By the age of 18, Kim Zember was leading what she called a double life.
She had a boyfriend, she would attend Mass with her family every Sunday – and then go meet the woman she was secretly seeing at the time for drinks by the pool.
“Katy Perry sang that she kissed a girl and she liked it. I did too…and I liked it! What’s the big deal?” Zember writes in the introduction to her new personal-testimony-turned-book: “Restless Heart: My struggle with life and sexuality.”
So, what was the big deal?
Zember, a California girl born and raised Catholic, found that no matter how much she pursued relationships with women, she was never at peace. She recognized unhealthy patterns in her relationships. Many times, she was dating women who were already married – to men. At one point in her early 20s, she was the married one, cheating on her husband with another woman. For a long time, her relationships were mostly a secret.
“I knew it was wrong. Why else keep it a secret?” Zember, now 36, wrote. She said she felt “addicted” to women, and would enter a new relationship as soon as an old one ended. In a lot of ways, she said, she was frantically dating to avoid a deep-seated fear of being alone.
“We thirst for love. We thirst to be known. We thirst to be approved,” Zember told CNA. “We thirst for all these things, but that’s not the bad part because [God] allowed us to thirst for the thing. Where we go wrong is when we fulfill that desire outside of him.”
“When God says he’s enough, he means it,” she added. “And it’s not that he might be – it’s that he is. And see, I just never took him at his word.”
At least, she didn’t for many years, as she dated both men and women in her search for love and her true identity.
Because her relationships with women did not sit well with her, Zember sought out what she thought would be sound Christian advice, first from a Christian counselor, and then from two different priests in her life.
Every time, they were compassionate, Zember said, but they were not truthful. They told Zember that her relationships with women were fine, and that the Church needed to “catch up with the times.”
“It was out of compassion,” Zember said. “But compassion without the truth of God is false compassion.”
And it was never enough to put Zember at peace.
“I believe that I had this incorruptible seed that God has given me, that he did not let me accept lies as truth,” she said.
“For me, when lies were told, even if they were told out of compassion, God did not allow that to be settled as true,” she said. “I’m very thankful – though it was frustrating (at the time) and though a big part of me desired to believe it.”
At one point, Zember was secretly dating a woman named Katie, and it was during this relationship that Zember’s attraction to women accidentally became public. A friend caught a moment of physical affection between Katie and Kim, and within a few days, Kim received a call from her brother.
“Kim, what’s going on with you and that girl, Katie?” he asked.
Zember told her brother everything, as well as her parents. Though they all treated her with compassion, she said, none of them were compromising about the truth of Christ with her.
“I never questioned my parents’ love for me,” she said. “I did question whether or not they loved what I was doing.”
After she was “caught” with Katie, Zember tried being more open and public about her relationships. Her friends and family knew that she dated women, and she would hold hands or kiss the women she was dating in public.
She was told by several people that living openly and being accepting would be enough to put her mind at ease and her heart at peace.
But it still never felt right, and every time someone asked her point-blank if she was “gay,” Zember would balk at the label.
“For me, I couldn’t explain then why I didn’t identify as gay, except for the fact that I knew that wasn’t my identity,” she said.
“I didn’t know what my identity was. I just knew it wasn’t gay….It was like, well, I understand that I’m doing this, that this is a lifestyle I am living. But I just couldn’t agree that that made me who I was,” she added.
There were moments of clarity with God for Zember as she wrestled with her sexuality and identity. One of those moments was when, as a young and successful realtor in California, she prayed for God to reveal her heart to herself. In that prayer, God brought back a childhood desire of hers, which was to serve the poor in Africa – a desire that had come after hearing a talk from a missionary priest.
That prayer was the beginning of what is now Unforgotten Faces, a non-profit founded by Zember that helps single mothers and their children in Ethiopia. The ministry was the fruit of many trips and periods of living in Ethiopia, during which Zember said God was showing her “that the world does not revolve around myself.”
“It was so drastic, the level of need that human beings were in, and to get to see it firsthand…for me, I believe it was a way that God got into my heart to break it or to begin to break it, because he’s still breaking off that selfishness,” she said.
“It’s really hard to see others when you can’t see past yourself. I believe the Lord in his graciousness used Ethiopia to open my eyes and open my heart to others and to begin to entertain the idea of living a life of service to others instead of a life for self,” she said.
It would still take many cycles of relationships with women, moments of clarity with God, pursuing mission work in Ethiopia, and then back to dating women in California, until October 17, 2014, which is the day Zember celebrates as the day she truly surrendered her life to God.
“I surrender. I surrender the thing I haven’t given You. I surrender relationships to you, God,” she prayed.
She told God that she would not date anyone – man or woman – for an entire year, so that she could focus on her relationship with him. That day, she attended a prayer meeting with a friend, which left her feeling overwhelmingly at peace, “indescribably happy,” with a “hunger for God” and everything that he wanted for her life.
Zember’s life changed drastically that day. She turned fervently to her mission work, she sent messages apologizing to all the people she had hurt throughout her life. Her taste in music and movies changed, and she felt a true sense of freedom.
That day was real, Zember wrote, and the year of no dating and pursuing only God was one of the most spiritually fruitful in her life so far.
But that doesn’t mean she was perfect from that day forward, she noted. In the following chapters of the book, Zember recalled how some well-intentioned relationships turned sour, and how she continually needed – and still needs – to keep turning back to the Lord.
“I speak on a lot of Protestant platforms and, I get asked the question all the time – ‘When were you saved?’” Zember said.
She said she likes to respond: “‘Well, let’s be real. It was at the cold waters of baptism when I was an infant.’ That always strikes up a conversation.”
Zember said she included these moments of stumbling in her book even after her surrender to God because conversion is not a “one and done” process.
“There’s a cooperation of grace. His grace, I cannot earn. His grace, I do not deserve, but I can receive it and I can ask him to help me to work with it,” she said.
“Through this process of many different encounters I’ve had with the Lord daily, I believe he’s sanctifying me just as he is everybody else from day to day. It’s not a one hit. He’s not a magician. It’s a relationship. My relationship with him is constantly growing, especially the more I seek him.”
Zember never intended to publicly share her testimony about her relationship with God and her same-sex attractions.
“I actually resisted it,” she said.
While accompanying a friend doing ministry at a women’s prison, Zember felt God calling her to speak about homosexuality, and she told him: “That ain’t me, God. I suggest you whisper that to someone else.”
But the calling did not go away, and Zember finally gave in – and volunteered to share her testimony at the women’s prison.
“I realized what was holding me back was myself, and what will people think of me? What about my reputation, or my image, or self-love?” she said.
“And so, I thought, ‘Okay, well, you know what? It can’t hurt. Well, it could hurt actually,’” she said, noting that she was afraid she might get “beat up” for speaking about such a controversial topic at a prison.
“But I thought, I’ll try it this one time, because apparently there’s a big need, and we’ll see what happens.”
To her surprise, nobody left the room during her testimony. Many were crying, and by the end the women stood up and applauded. Many wanted to talk one-on-one afterwards.
After that talk, Zember shared her testimony more freely, and soon enough she founded her second ministry, Overcome, for people who also want to live in Christ’s truth about homosexuality.
The ministry started as more of a landing page for all of the “overwhelming” responses she was getting to sharing her testimony, Zember said.
“But all positive. All people seeking hope,” she said. “And sharing that they found hope in what I shared, and that they desire the same thing or similar in their life…it was a flood of people reaching out from all over the world.”
Like with her other ministry in Ethiopia, Zember said she started Overcome ultimately because of an invitation from God.
“So again, God invited me to say, ‘Hey, can you stop looking at yourself and see the need that I have before you?’ He doesn’t need me, but he does say that the harvest is ripe and the laborers are few. And so I was like, ‘Okay, well then, let’s do this.’”
It was out of this same kind of invitation that Zember wrote her testimony in “Restless Heart.” And her message, she said, is a simple one.
“I pray that people can see that God is good, that he loves us, and that he is for us and not against us. And every one of his ways, that have been preserved in Scripture, that have been preserved by the Catholic Church, are for our good and for the glory of God.”