November 2010 DeCole Shoemate

“Love.” What a commonly used word with so many meanings. It can express how we feel about almost anything. We love our jobs, our hobbies, our favorite foods, our colleges. We love our friends, our family and our significant others. Personally, I didn’t understand the real meaning of love until a few years ago. That was when I first experienced the redeeming love of my heavenly Father and learned what it truly was by His ultimate definition.

For so long, my idea of giving and receiving love had been wrong. What I’d thought was love was actually rooted in sin, and it took me down a path far from the one He’d paved for me. But that’s when He opened my eyes and my heart to see a bigger picture—one filled with the only kind of love that could meet every one of my needs and truly set me free.

I was born in San Diego, but because my stepdad was in the Navy, my family was never in one place for very long. From the time I was 7 until I turned 12 we had already transitioned back and forth between California and the East Coast.

Regarding matters of faith, my mom took us to church, but, because we moved so much, it was usually only on holidays. Through those experiences, nothing ever registered with me. I never really knew God or that He wanted to offer me anything out of life.

My mom worked several jobs to help provide for my half-brother, Erik, and me. My biological father was out of the picture, and my stepfather was often out at sea, so I spent a good part of my childhood raising myself. I was a shy kid who didn’t like a lot of attention, so, during recess, I didn’t socialize with the other girls or hang out with them by the monkey bars. Instead, I turned my attention to the basketball courts, which was where I first developed my love for the sport.

Basketball came naturally to me—like breathing. I started varsity all four years of high school and was named the local female athlete of the year twice and player of the year once. My sophomore year we were South Carolina 3A champs, and with all the success came a flood of attention. To that point I had been content as an introvert, but by then I wasn’t so sure.

Relationships of all kinds started entering my life, and there was one in particular that caught my attention: a girl who showed interest in me. Soon, I realized I liked it.

Through her attention, I became aware of a need inside me that wasn’t being met. Even though my mom and stepfather loved me, this new relationship offered me something more that I had unknowingly been longing for: the comfort of having someone who was always there for me.

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Growing up in California, I was exposed to homosexuality at an early age. I went to my first gay pride parade when I was 9 and my first gay wedding ceremony when I was 11, so I never had an objection to it. Thus, when the opportunity presented itself to me and was combined with other issues most teenagers deal with (hormones, identity crises, peer pressure, notoriety), my decision seemed simple.

Not only did I open myself up to these kinds of relationships, but I also became sexually active. Inside, I knew I should wait until marriage, but I found all sorts of reasons to justify my actions with my girlfriend. I reasoned that guys would just take advantage of me, that I could get pregnant if I was with a male, that I needed to be tough and masculine, and that a female would relate to me better in a relationship.

Really, though, when it was all said and done, it was nothing short of my own desires that fueled my poor choices. And what I surrounded myself with, I became open to.

In hindsight, I’ve learned that comfort is the first step to conforming. The things we become more comfortable with, we are more willing to try, and my life is proof of that. So, for the next 10 years, I was comfortable going in and out of relationships with other women.

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Back on the basketball court, I signed on to play college ball at Florida International University. I quickly realized, though, that I didn’t have the work ethic or mental toughness to compete successfully at that level, so I decided to transfer to Anderson College (now Anderson University) my junior year.

As a Division II Christian college in South Carolina, Anderson provided a great faith-based environment. But I still chose to live my life the way I wanted to. I attended chapel, but I would keep my headphones on or take naps during the services.

Not many of my teammates knew about my relationship choices, but, for the most part, the people who did still loved me. They loved me and loved me and loved me some more. I didn’t realize it at the time, but their display of Christ’s love, along with the chapel messages, planted seeds of faith in my heart—seeds that would be watered at a later time.

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In 2005, I graduated from Anderson with a bachelor’s degree in business and began working with Aramark Food Services at James Madison University (Va.). It was there at Aramark that I met Miss Dorothy—a sweet, little, old woman whose invitation to church changed my life.

At the time, I was in a serious relationship with a woman and had no thoughts whatsoever of changing. I was happy and content with my life the way it was. Even though there was a constant, unsettling feeling deep inside me, I couldn’t think of any reason why my relationship with another woman was wrong.

Over a period of time, Miss Dorothy and I developed a friendship, so when she asked me to church, I felt comfortable saying yes. I thought, “One more church service isn’t going to hurt me. It won’t be a big deal at all.”

I arrived at church and sat in the back so that no one would recognize me. Immediately, I was surprised by how much I liked the music. I didn’t want anybody to know I was enjoying it, though, so I just sat in the pew tapping my foot.

I continued attending that church because of the music, but, to be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to the messages. One Sunday, though, that all changed.

I was sitting in my regular pew in the back, when, all of a sudden, my heart started racing. It was beating so hard that I felt like it was going to jump through my shirt! I didn’t have a clue what was happening. I honestly thought someone had put a spell on me.

After the service, I ran to the front of the church to speak with the pastor’s wife. She started sharing how Jesus died for my sins, but I quickly interrupted, “Lady, you aren’t listening to me! Something is wrong. My heart is beating fast. I feel like I want to cry. I’m sweating, and I don’t know why. I don’t want Jesus! I just want to know what’s going on!”

The pastor soon joined our conversation and asked me if I had any joy or peace in life. After a moment of thinking and settling down, I realized that I didn’t. Those words were foreign to me. The life I was leading didn’t provide peace or joy. I had moments of happiness and excitement but nothing constant or real.

"I had to learn to open my heart and allow God to change me on the inside.”

Apparently, joy was supposed to be an everlasting feeling that came with knowing that everything was in God’s hands. I’d never experienced that kind of emotion or understanding, and the idea that I could got my attention. I wanted that peace, whatever it took.

That was when it clicked and I realized that, through Christ and His death on the cross, I could find true, lasting joy. I was floored by the fact that Someone had loved me enough to take everything I’d done wrong, accept the penalty for my sins and pay for them Himself. I turned to the Lord in prayer and surrendered my life to Him.

Immediately after praying, the “scales” fell from my eyes in a Saul-to-Paul-like conversion. For the first time in my life I could truly see, and I knew everything was going to be all right.

Of course, the real battle had just begun. There were two decades of life and habits to undo. I received help and support by attending a new believers’ class at church, and I began to realize just how much Christ loved me in spite of all that I’d done. How could I not love Him in return?

Soon, through His love—that one-of-a-kind, unconditional, sacrificial love like no other—I was delivered from homosexuality. I ended my relationship with the woman and began to love Christ above anything and anyone else.

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Many times people try to change their outside behavior without experiencing an internal renovation of the soul. I had to learn to open my heart and allow God to change me on the inside. The transformation didn’t happen overnight, but God convicted me through Romans 12:2 (NIV), which says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Over the course of a year, God helped me change how I dressed, who I socialized with, the TV shows I watched, and how I viewed myself. I even went so far as to throw away all my secular CDs. I was determined that nothing was going to stand in the way of my relationship with Christ.

In a similar way to how God blessed Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac by providing a ram in the boy’s place, I believe God gave me blessings in return for my obedient sacrifices.

I soon felt Him calling me into coaching, and, in 2006, I was given a volunteer assistant position at Lander University (S.C.). At Lander, I was introduced to FCA Camps, and, in 2008, I signed up to work at the leadership camp at Black Mountain (N.C.). While there, I received a tremendous blessing in the form of Sheila Simmons, the athletic director at Brewton-Parker College (Ga.). During the week of camp, Sheila and I were prayer partners as we ministered to young women, and we faithfully interceded for each other daily.

After camp, Sheila and I stayed in touch. Just weeks later, in an unexpected turn of events, the head women’s basketball coach at Brewton-Parker resigned leaving Sheila to take over the position. She asked me to come on board as an assistant coach, and I was honored to accept the position.

Now, just two years later, I’ve found myself at the helm of the program despite such a short coaching history. I now have the unbelievable opportunity to use my life experiences to minister to and love my players with the love that Christ gives me.

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Looking back on the years I lived below the level of greatness to which God was calling me, I see that, while I thought I knew what would make me happy, I was really just chasing something temporary. God, however, wanted to give me something eternal: His love, which comes with profound peace and joy.

In His Word, the Lord tells us that His plan for our lives is good (Jeremiah 29:11), that He is faithful to restore all that has been lost (Isaiah 61:4), and that He can heal any of our past hurts or pains (Isaiah 61:1). Our greatest losses are not in our earthly failures, but in the life we are robbed of without Him (John 10:10).

Through my own journey, I’ve found that God has so much more for us than we could ever imagine, and it is now my fervent prayer that none of us would allow our pain or sin to keep us from receiving it.

If you are, like I was, searching for the kind of love that will fill even the deepest longings of your soul, look no further than Jesus Christ. From personal experience, I can tell you that, when you do, you can stop your search forever and be completely at peace in His true and lasting love.

*Written with help from Susie Magill

--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.

Photos courtesy of Brewton-Parker College