From then, he found himself increasingly focused on same-sex relationships.   While attending an Adventist college, he began dating, and ultimately married, thinking marriage was a solution to his troubled identity and relationships. When his young wife soon discovered his ongoing relationships with men, however, the marriage soon dissolved.

After more than 15 years in multiple gay relationships, Woolsey returned to his childhood faith and a relationship with Christ through reading the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White, co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  “I began reading Steps to Christ with a cigarette in my hand and a martini beside me,” he noted wryly.  “By chapter 5, I had put the cigarette out.”

Woolsey was re-baptized, and soon began telling his story of recovery to church groups around the United States.  Now married for 21 years, he is the father of five children, and an ordained pastor of the Church in the Arkansas-Louisiana Conference.

For Wayne Blakely, early childhood rejection by his mother—who had wished for a daughter—soon drove him to seek male relationships.  Placed in several adoptive situations, he was raised by a succession of relatives who noted his challenging behaviors and sent him to psychologists and pastors for counseling.

Invited at age 18 by a college friend to join a gay community, Blakely says he found there an acceptance he had not previously known.  “That’s when I gave up on God,” he said. 

More than 30 years of multiple sexual partners and drug use followed, as Blakely watched 40 gay friends die during the first years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

A series of divine providences brought him back to faith, Blakely said, including the prayers of friends who had not given up on him.  In his youth, Blakely said he prayed the prayer, “God, make me straight.” Retrospectively, he now realizes that a change of orientation was not the goal: getting to know Christ as His Saviour was actually the goal.

Santos believes that her journey to lesbianism was rooted in a painful and dysfunctional family situation. A victim of childhood sexual abuse, “No one told me [the abuse] wasn’t my fault,” she said.

Santos’ family joined the Adventist Church in her late teens, but she struggled with same-sex attraction throughout college and secretly maintained a lesbian relationship. She moved to San Francisco and became a gay-rights political activist, and was reportedly the first to adopt under the AB25 law in the U.S. state of California, which allowed same-sex couples to adopt each other’s children. The dramatic disappointment to the gay and lesbian community that accompanied the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which no longer allowed gay marriages, proved to be a crisis for Santos.

A reawakened interest in Adventism was accompanied by a series of profound personal spiritual experiences that highlighted for Santos the importance of the Church’s teaching about the meaning and relevance of the heavenly sanctuary.  Understanding for the first time that Jesus was her Advocate, she began to reassess the life she had been leading.

A Sabbath morning Communion service became the pivot point for Santos, who recalls her wonderment that the pastor’s wife was washing the feet of a proud lesbian.

Panel moderator Knott asked a question about whether the panelists’ stories should be thought of as typical:  “In recent weeks, there have been a number of voices raised to question the authenticity of this event because the organizers chose to hear primarily from those who are no longer practicing homosexuals.  How would you respond to those comments?

Woolsey responded, “We’ve all been there. We’ve been where they are. We gave those same arguments all our lives. We have come out of that. We’ve learned to put God first, not self.”

Santos said she shared with her lesbian friends the story of her conversion, saying, “I’ve had an experience with Jesus Christ and I’m no longer a lesbian. But I’m no better than you.” She remembers a friend’s partner saying, “I’m happy for you. I can see it all over your face. You’ve found the love of your life.”

Santos reminded the delegates, “We’re no better than them.” She said that she is a friend of many who wrote to express concerns about the summit. “God is about having a relationship. He pursued me. ... I have faith that even my friends will be knocking on our door soon.”

Written questions from the delegates concluded the 90-minute session, and addressed whether the panelists still consider themselves as gay or lesbian; how the church should treat same-sex attracted and practicing individuals; and the nature of the ministries in which each panelist now serves.  Interrupted frequently by audience applause, the three continued to describe the transforming power of Christ as the cause of their new lives.

“We have seen and heard courage here tonight,” Knott concluded.  To persistent audience applause, he added, “Let’s express our appreciation to those who have shared their testimonies of redemption with us.” 

Daily news bulletins from the summit provided by Adventist Review and Adventist News Network (ANN) will be available at adventistreview.org and news.adventist.org. 

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