HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - If you had been on your way to Lakeside Baptist Church on September 23, you would have had to make a choice.
Just a few feet down the road from the Paul B. Johnson State Park entrance, there is a fork. On the right, it winds completely around the rippling, blue lake. You could have gone that way to see the sun setting over the water as the sound of crickets beat in your eardrums. But if you had turned left, the car would have been forced to a stop. Painted cardboard signs would cloud the view. The unusually cool Mississippi air would have choked you like it normally does. You would lock stares with protestors who didn't speak, didn't compete with the crickets for your attention, who didn't even smile.
Further down, past the protestors, that left turn would lead into a church parking lot where inside on a Monday afternoon hymns echoed throughout the sanctuary as congregation members chanted their normal hellos as the pews filled. A child with a pudding stain on her shirt chased her brother down the center aisle; a doctor, still wearing his scrubs, found a place to sit; and a projector began a three-day vigil, casting nine golden words behind the pulpit as a pastor addressed his congregation. Those words: "Coming Out: A Gospel Response to Same-Sex Attraction."
"We do not hate the LGBT community, we love them," said Pastor Randy Cofield, who designed the event. "We love them enough to tell them the truth."
He said over the course of the next three days, he and five other pastors would deliver a message to anyone willing to listen. That message, he said centered on the Biblical definition of homosexuality.
"This issue is being accepted in cultures, and the church is being pressured to not only affirm it, but applaud it," said Cofield. "The world's voice on this issue is so loud, and the church remains silent."
Also speaking at the event were Dr. Kevin Shearer of 38th Avenue Baptist Church; Dr. Kyle Jones of First Baptist Church Brooklyn, Reverend Shane Freeman of Macedonia Baptist Church Petal, and Reverend Hal Selby, creator of Refuge 461 ministries.
Cofield and the panel insisted that the convention was not ex-gay therapy, nor conversion therapy, but a redemptive service. "We want to equip the church in a Biblical way so we can be redemptive, and prepare for impending persecution," he said.
Cofield's fellow pastors agreed, especially Hal Selby, who admitted to struggling and overcoming homosexuality. Selby said he had acted on his homosexual urges a majority of his life, including the first 12 years of his marriage. He said he created his ministry Refuge 461 as a testament to his own life, so that others could see change was possible. "This was not to pick on the gay community, but they don't want to hear that they can be changed, and they need to hear it."
Selby began Refuge 461 ministries to help people of all ages overcome homosexual urges, and there are some who say that they have been changed straight because of church services similar to Lakeside Baptist's convention and Refuge 461.
By the request of the following source, he asks to only be referred to by his middle name. Mark, who says he is a former homosexual, said he overcame his homosexuality through the support of his family and church after struggling for the majority of his life. According to Mark, after an early exposure to pornography, he began to explore different sexual orientations.
"I developed a strong sex drive and lustful porn addiction at an early age, so by junior high, I became curious of the possibility of being gay," Mark said. "God told me the truth the summer before my senior year. The change he made in me was that he removed the desire to accept being gay and replaced it with a desire to overcome it."
According to Mark, by blocking all pornography sites as well as putting forth all his energy into his church, he now has his temptations at bay. "For some this is a radical instant change. Others, the change may happen over time from the moment they make the decision to fight it," he said. Today, Mark shares his story in hopes that others can realize the change he felt. "One can expect criticism and bitter hate opposing your efforts to fight, but you can carry on and focus your efforts to rise."
Although Mark and Selby proclaim a spiritual intervention helped them through their homosexuality, there are those who question if such a thing is possible.
The local LBGT community banded together to protest all three days of the conference, dressing in only red to bring awareness to their platform "Love Wins." Down the road from the church, protestors held candles the first day of the conference to commemorate those who committed suicide because of deprogramming services, and they held signs with phrases that read "Hope is rising" and "Equality."
Larry and Cece Garrett, ministers for the walk fellowship church, coordinated the protest.
"I can't believe that my God would create a group of people, homosexuals, and then immediately condemn them, I can't," said Larry. Garrett attended the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio where he received his Masters in Divinity. According to Garrett, the way homosexuals are interpreted in the Bible is commonly misconstrued. "When you talk about scripture, there are a handful of verses used as 'slam scriptures,'" said Garrett. "But when you look at the context not just Biblically, but historically, you see these verses talk mainly about idolatry. The word homosexual wasn't in the bible until the 1940s,'" said Garrett.
News of the convention brought a flood of calls to her church hotline, according to Outreach minister Cece Garrett. "We wanted to remind the 12-year-old or even the 40-year-old that whatever they hear in the program, that God loves them," she said.
According to Cece, the protestors agreed to have a silent protest in hopes of avoiding any violence with the church, and to keep with their belief that love would conquer all odds. The church joined forces with Members of GetEQUAL, Campaign for Southern Equality, and OMEGA. One protest member, Brandiline Dear, created a ministry similar to Lakeside's service, but eventually joined forces with the LGBT community.
"I founded Dying to Live Ministries. It was a faith-based recovery program for addicts. It grew like wild fire, and before long, people were being court ordered to this program from all over the state," said Dear. "During all this I told those who came into my program who proclaimed to be gay that they needed to 'recover from homosexuality' as the rest recovered from drugs. We laid hands on people and tried to pray the gay away," Dear said.
According to Dear, she had performed many marriage ceremonies for patients who she knew were gay, and she believes they continue to live in torment to this day.
It wasn't until a couple of years into Dear's ministry that she says she realized she was gay. "Needless to say, my whole world seemed to be crumbling around me," Dear said. "Am I an anointed woman of God or an abomination?" The moment that I got honest with myself was the moment that I found myself, and my life began to make sense."
Dear said that her biggest regret was the pain she caused her homosexual patients.
Brandi Turner, one of Dear's patients, said the therapy made her feel like an outcast.
"Once it was obvious that I would not suppress my sexual orientation, an overwhelming majority of the church turned their back on me," Turner said. "Churches think that there is some magic cure that the gay can be prayed away, or they can cast a demon out. Homosexuality is not a disease. There is no cure," Turner said. "There is about as much hope in praying the gay out of someone, as there is praying the straight out of someone."
Lore Dickey, professor of Counseling Psychology with an emphasis in transgender and gender identity studies at Louisiana Tech agrees that there is no evidence that suggests religious services can cure homosexuality.
"If we think about gay and lesbian people, in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association stopped diagnosing gay people as having a mental disorder. That was the first time we started seeing things like deprogramming efforts and conversion therapy," said Dickey. "There is no scientific proof that these feelings are abnormal, but that doesn't mean people won't believe in it."
Dickey also said churches who conduct similar services do not have evidence to support their claims. "I'm not a Biblical scholar, but the Bible doesn't exactly say what they are reporting. Even with Old Testament quotes, they leave out other things in the Old Testament like eating shellfish or mixed-blend clothing. Those are right next to sleeping with your neighbor, and yet we ignore those," said Dickey. "No one is telling people who eat shellfish that they are going to hell. To me, that means there is an association of homophobia with it rubbing off on them. The science behind it proves there is no correlation with these efforts working."
Although Cofield said he was expecting some disagreement to the service, he wanted to openly discuss opposing viewpoints with the congregation. At the end of each service, there was a question and answer session where people in the congregation could ask the panel specific questions about homosexuality. According to Cofield, this was the panel's way of communicating with the LBGT community.
"We want to help Christians better understand how to respond to the agenda of the LGBT community in a loving way," said Cofield. "We also wanted to make the LGBT community understand our position and have a dialogue with them, we didn't want this convention to be one-sided."
The walk fellowship created a rebuttal church service on September 28, giving the LGBT community a chance to respond to Lakeside's service. The three-day conference called "The Rally of Love and Acceptance" had a total around 100 people attend. According to an attendant of the service Ashton Pittman, the service focused on an alternative view to the Lakeside conference, giving the local LBGT community a chance to share their message.
For questions regarding the protest, or church service call Cece Garrett at 601-255-7999, or Randy Cofield at 601-583-6800.