by Abigail Reikow
When we pulled into Birmingham, Alabama we all felt it. Maybe it was just goose bumps… but I’d like to believe that when I stood still and yet felt myself moving, it was more than just a breeze.
Samford University was the second school on our route, which was welcoming our presence. Upon arrival, we all commented on the beautiful landscape of the campus, the aesthetic charm that emanated from landscape designs and water fountains. A few of us arrived early to speak to a sociology class about our experiences and to answer any questions that might arise. I could hear my own heartbeat echoing through my body when we pulled up to campus as I scribbled on a notepad the things I felt were necessary to say.
In class, one by one the four of us (Angel, Casey, Josh, and myself) shared our stories and answered questions from the class. They watched us with wide eyes and while there were fewer than twenty in the class, I felt as though I was speaking to a generation of young adults, much like myself, often discontent with current conditions but too often left confused.
With that in mind, we proceeded to attend a forum in which four Equality Riders were the panelists. They spoke to an audience for which there were not enough seats. To our surprise, the students had just as many questions for their administration as they did for us. In some way, issues were danced around in regards to the execution of Samford policies because the faculty seemed somewhat hesitant to address our questions in reference to policies that fine individuals for committing “homosexual acts.” As the session grew to a close, one of the administrators at Samford had made it clear that the school merely prohibited any sexual activity outside the confines of marriage. One of our riders stood and introduced two other riders who were legally married in California. He continued by asking, “Would they, being a married couple, a marriage that was blessed by their congregation, be able to openly attend this university?” The administrator said that he could not speak for the entire school and declined to answer the question. However, throughout the day many students were discussing their ideas of what that answer would have been.
I was fortunate enough to have been part of the human rights presentation that was given at the law school. My group and I tried to utilize the innumerable movements through human, and specifically, American history that were generated because of a need for basic equality. We tried in many ways to provide information that would be useful to students who were pursing a career in law, highlighting the lack of housing, employment and protection that is provided for members of the LGBT community. We talked about Jesus, whom we believe to have been the first and greatest example of a human rights activist, a radical, a revolutionary.
While the visit was productive, with many opportunities for us to serve as a voice for a continually silenced community, it felt unfinished. I think about the physicality of the campus, complete with water fountains and well-nurtured trees. It is beautiful. It was very much like the community at Samford, beautiful, charming on a somewhat surface level. It felt too nice, too beautiful, like the fountains and green were merely providing an illusion to cover a more darker reality. Through many conversations on campus I heard repeated times that “Samford is very liberal and this doesn’t seem like much of a problem here” while I looked into the faces of closeted students on campus whose body language told me otherwise.
We were welcomed and engaged in dialogue but I felt as though I left a community that in some ways refused to see beyond the fountains, dig beneath the hills of green. I felt myself continually wanting to ask questions that created that necessary tension that would elicit growth beyond these seemingly beautiful gardens. I thought perhaps that I was being unfair and too quickly making assumptions. Then again, I was looking around at a campus of an overwhelming white majority in a city that is home to a more diverse demographic.
To complete our stay, we visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute this morning. I walked around in silence, listening to the recordings of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth. I gazed at pictures of young black school children entering buildings with bystanders screaming at them. Standing there staring at a piece of one of the original buses from the Freedom Rides, I began feeling that same sensation that was felt when we pulled into, what my fellow rider would call, “the human rights holy land.” Those goose bumps started once again to rise, while we stood at the corner of the 16th Street Baptist Church. I could, again, simply say that it was just the breeze but that wouldn’t explain the whispers I felt at my ears, moving my heart, and leading me on. And with a shudder I boarded the bus, leaving behind an unfinished but bellowing Birmingham.
by Stephen Krebs
NB: This journal is PART TWO of a two-part blog on our Sit-in at SBTS. The first half of the day is recounted by a Rider who was jailed. Sorry for any confusion, and I’ll post the first day as soon as I can. – Ed.
Ten of the 22 Equality Riders who had participated in the sit-in left the office of Dr. Mohler voluntarily and were not arrested, while 12 of the riders stayed in an act of peaceful civil disobedience. Those who left voluntarily walked to the edge of campus and stood on the public sidewalk in support of the riders who stayed. Once we were off campus and standing on public property, we sang songs and spoke with members of the media who had gathered to cover the story.
The 12 Riders who stayed were arrested for trespassing and driven away in police vehicles, including: Rachel, Bronwen, Angel, Robin, Abby, Casey, Mandy, Curt, Josh, Bram, Brandy, and Amanda.
After they were driven away, we walked to a nearby Starbucks to regroup and use the internet. Jarrett Lucas spoke with Phoenix from the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, who was able to round up supporters to meet us back at the school for a vigil. Around 5 pm, we gathered on the edge of campus holding signs that said “God made me gay on purpose”, “honk for fairness” and other similar messages. We received a lot of supportive honks and waves. We received a lot more honks of support than I expected; it was encouraging.
Later we went to downtown Louisville and had dinner while we waited for the Riders who had been arrested to be released. Several people at the restaurants we were at recognized us from the local media coverage and came up to thank us for our efforts. By 11pm, all of the Riders who had been arrested had been released, except for Angel Collie. The bus took everyone back to the hotel, but Jarrett Lucas and I waited at the jail for Angel‘s release. For some reason it took several more hours and he wasn’t released until 3:30 AM, even though he had been charged with the same offense and brought in with the rest of the group. The explanation that was given was that it had taken longer to verify his address. We took a cab back to the hotel and went to bed.
It was a long and exhausting day, but I’m glad we were able to take a stand against Mohler’s comments. I went to bed content with our efforts and thankful for the support we received from the local community members. Moehler’s comments were so out of line and immoral that I believe they required a dramatic response. Our sit-in helped to bring more attention to how dangerous his remarks were and it was clear that many people in Louisville agreed.
by Bill Carpenter
One of the constant companions of the Equality Ride is the sense of anticipation. With the exception of the west bus co-directors and me, this two month adventure is a giant unknown for all of the west bus Riders. Where will we sleep tonight? What’s this church that is hosting our dinner tonight going to be like? Will we get to meet students and make new friends today…or, will we be greeted by a contingency of police and threatened with immediate arrest? It’s not unlike a day in most of our lives…it just feels like there are hugely different implications.
It’s with that sense of anticipation that we boarded the bus in Calabasas, a small town just over the mountain from Malibu, CA and Pepperdine University. We’d had a wonderfully satisfying two days at Pepperdine and were now headed up to the San Francisco Bay area, specifically Berkeley, home of the Free Speech movement of the ‘60’s and so many other movements for the liberation of oppressed people, for two days of group work, tweaking our presentations, addressing our strengths and weaknesses in how we interact with the college and university communities with which we’re meeting. Everyone feels the responsibility of doing our very best as we have unique opportunities to connect with students at our upcoming “dialogue” schools.
Fresno Pacific University, with a student handbook statement which states ”The University is opposed to homosexual, premarital and extramarital sexual relations” is our next stop. With such an exclusionary statement as this, there’s no safe space for LGBT students at FPU. We are determined to bring with us, some way, some gift from God, that will create a more open and safe atmosphere for FPU’s LGBT students.
So, our work here in Berkeley feels really vital. Hosted by long time Soulforce friend Pastor Jeff Johnson at the University Lutheran Chapel (located just a few short blocks from University of California Berkeley campus), we spent nearly eight full hours reaching even more deeply for the stories and presentations that will effectively communicate the life or death nature of our visit. We know that suicide is too often the chosen response to the condemnation and intolerance of many of these Christian schools and everyone of us are radically committed to bringing this confused and dangerous system of religion based oppression down. Like David standing against Goliath, we have our sling loaded with pebbles of truth and of new thought and we’re determined to “slay the giant.”
We broke into groups and self analyzed our behavior on past campuses…how did we interact with students? Did we approach them with a loving spirit? Were there too many of us in the groups? How can we represent LGBT people with integrity and genuine love? Back in the larger group of all 26 Riders…we shared where we thought we were effective and where we needed to work to improve.
Then, we repeated the process looking specifically at our language. Stories. Verses. Tone. Slang. Everything we could think of that just might make a difference between inclusion and exclusion of LGBT students. I think all of us carry a huge burden of representing LGBT people in a positive way. While none of us are alike, it feels vital that we show up in a manner that doesn’t get in the way of our message–that neither our appearance nor our words would take away from the possibility of enlightenment.
On Friday, our second day in Berkeley, we had time for the everyday chores that accompany a tour such as this. Some of us washed clothes or traveled to a grocery store to “re-stock” our traveling mini-pantries. And at noon, we boarded the bus for a short but exciting afternoon/evening in the city…San Francisco! The City by the Bay! And more! We started the afternoon with a tour of the GLBT History Center on Mission Street. Tucked away unobtrusively on the third floor of a downtown office building, the Center has a huge archive of GLBT history…everything from Harry Hay to the Daughters of Bilitis are chronicled here–history that many college age LGBT people haven’t had the opportunity to learn.
And then…folks set off for an all too short tour of one of America’s great cities. The bridge…the Haight…the Castro…the Wharf. So much to see and so little time! But the Equality Ride isn’t really about touring or shopping or having a good time. Our first commitment is to bringing down this system of religion based oppression that is stifling voices and causing so much pain in our lives and the lives of our families. I hope we can all come back to San Francisco and Berkeley in a few short years…when the truth of every LGBT person’s worth is unquestioned, and when every human being is respected for the intrinsic value within each of us.
by Jonathan Hilbrands
Tuesday, March 27 was our second day at Pepperdine University. After sharing breakfast with Pepperdine representatives, we had time to walk through campus and talk with students. The Pepperdine campus is absolutely beautiful. It sits on a mountain in Malibu, CA. As we ate breakfast, we looked out the windows at the vast Pacific Ocean. At night, it was so beautiful to see the lights dot the mountain landscape. My eyes played tricks on me, as the night sky was indistinguishable from the gentle waves of the Pacific.
In the afternoon, we partnered with students from Pepperdine for a trip to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The museum was an amazing experience. Through a variety of exhibits and interactions, we saw the effects that intolerance can have on the world. Remember Oklahoma City, September 11th, and Matthew Shepherd…these are some of the events that we re-lived through our visit to the Museum of Tolerance. At the end, many people were in tears. I truly feel that this was an important experience to share with the students and faculty of Pepperdine University.
When we returned to Pepperdine, we shared dinner and some closing remarks, then headed up to Heroes Garden. Pepperdine created the Garden in remembrance of an alumni who died on United Flight 93. Looking out into the Malibu night, and gazing out across the ocean, we sang songs of peace as the Equality Ride visit to Pepperdine came to a close. This visit was special for many of us because we built lasting new friendships with the students.
Please keep the LGBT student group at Pepperdine in your prayers. They are currently working to gain official recognition from the administration.
by Rebecca Buck
Following an afternoon of community gatherings in southern California, the Westbound Equality Riders rested up and prepared for our fifth school stop. We left our hotel at 6:30 on Monday morning to drive to Pepperdine University in Malibu. As we approached the campus, I reflected on this school’s choice to welcome us into more than twenty-four hours of conversation and fellowship over a period of two days. We spent significant time in Las Vegas and Long Beach reworking our four core presentations, but I had no idea what to anticipate from the presentations given by Pepperdine faculty and staff. Nor could I directly translate our experiences at MidAmerica Nazarene, the only other welcoming campus so far, into expectations for Pepperdine.
Listening to co-organizers Jillian Nye and Brian Murphy explain the schedule, I noticed with appreciation the many signs of active welcome: the inclusion they sought by integrating parts of our visit into existing campus activities; the good faith they exhibited in allowing us to travel their campus unescorted; the hospitality they generously extended in the form of six meals; the atmosphere deliberately set by beginning the visit with prayer, the breaking of bread together, and a sermon against homophobia. I grew full of nervous anticipation.
When we finally arrived on campus (a bit late—there’s LA traffic for you!), I was able to experience these promises of welcome lived out. As we exited the bus, we were greeted by key staff members and a host of student leaders, many of whom were also members of the LGBT community at Pepperdine. The campus was veiled in fog, everything in the distance muted. On a campus renowned for its beautiful location, I decided this weather was a disguised blessing, narrowing our awareness down to those people whom we had come to visit and freeing us from superficial distractions.
During the short prayer service, two things stood out. One: In contrast to other visits where we could not even hold hands to pray with church members, here we were invited to offer the opening prayer. Two: the emphasis Churches of Christ place on worship through vocal music carried over into a beautiful call-and-response prayer in which, without books or accompaniment, we Equality Riders could easily participate.
After a catered breakfast, we attended a sermon entitled “Why Homophobia is Not a Christian Value.” More affective than Mr. Durham’s talk was his willingness to walk to the student lounge with us afterwards, talking about language choice and points he might include in his future delivery of this speech. This genuine interest in how he could better serve the LGBT community would be valued enough ordinarily, but his interest was particularly impressive when we discovered he was supposed to be headed to his own birthday party.
Over lunch, Pepperdine administration granted us free use of a microphone and stage. We shared stories, video and poetry about our experiences. Several key staff members were not only present and observing, but reactive to our informal presentations. With some trepidation, we returned to the chapel for a presentation on “What Does the Bible Say About Homosexuality?” given by Rick Marrs, Associate Dean of Seaver College and Professor of Religion. Despite a written synopsis offering a balanced dialogue, I admit I feared a one-sided lecture on what the Bible says to Pepperdine. I heard, instead, a brief overview of traditional and non-traditional hermeneutics across the passages most commonly used to condemn people in the LGBT community.
Although Dean Marrs did not own a preference for a single school of interpretation, he implied one through apparent complacence with church and school treatment of LGBT individuals and their relationships. Still, I felt that the clear and brisk nature of the talk inspired the kinds of questions that are useful to continuing dialogue. I would have loved to see our Progressive Theology presenters follow this conversation with a more specific response to the question of hermeneutics, particularly as this issue later resurfaced after our presentation on “In God’s Image: Identity & Scripture.”
At dinner, I found myself seated with several of the top-ranking administrators at Pepperdine. As a continuing sign of his investment in this dialogue and in us as people, Dean Baird remembered our conversation from the morning’s prayer service well enough to introduce me to the room largely by memory, even down to my score on the LSAT (a figure I wish he’d forgotten, in fact). We riders provided solid recommendations for ways to create a more inclusive campus, such as increasing the number of gender-neutral bathrooms and creating optional LGBT-friendly student housing.
We had good turnout for our final on-campus event, the presentation on how best to live out the Christian call to serve as an ally. I was thrilled that Pepperdine incorporated this talk into their Social Action and Justice Colloquium program.
Then we headed to the beach, where we met with current LGBT students to socialize and to dig deeper into life at Pepperdine. It was also a great chance to see Chuck Phelan (chairman of the board of Soulforce) and his partner Steve McIntyre, especially as Chuck and Steve had just received a postcard from me. As we relaxed together, I thought to myself, “What better way to end our sixteen hour day than with hot cider and cinnamon, a fire, the ocean, and a wonderful group of LGBT people?”
I feel very excited about tomorrow and the next few weeks at Pepperdine as this conversation continues. It is important, however, that my enthusiasm and respect for the University’s efforts thus far not be taken as a failure to challenge still further work on their part.
Like Notre Dame, Pepperdine a) earns national recognition for its academic programs, b) is religiously affiliated, and c) admits openly gay students. Unlike Notre Dame, Pepperdine treated the Soulforce Equality Ride accordingly, choosing to live up to the responsibilities entailed by all three characteristics listed above. This willingness to confront head-on the implicated issues, however, does not itself create an environment that affirms the wholeness and integrity of its LGBT members. Pepperdine’s unofficial GSA (Malibu GLEE, Gays Lesbians and Everyone Else) comprises a wonderful group of students who deserve official recognition, particularly if Pepperdine is to stand by the message I heard over and over again from some of its highest administrators: that while further dialogue may be required in this community, Christian love of gay individuals is unequivocal. If this is a starting point on which we can agree, then Pepperdine University, we are calling you to live by your words. Until LGBT individuals can freely exercise full voice and self-representation on this campus, there is division within the body of Christ.
by Jamie McDaniel
by Emily Van Kley
“There might be a few more people than usual,” said Tristan, the BYU student who was walking Brian, Brandon, Jonathan and I to an apartment where other students had gathered for a weekly off-campus discussion group noted for its lively, late-night exchanges about everything from ecological building to the ethics of war. It was already after nine o’clock. The streets of Provo were dark and the sidewalk glinted under our feet, still damp from an early evening rain. Fifteen people, I was thinking, maybe twenty. These were college students after all. How many people had enough leftover energy after a full day of attending classes, writing papers, and taking care of the various social and institutional minutiae that go along with campus life to show up and listen to a handful of activists from out of town? After about six blocks, we arrived at a sweet little two story with red filigreed doors. Tristan brought us down the walk and motioned us inside. Brian stepped ahead of me into the entryway and, as I tried to decide whether or not this was a household where I needed to take off my shoes, he opened the door to the living room. Just as quickly, he closed it and bulged his eyes at the rest of us. “Oh wow,” he said.
I decided to keep the shoes on and followed him into a room absolutely crammed with students. I knew immediately what he’d meant. The six or seven chairs were occupied, often with someone perched on each arm. The walls were lined, and rows of people snaked across the floor, their legs drawn up tight so as not to bump the people in front. I stepped carefully on the few spaces of carpet between bodies, hoping I wouldn’t bang somebody in the head with my bag. At the front of the room there was flurry of motion while a couch was cleared off for us to sit on. Later, a student would tell me that there had been about seventy people in that space, and, as our conversation continued, more and more people kept showing up, inching their way in the door. When we asked if these were all BYU students, the whole room shook its head, yes.
We gave a very abbreviated version of our presentation about progressive theology, and as people began asking questions about family and the nature of the Celestial Kingdom, I felt both grateful and awed. Here we were in Provo, having been told again and again by BYU that the university was so certain that its Honor Code, which prohibits not only ‘homosexual practice’ (undefined) but also any implied or explicit advocacy or association, was solid LDS policy, that it need not be questioned, that dialogue about sexual orientation and gender identity weren’t appropriate on campus. And still the five of us Equality Riders were sitting amidst seventy students or more students who’d decided to give up a night of preparation for their classes, to give up the desire to simply be comfortable with school policy, to give up any semblance of personal space, just to talk with us.
We were all tired. We’d had a day of giving presentations at Utah Valley University, of talking with students, of attending a panel presentation of current and former BYU students at the Provo City Library. Aaron was in his second day of a debilitating cold, I was getting over an upper respiratory infection, but I am sure there is nowhere any of us would have rather been for those nearly two hours. The students asked difficult questions, and we answered from our hearts. No matter who was speaking, the feeling in the room was one of great respect and deep listening. This is a testament to the women who started this group and the way they have been facilitating it for several years, to be sure. But I think it is also a testament to the fact that when we accept each other’s right to ask questions based on personal experience with the Divine, conversations of incredible richness are possible.
That night, I learned a great deal not only about LDS Doctrine, but also about the possibilities of dissent within the church. I learned that there was already a group of students working on creating a safe space for LGBT people at their university. I learned that, regardless of BYU’s policies to the contrary, there is a great hunger among students to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity in their communities, and that these conversations can be had with deep respect for all the people involved.