As we sat beside a beautiful lake in North Georgia on a cool day, Jaron and I made an agreement to respect each other. I would not ask him to change his beliefs and he would not ask me to change my mine. Together we agreed that this was a fair path forward.
Roll back two or three years in time and the story begins with my trip to the states for surgery on my feet. Just as I was about to return to Moscow, Russia, where I served as an overseas officer/missionary with The Salvation Army, a summer service team was returning from Russia. My son was on that team. He met me at my hotel late at night and told me that he was gay.
Fear and uncertainty flooded my soul. I did not see this coming. I raced to the computer and pulled up all kinds of information. I wanted quickly to “resolve this situation,” but there was nothing to be solved and no path other than faith and prayer. I wrote letters that I now regret. He was silent. While I grew angry with God, darkness settled on our relationship and my walk of faith with God.
Meanwhile, many others rallied around Jaron. He carved out new friendships with family members, who received him and enjoyed his company. He found a family of friendships with others like him. He found work and a career path supported by the gay community. I was on the outside looking in with uncertainty and a deep sadness. I missed my son.
So on that cold day in December, seventeen years ago, we made a pact. I would respect him and not ask him to change, and he would respect my beliefs. In that moment, we chose to love each other freely. We hugged and started on a journey of a lifetime. Step by step, we restored our relationship and I learned how to love unconditionally. In reality, it was the start of a greater walk of faith for me than I had ever taken in my life.
I chose not to hide the fact that my son is gay. With his support, we offered other parents, families and friends encouragement as they navigate this unfamiliar journey. I’ve learned that some conservative families stay silent in hope that their son or daughter will change. Over the years, a few have reached out to me. Some find peace for the journey, while others demand change. Some come to a successful place of letting go and trusting God and others refuse such a faith.
In July, 2016, I found myself in front of The Salvation Army School for Officers Training in Chicago, IL on Gay Pride Day. A tradition for The Salvation Army is to open the gate and offer free lemonade and water to those passing by who are thirsty. By the time I arrived, there were many officers outside the gate so I moved down the sidewalk. A young woman came up to me with a cardboard sign that said, “Free Hugs” and asked me if I wanted a hug. Since I was born a hugger, I said “yes.” She moved on, but I called to her to ask where I could get a sign. With all the excitement and noise of the crowd, I lost sight of her and went back inside the gate to make my own sign. Within minutes of returning with my own sign, I started calling out, “Free lemonade under the tent. Get your free hugs here!”
For the next two hours, I received more than a hundred hugs with words like, “Free hugs? Of course!” and “I really needed that hug today!” It will be the most enjoyable and memorable two hours of my life. Yes, some of those who received hugs were members of the LGBTQ community, while others were simply passing by who just wanted to see the parade. All wanted to be loved and, in that moment, I thanked God for the beauty of a shared unconditional love.
All my son really wanted then and wants now, is a free hug. A hug that trusts God to show him His love through me. A hug that does not judge, a hug that says, “I love you.” As Jesus loved those who were unloved, so He calls you and me today to love those who are searching for love, searching for a hug that refuses to judge. Free hugs entrust all to Jesus, the great Lover of our Soul who knows the future and who will continue to draw on the hearts who receive His love. Free hugs trust the Holy Spirit to do the talking to those hearts. Free hugs permit us just to love—which is all our heavenly Father asks of us.
(Shared with Jaron’s permission)