A laudable number of people were baptised over the weekend at an event in Orlando, USA, which showcased testimonies of nearly 400 people who left the lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and queer and questioning (LGBTQ+ community) lifestyle and found freedom in Christ.
The high-spirited millennials, who like to identify as “overcomers”, flocked to trumpet their emancipation from homosexuality during the ‘Freedom March’ at Lake Eola Park, despite the threatening tropical storm and counter-protesters from LGBT-affirming groups, Christian Post reports.
Founded in 2018 by Jeffrey McCall, a former transgender prostitute who has come to know Christ, the Freedom March is an influential movement where people march and share their story about liberation from homosexual and transgender lifestyles through the grace and power of Jesus Christ.
“The reason I started the Freedom March was because I felt like all of these stories of people that left the LGBT lifestyle needed to be heard. It sends a statement and gets these stories out there,” McCall told CBN News.
“The movement has changed in the past year in growth. We’ve had people show up from all over the country. We’re so excited that the community and the family that it’s built for people that left those lifestyles to know that there is so many others like them,” he added.
Angel Colon, 29, and Luis Javier Ruiz, 36 organised this year’s march. Both men are survivors of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in 2016 when Omar Mateen — who pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State — entered Pulse nightclub with a handgun and a semi-automatic rifle and began firing, killing 49 people and injuring 53 in what became the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
Colon was a dancer at the club and suffered six bullet wounds. Ruiz was at the club as a patron and was injured in the stampede to escape the shooter.
Now three years after the shooting, they both have since left homosexuality and started a ministry called Fearless Identity, a ministry that brings hope and biblical understanding to the LGBTQ community and to the church.
The two said the organisation’s goal wasn’t to change people’s sexual orientation and gender identity against their will.
“We’re trying to equip churches, even if they’re not gay-affirming churches, with the resources they need and teach them not to judge the LGBTQ community. We’re trying to share our stories through ministry and share the testimonies of people who’ve come out of the homosexual lifestyle,” said Colon, with Ruiz adding that the march was “not a gay-to-straight thing” but “a lost-to-saved thing,”.
Many of the Freedom March’s leaders had abandoned an LGBT lifestyle. The event’s worship leader, Edward Byrd, shared that he formerly identified as androgynous before he became a Christian. The Uprooted Heart founder, MJ Nixon, who baptised people at the event, said she was a former lesbian.
During the March and in-between times of worship, person after person took the stage to share their story—sexual abuse, pornography, gender confusion, drugs, alcohol, sex addiction or prostitution. They all acknowledged that God loved every one, but that people must accept Him as the Saviour before their various lifestyle can change.
Upon embracing salvation, the group said they not only received deliverance from homosexuality but also grew in confidence in Jesus Christ knowing that in Him, they have the freedom and have received the forgiveness of sin.
During the event, there was a moment of silence to remember the 49 people killed during in 2016 at the Pulse Nightclub shooting.
“This movement has created a family of overcomers that understand and went through the same things, so it’s built this close-knit Christian family. It has brought light to this topic, and it’s been talked about by people who actually lived through it,” McCall said.
While McCall and others insist that the Freedom March is an opportunity to unite the church and LGBTQ people, it has however drawn deft and withering criticism from LGBT-affirming groups over the suggestion that being LGBT is something that can be “fixed,” as well as over the divisive practice of conversion therapy that many evangelical churches emphasise.
Some from Orlando’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community even expressed outrage that a city still in mourning would be the site of such an event, and threatened to stop it, with Ruiz saying they faced more opposition for this year’s march than any march they’ve had.
Christopher Cuevas, the executive director of QLatinx, an Orlando-based Latino LGBTQ advocacy group, called the march an “attempt to wash the community in a thicket of hate and bigotry,” especially given the milieu that both Ruiz and Colon grew up in religious communities and dealt with the church’s suggestion to “pray the gay away.”
“While we honour the freedom for expressions of faith and hold the beauty of religiosity in our community, we cannot condone the gross misuse of religious text and faith to exploit LGBTQ+ people or support conversion therapy,” Cuevas wrote to NBCNews. “The expressions of our queer and transgender identities are the embodiment of divinity and grace, because we are living our most radical truth by celebrating and centering our LGBTQ+ identity.”
Equally disgruntled, Stonewall spokesperson told Newsweek in a statement;
“Marches like this try to suggest that same-sex attraction is something that can be ‘fixed’ or ‘cured’. But we know that while sexual orientation can certainly be fluid, it cannot be forcibly changed by external forces. This is one of the reasons why so-called conversion therapy has been so widely condemned by medical professionals and governing bodies. People need to understand that same-sex attraction is natural, normal and not something that needs to be changed.”
Orlando-based community activist Eric Rollings says he wants to know “what their definition of conversion therapy really is.” He says the rhetoric is just the first step in the process.
“If this isn’t conversion therapy, then what do they call it?” Rollings asks. “If you’re trying to get a bunch of people together to say ‘don’t be gay,’ that’s really the start of the conversion therapy explanation.”
The organisers, however, hit back against suggestions that the event has anything to do with conversion therapy. He stressed that neither he nor Colon support so-called conversion therapy, a contentious practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity that has been condemned by nearly every major health association.
“Much of the opposition came from people who don’t understand our story,” he said. “We are not at all advocates for conversion therapy or shock therapy. We stand with the gay community, and our main message is about falling in love with Jesus, but if an LGBTQ person wanted to talk to a pastor or counsellor, that’s a whole different story.”
“I think there was a spiritual release that happened at this march [more] than ever before, and I think the enemy felt that in the spirit and he opposed it, but the Lord won. The Lord birthed something in this Freedom March, like a breaking in the spirit, like a taking of ground. He went before us and this one was very key to plowing some hard ground spiritually. I really feel like the Lord used this one to till through something and I just feel there’s a harvest coming from this one like never before,” he added.
McCall said it was unfair that critics were mudslinging the march and what they are doing.
“I don’t push anything on anyone; I just want our stories of freedom to be heard because we’re such a small minority,” Mc Call claims, explaining he has heard people say things about the march that “are not fair. There is a lot of backlash… a lot of what people say is that we are trying to do conversion therapy, and people have been really hurt by conversion therapy,” he continued.
“We are not trying to do any conversion therapy; we are trying to do the Holy Spirit… when we make mistakes, we confess it and we just do what the scripture says,” he added.
While the event “seeks to bring hope of deliverance to the LGBTQ community and point them toward Christ,” per its mission statement, Colon and Ruiz said they believed in accepting people as they are.
“People have the option to change, to choose their own path and their own journey,” Ruiz said. “If there’s a drag queen doing a storytelling hour at a school, we’re not going to say, ‘Kick the drag queen out.’ We’re going to say, ‘Let’s also read the Bible to these kids.’”
The two said the Pulse massacre inspired them to turn back to religion and denounce their former sexual identities. Now, the two men identify as “children of God” versus straight or gay.
“My life was all over the place, and I never blamed it on being gay. I was a drug addict, an alcoholic,” Colon said. “I missed worshipping God, so when Pulse happened, I took the situation as a big turning point in my life.”
“We come in love,” Ruiz added. “I’m so thankful that I get to live and that I’m breathing now.”
As a prophetic step of faith in this tilling, this year’s Freedom March saw the baptism of hundreds of people during the event.
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