Like many in the church, the young athlete from Virginia Beach had struggled for years to reconcile his belief in Jesus Christ with his attraction to other men. Sanders hadn't grown up in a particularly religious household. Like many American families, church was an routine visit, often on holidays. Despite plenty of hymns and Bible passages, those services developed no relationship between Sanders and God.
As a teenager, Sanders found God himself. He had grown up mostly in a single-parent home, dragged from Spain to Jacksonville to Texas to Tennessee before his mother filed for divorce and moved with the children back home to Virginia. Hundreds of miles from his father, Sanders rarely saw him and their relationship grew distant.
The church filled a void, provided hope, and represented a stability he had been hard-pressed to find growing up.
"I always had some type of affection for a higher power," Sanders, now 30, said from his current home in St. Augustine, Fla. "And I heard about this guy Jesus, and there was something attractive about what he said. It felt real to me, and I decided that I would try to live my life by Christian values."
Some of those values, as they were told to him, conflicted with the same-sex attraction he was developing as a young man. He quickly became all too familiar with the six passages buried in the 700 pages of the Holy Bible that many have used to vilify gay people.
Years later, when he engaged with the conversion-therapy ministry in 2011, he was still trying to reconcile his identity with the small corner of Christian doctrine that had eaten at him for over a decade.
The counselor at the ministry explained his homosexuality as a result of what was quickly labeled by the counselor a "broken home." Sanders was told that his lack of a healthy connection with his father, and presence of what the counselor labeled an "overbearing" mother, had somehow turned him gay.
"It made me hate my parents," Sanders said. It was early on in his therapy at a time when he didn't want to accept his sexual orientation. "Rather than free me in any way, it made me hate them. They were part of the reason that I was gay.
"My parents were angry that I'd been told that. I pushed away my parents, rather than talk to them about it. But we are rebuilding those relationships."
Sanders still didn't feel he had found his answer. Those six passages in the Bible still lingered, and his attraction to other men simply wouldn't go away.
After six months with the Exodus International ministry, Sanders discontinued his visits, leaving with even more questions about his struggle to find reconciliation between his religion and his sexual orientation.
The experience strengthened his quest for answers. After years of rejection from various ministries and Christian organizations, all in the name of love, he began to focus less on what others had to say about the word of God and started focusing on what God had to say. In mid 2011, Sanders finally began to search for his own truth.
"There's always been something inside of me that believes in my heart that God is OK with me, with you, with gay people," Sanders said. "But the way that we're portrayed, it isn't a reflection of who we really are."
* * *
The basketball court was Sanders' sanctuary. While he dabbled in football and other sports, it was basketball where he found his peace, an important constant through his challenging childhood. No matter where he lived or how his home life fluctuated, the basketball court always awaited his jump shot and squeaking shoes.
"It was an escape in a lot of ways," Sanders said. "It was an escape from the reality of life sucking."
It was also a reminder. Homophobic language routinely found its way onto the court. While religion didn't play a role on Sanders' sports teams, he remembers as early as middle school a coach laying into a teammate for "bending over and taking it in the butt" after a poor showing on defense. Twenty years later, he still remembers the exchange.
"I don't know how it affected me then, but I'm sure it did because I remember it. It told me, if you were ever to tell anyone that you're attracted to guys, you're going to be rejected. You're going to be treated differently."
Sanders wandered for several years after high school. He briefly attended Virginia Wesleyan College with the intention of walking onto the basketball team. Distracted by life's struggles, he dropped out his freshman year and coached at a local high school.
He eventually transferred to James Madison University. He viewed it as a new beginning and thought he could start dating girls, still hoping to "fix" his same-sex attraction.
While at JMU he got involved with various Christian sports ministries including Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He was also recruited to work at Summer's Best Two Weeks, a Christian sports camp in Pennsylvania.
Summer's Best Two Weeks is lead, according to the camp's Web site, "by a phenomenal staff of leaders and college athletes who will point [athletes] to Jesus and show them what following Him is all about." In the summer of 2010, Sanders had been promoted to the athletic director position at the camp, a position he held for two summers.
"I found my identity in these positions," Sanders said. "I was passionate about coaching, though I still secretly struggled with depression because I knew I wasn't being true to myself."
* * *
Sanders' desire to reconcile his faith with homosexuality isn't unique. Churches and their members - gay and straight - across the globe are searching for answers on how to build bridges between church doctrine and the LGBT community said doctrine routinely alienates.
Some gay men, like Sanders, find their way to conversion-therapy ministries like the former Exodus International. But as he met more of these men in conversion therapy - both those administering and receiving the counseling - Sanders could see his life five, 10, 20 years down that road.
It scared him right out of the ministry.
"A lot of these men were married," Sanders remembered. "They had to repress who they were. It looked like they were suffering. I have to respect that that's where they are. All I can be is a sounding board, someone who can say to them that I believe in all my heart that God loves you and created you with the orientation you have. I can't judge them.
"I can look at their experience and respect that it's their journey. But it's not mine."
Soon after leaving the conversion-therapy ministry in 2011, Sanders found his way to L'Abri, a Christian study center outside of Boston. In French, L'Abri means "shelter."
It was at L'Abri that Sanders finally found his answers.
There he met another young man struggling with being gay and coming out to his parents. While they shared the same faith, this gay man had something distinct from Sanders: He was from a stable home with loving parents. Sanders had been told his homosexuality was because of his challenging home life and "absent" father, yet here was another gay man with neither of those things.
He realized everything the church had told him about being gay was a lie. It made him question everything the church had told him about anything.
"After that, I started to look for my worth in the eyes of what God would say, instead of what church friends would say, what former mentors would say, especially within the sports world," Sanders said.
After his stay at L'Abri, his new-found inner strength helped him come out with new confidence in early 2012. He shared his feelings with family, friends and members of his current and former ministries. When the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Prop 8 and DOMA, Sanders made it official, posting on social media that he's "proud to be a gay man."
One of the people he contacted was Kent Biery, executive director of the Christian sports camp, Summer's Best Two Weeks, where Sanders had dedicated his previous six summers. According to Sanders, Biery was taken aback.
"I heard fear in his voice," Sanders said. "What would the counselors and parents think if they knew Summer's Best Two Weeks employed a gay man for six years?"
The reaction was cold from many others at the camp. Thinking about applying for the Naval Officer's program, Sanders asked Biery and another camp staff member for a recommendation; They both denied his request. Sanders said one staff member told him, "I can no longer be your friend."
With the camp's policy against openly gay people serving as leaders, the organization that had embraced him as a counselor, a coach, and as the camp's athletic director for two years, suddenly disqualified him from returning.
"When I came out, all of that was taken away," Sanders said. "It wasn't taken away because I wasn't qualified, it was taken away because I said that I was gay."
Biery declined to comment for this story.
While the reaction was hurtful, Sanders understands it. Having rejected his own sexual orientation for many years, he can empathize with folks like Biery who have been told one thing about gay people all of their lives. To have the issue come straight before them - and from a close friend - can be jarring.
"I think many people in the Christian community don't know what to do with gay issues," he said. "So they respond in a way they've been conditioned to respond. And if they look at their actions, they wouldn't be OK with it."
Phoebe Turner had worked at the camp with Josh and grown very close to him. Turner and her husband, Tyler, were both varsity athletes at the University of Wisconsin. Devout Christians, they run a ministry with Athletes In Action, the national Christian athletes network.
"It disappointed me that Josh was turned away from a place that meant so much to him spiritually," Turner said over the phone while tending to her newborn. "Part of me was disappointed to hear it, because we know and love well the people who operate things [at the camp]. But I know they're operating from what they believe is the word of the scripture. I know they take seriously being role models to young kids. There was almost a gut instinct reaction to protect those kids from engaging in knowing somebody who is gay."
Turner expressed hope that the church is going through a period of rediscovery on this issue, and that it will eventually catch up to society in LGBT acceptance.
"There's a frustration with the slowness of change and engagement in the process, especially in our culture of instant everything," Turner said. "I'm just really thankful for the people God has put in my life from all sides, so I really feel like it's been a thought-provoking journey for me over the last few years to engage in this tension between faith and sexual identity. Sometimes I'm frustrated by it, but somethings I'm thankful for the progress that's been made and the bridges that have been built."
* * *
While he's been rejected by various Christian organizations over the last decade, this summer Sanders found purpose in his life. Instead of wallowing in resentment for how he's been cast aside, he is forging opportunities to build bridges between the LGBT and Christian communities.
Having been in and around athletics all his life, he's using sports as his tool. He has begun a relationship with GO! Athletes, the world's largest network of LGBT athletes. His work with them will focus on opening doors for Christian and LGBT athletes to communicate more openly and accept one another equally.
"We are thrilled to be working with Josh, as he continues to visibly show his pride of his Christianity and his LGBT identity," said GO! Athletes executive director Anna Aagenes. "Josh is not only building bridges between religious groups and LGBT communities, his story also gives hope to young people who still struggle to come out within religious communities. We are so proud of Josh, his story, and his desire to be authentic and true to himself as a Christian and a gay man."
He is also working with LGBT sports legend Pat Griffin and the NCAA. This January he will be part of a panel at the NCAA convention in San Diego entitled, LGBTQ Inclusion & Religion: Seeking Common Ground in Sports.
"This is an important topic that definitely needs exploring and I am very excited to have Josh participate in this program," Griffin said. "He is knowledgeable about it and can speak passionately from his experience as a gay Christian athlete."
While the Christian community may have further to go than the LGBT community in bridging the gap between perspectives, Sanders believes there's work to be done in both areas. He's just getting started.
"I want my LGBT community to know that they don't have to let go of their faith in God and be who they are," he said. "I think it parallels what I see in sports, that you shouldn't be treated any differently or bullied simply for the fact that you're gay. If you have a skill set to compete, then compete. Be who you are and play the sport you love.
"I don't want one more high school athlete or anyone to feel like they are less than who they are simply because they are gay. That's not Jesus. That's not whom Christianity is modeled after."
Sanders believes that telling his story and sharing his beliefs with both Christians and LGBT people is the most effective way to open hearts and mind.
Phoebe Turner has experienced that first-hand.
"As you know and interact with people who are different and have different sexual orientations, it makes it harder to put them in a box and judge them," Turner said. "I'm going to love my friends and love my family. Josh loves Jesus, and he's in a walk with the Lord, and God is meeting him where he's at. Who am I to step in and say something is right or wrong? I don't want to say it's easy to reconcile it all, but I think nothing is really black and white. I appreciate my friendship with Josh and him sharing his journey of faith, and I trust he knows Jesus.
"For me, it was never difficult to love him even after he came out."
Sanders has re-opened dialogue with Biery and Summer's Best Two Weeks. Still disappointed with their policy forbidden gay camp leaders, he's not going to let that stop him from sharing his perspective and finding common ground.
That common ground, he believes, is the rock from which to build bridges of understanding between these two seemingly disparate communities. For too long, the church has vilified homosexuality, creating a retaliatory vilification of the church within the LGBT community. Through sharing and focusing on how all people hope for similar things in life, Sanders knows he can bring these two communities measurably closer to love.
"I don't think people struggle with homosexuality," Sanders said. "I think they struggle with how they're treated, and they struggle with shame, and they struggle with fear. If they're coming from a faith-based background, or if faith is part of their community, they look at what God says about them, and nowhere does God say he hates them.
"We need to share our lives with people, because we're nothing like how some have painted us. And in sharing our lives, we educate people and bring us all closer to God."
You can follow Sanders on Twitter @joshbsanders. Find more information on GO! Athletes and their network of LGBT athletes at goathletes.org.
More from Outsports:
- Finding the word of God: Gay Christian athlete Josh Sanders on his search for the truth
- Orlando Cruz prepares for championship bout
- Jason Collins still unsigned a week before NBA training camps start
- My ALS story: Outsports reader Mark Kari reveals he has been diagnosed with the incurable disease
- Four Burgess Brothers on same rugby team and in the surf
- Podcast: Fallon Fox gets an apology. Can Kerry Rhodes get a job in the NFL?
- Soccer rainbow laces campaign flounders, forgets cardinal rule of sports: Play like a team