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oulforce, a social-justice charity in Abilene, Tex., takes the message of gay acceptance into places that are unlikely to want to hear it: the campuses of Christian colleges and universities, where students who come out of the closet can lose their scholarships, be expelled, or even be forced into controversial “reparative” therapies designed to end same-sex desires.
The charity’s annual Equality Rides, now in their seventh year, feature a brightly painted bus and up to 35 young gay-rights activists—each extensively trained in the techniques of nonviolent confrontation—who spend around eight weeks calling on Christian colleges across the country.
by Soulforce Admin
Check out some of the 2012 Soulforce Equality Ride accomplishments:
by Soulforce Admin
Photo Credit: Micheal Fontenot
By current George Fox University Student, A.J. Mendoza
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic cords of memory will swell when again touched as surely they will be by the better angels of our nature.”
Abraham Lincoln delivered that quote during his first inaugural address in 1861, and it is one of my favorites. He spoke those words to a nation that was just about to descend into a terrible state of conflict. Tension was high, and disagreements ran deep, but he called upon the people he lead to remember those deeper things, and believed that a spirit of reconciliation was needed.
My name is A.J. Mendoza. I’m 21 years old, I’m gay, and my preferred gender pronouns are he, him, and his. I am studying Political Science and History and am going to be a senior at George Fox University.
I believe that the current state of things between the church and the LGBTQ community is similar to a state of war, and unfortunately, war never changes. Each of the “combatants” ends up suffering immensely. Likewise, the “non-combatants” are made to endure various inhumanities. This is my understanding: I see adults on both “sides” fighting it out with each other on the floors of Congress and across picket lines. Meanwhile, children who may just be realizing that they are queer distill out of this conflict a message of “my humanity is being debated” or “I have no hope for a happy future” and decide to end their lives.
My goal during the rest of my time at George Fox, and indeed for the rest of my life, will be to do what I can to end this conflict through a steadfast commitment to non-violence. George Fox University is a Quaker institution; however, the student body is predominantly Baptist. During my first two and a half years here, I found that LGBTQ issues were not spoken of well, if ever. If you were to openly identify as gay, you would face social ostracizing, and good luck trying to find roommates. The qualification you would need to find acceptance would be to say, “I struggle with same-sex attraction.” Another indicator to the health of the dialogue on campus is how many students end up coming out after graduation.
I do not want to say that GFU is the only place that deals with incidents of homophobia; however, unlike other universities, the students who experience it do not see the systems of power (Res Life, Administration) as resources to help them. We have a Lifestyle Agreement that all students must sign, and under the section that speaks to sexual purity, homosexuality is listed as an unacceptable behavior. Under the current policy, even a non-sexual homosexual relationship would be a violation. There are certainly individual professors and pastors on campus who do not agree with the policy, and make themselves privately available to LGBTQ students, but they are not allowed to publically voice their disagreement.
As this year progressed, I felt increasingly called to do something to advance the dialogue and a safe place for LGBTQ students at my school. This idea manifested as a chain email that I originally sent out to 15 people to see if they were interested in starting something, and if they were, to reply and forward the email along to others. We quickly received twenty replies, and when we met for the first time we adopted the name Common Ground. We began meeting at local coffee shop, but we quickly outgrew the space and now two churches in Newberg have opened their doors to us. We have adopted a constitution and have a team of dedicated officers. Currently, we are 80 students strong and are the largest (albeit still unrecognized by ASC) club on campus. An LGBTQA alumni group named OneGeorgeFox and the Metropolitan Community Church in Portland has also offered us their heartfelt support.
We are a diverse group of students; some in the club identify as LGBTQ, many come to the club as straight allies, and some do not know were they stand or even think that homosexuality is a sin. However, all who are in Common Ground believe strongly that the issue is not handled well here, and are firmly committed to sending the message that God loves you, whatever your sexual orientation or gender identity may be. To the students I encounter on campus who are suspect of Common Ground, I wish that even for 10 seconds I could give them my eyes. If they could only see a student, who carries the weight of staying in the closet with them all day on their floors and with their families, come to life and smile during a meeting, they would know why we have to exist.
The LGBTQ students in Common Ground are some of the most courageous people I know. They are taking unprecedented steps in telling their stories and are continuing to stay lovingly engaged with a church that they have every right to be angry at. The straight allies who have come to join the club have also personally moved me. I know that they are not gaining any popularity points by joining Common Ground, and it certainly is not a resume building opportunity. They have made a conscious choice to enter into relationships with people who they may have been told their whole lives are trying to undermine the family. If these are the future leaders of the church, then our youth have many reasons to hold on to hope.
It was a joy for us to meet the Soulforce Equality Riders as they visited GFU. They are needed here to keep maturing the new dialogue, and the power of the stories they shared cannot be denied. Common Ground is committed to continuing to support and serve LGBTQ students and will again seek ASC recognition in the Fall. To my friends at other CCU schools: take heart – even if the resistance seems incredible, I have faith you can begin making it better! Incredible things are happening on our campus; a spirit of reconciliation is beginning to bind up the old wounds and the rift between the two communities will shrink. Surely, the better angels of our nature are at work at GFU.
by Soulforce Admin
Photo Credit: protographer23
By Equality Rider Ibrahim Vicks
One of my favorite scriptures in the Bible is 1 John chapter 4, where it talks about our love of God and each other. Specifically, verse 18 talks about how there is no fear in love, that perfect love drives out fear. It speaks on the torment caused by fear, and that anyone who is fearful cannot be made perfect in love. My mind immediately made a connection from this verse to Romans 13:10, which states that “love works no ill unto its neighbor.” Love drives out fear and does no ill. In the last two months, I have been listening to Christian identified college students, teachers and administrators use the phrase “we love everyone” or even “we love gay people.” But, according to the scriptures, it is impossible to love someone when that love causes them harm. It is impossible to love gay people when your “love” causes the torments of bullying, harassment, hate crimes, policy and practice that bars rights and even causes condemnation and exile from the church. This is not love according to the Bible, because love works no ill unto its neighbor and (to finish this verse), therefore, it is the fulfilling of the law. So, if we really want to come from a place of love, we need to start doing some self reflection.
First, we must accept the fact the fact that, if our love causes someone else harm and/or does not drive out fear, it is not perfect. We see ourselves as the imperfect children of a perfect being. Yet, the audacity we have is astounding. If we are fearful of receiving love, then we cannot be made perfect in it.
Therefore, we must go to those we have wronged and heal them. True reconciliation can come only when our oppressors meet us to take responsibility for their words and actions; likewise, we must be willing to meet our oppressors in a space where we can feel safe enough to express our pain and the torment we faced at their hands. These two things are crucial in the healing process. It is that “third space” that we strive for in the pursuit of nonviolence. We are all accountable for the hurt we cause in others and responsible for correcting those mistakes and restoring them. We also need to be open to the healing and allow for the process to take place. Love is an amazing thing, and can perform amazing wonders; we just have to guide it well and let it do its own thing.
About the Blogger:
Ibrahim Vicks is the Youth Planning Committee president at the Attic Youth Center, an LGBTQ youth center in Philadelphia.
by Soulforce Admin
Photo Credit: Cole Parke
By Equality Rider Cole Parke
My first trip to Colorado was in 1998. I was traveling by bus from San Antonio, Texas, along with 23 other awkward adolescents from St. Francis Episcopal Church for our youth group’s annual ski trip. Fourteen years later, I find myself rolling through the Rockies on another sort of bus. In many ways, very little has changed – our forward momentum is fueled by diesel and caffeine, our bellies are begrudgingly filled with fast food and truck stop delicacies, sleeping bodies are contorted into odd shapes at uncomfortable angles, those who can’t sleep pass the time by taking compromising pictures of their snoozing comrades, my Discman has been replaced by an iPod but the Spice Girls are still my jam, and though I no longer think that my life will be over if I don’t get to play the solo French horn part in my next high school band concert, I’m still pretty awkward.
Sprawled out among the 52 seats, there are only 17 of us this time around. None of us endeavored to conquer Black Diamonds or perfect our backside 360 during our time here, but we did arrive with high aspirations. When we rolled into Colorado Springs, we had already been on the road for six weeks and were excited for some high-altitude training. As our lungs slowly acclimated, we launched into an intensive week that would ultimately test our hearts and spirits far more than our bodies. In the span of our first three days, we visited New Life Church (a non-affirming mega church), studied scripture with Pastor Ted Haggard, met with members of Focus on the Family’s leadership team, engaged with Young Life Ministries, and coordinated a direct action at Colorado Christian University.
In some ways, this work is a sort of consensual masochism. Throughout history, LGBTQ people have experienced untold amounts of violence – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Sadly, this violence has often come at the hands of Christians. LGBTQ people are told over and over again, “We love you, but not your sin.” This equates to the message that we are welcome at the table, but only if we bring an incomplete version of who we understand ourselves to be. Rather than protest or negotiate, most LGBTQ people have simply walked away.
I have to admit that at times I’ve been tempted to do the same, but the truth is, I can’t. Regardless of the hurt inflicted and despite my own theological reservations, Christianity is a part of me. No matter how much I’ve tried to distance myself, church bells still sound like home, and the radical liberating message of Jesus continues to compel my heart, mind, and soul.
Soulforce is an organization grounded in the principles of nonviolence, so much of our time is devoted to the study and practice of that philosophy. One of the lessons that stuck out most prominently during our initial training was the notion that freedom isn’t the opposite of slavery; the opposite of slavery is, in fact, community. To clarify: if we free ourselves from oppression only to wind up isolated, we haven’t really gained anything. Instead, we must work toward a future that embraces all – both the oppressed and the oppressors – because when even one person is oppressed, we all become victims. We all suffer when a community is fractioned, and we all benefit when that same community is made whole.
It can be easy to simply demonize those who do not support equality and inclusion for LGBTQ people; however, if we truly want to effect long lasting change, we need to recognize that those who oppose us are our neighbors, and whether our love/identity is affirmed or not, they will continue to be a part of our lives. If we refuse to reach out to them, we’re only perpetuating the divide that has already caused far too much pain.
Focus on the Family still refuses to celebrate queer families; Colorado Christian University still believes that the “homosexual lifestyle” is sinful; Young Life still doesn’t allow LGBTQ people to serve in leadership roles… in short, there is still so much work to be done here, but I firmly believe that change is possible. Change begins with relationship, and relationship is irrevocable – I will never again think of Focus on the Family without thinking about Gary Schneeberger’s warm smile and compassionate eyes, and I have to believe that he will never forget the day that he ate lunch with 17 Soulforce Equality Riders and heard their stories, their hopes, and their dreams.
In 1998, I left Colorado with sore muscles and bruised hip. This year, I leave with a hopeful heart and an unshaken belief that God loves and affirms LGBTQ people, just the way they are. May that message be heard in the hearts and minds of all God’s people.
About the Blogger:
Lauren Cole Parke is currently pursuing a Master’s in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Connect with Cole:
Hairvolutions (a project of Cole’s)
by Soulforce Admin
Photo Credit: Cole Parke
By Equality Rider Eric Dean Karabetsos
Salt Lake City. The capital of the LDS church.
For me, while I had left the church almost 6 years ago, this was a homecoming for me – a time of reflection, growth, and an epic journey of discovery.
I left the church in April of 2006 after I had sat down and read the New Testament cover to cover for the first time. By the time I had gotten to the end, I knew I was changed – changed in the sense that God had given me a very strong desire to seek a new path to him.
Flash forward to 2012, and here I am back in Salt Lake City. This time, I did not come as an adoring member of the church, but as a 2012 Soulforce Equality Rider, here to bring to light all the damage the church has done to people who identify as LGBTQ.
Coming back to Salt Lake was a lot of things for me; but, if I had to pick just one word to sum it up, it would be bittersweet.
I had been looking forward to the Salt Lake stop ever since it was announced because I knew that, in visiting this place, my life would come full circle – I would be returning to the place of my spiritual “birth,” so to speak.
During the drive from Denver, I had come to know just how much influence the church had in making sure California’s Proposition 8 was passed. I was in tears when I found out. It’s safe to say that this newfound knowledge I had put me on edge as I went into a meeting with five Soulforce Equality Riders and five public affairs officials of the LDS church.
For me, the meeting was an intersection of my faith background, where I am now in my walk with God, and the work I am doing with Soulforce. In the end, I felt that we had all had the opportunity to share our stories and understand each other better despite our differences.
Overall, I really enjoyed being back on temple square. After all these many, many years, I can say that, if it wasn’t for Soulforce, it never would’ve happened – and I’m so thankful that it did.
About the Blogger:
Eric, from Pittsburg, PA, has been looking for opportunities to promote equality, and believes God led him to Soulforce.
by Soulforce Admin
Photo Credit: Makenzie Marineau
By Equality Ride Guest Blogger Bree Adams
My name is Bree Adams. I am 19 years old, and my preferred gender pronouns are she, her and hers. I am a freshman at Colorado Christian University, where, on April 17th, the Soulforce Equality Riders came and visited.
I found out about the Soulforce Equality Riders coming to CCU through an email explaining why my administration would not be letting them onto campus. I was appalled at the lack of compassion that was being displayed and knew someone would have to welcome them and show the love and compassion that my home church taught me to display to everyone. I thought of how some of my LGBTQ friends are “turned off” by the church, and as I was reading the emails sent out to my student body, I realized why.
I sent an email to the Soulforce Equality Riders at the beginning of April and I was contacted by Equality Rider Ryan Barnette within a few hours. I agreed to meet with him the night before to show him around the boundaries of campus, and I became the CCU campus ally. I ended up meeting two Equality Riders, Ryan and Cole, on the side of the road the evening before they came to my university; the moment I met them, I knew the following day was going to be life changing.
The day the Equality Riders were at CCU was emotionally exhausting. I don’t think I’ve ever cried more in my entire life. I was almost too intimidated to cross the boundary myself to join my Soulforce siblings because there were three faculty members and the campus police officer all lined up on one side of the entrance to make sure conversations on both sides remained respectful. Throughout the day, people drove by and yelled “fag” out the windows of their cars – some of them I recognized from campus. As I was handing out information to students leaving CCU, I was told by a campus police officer that, because I was not representing CCU but Soulforce, I was asked to remain outside of the campus boundaries. I was criticized for listening to stories, for being open-minded, for showing compassion towards 17 beautiful individuals, and for trying to raise awareness.
Around 1 o’clock, I watched as five of the bravest people I’ve ever met walked onto campus, Bibles in their hands, and asked to engage in a Bible Study with students. I stood by and watched as, one by one, they were handcuffed and taken away. It was a horrifying, and yet beautiful moment. After watching this happen, a few of my peers crossed the boundary and engaged in conversations, and a few even came to the Village Roaster to continue conversations.
Later that evening, as I sat on the big “gay” bus on the way to community events, Equality Rider Bethany explained to me that everybody has a love bank. When you’re welcomed and loved as you are, your love bank fills up, and as you’re around unwelcoming and places that tear you down, your love bank empties. The day the Soulforce Riders came to CCU, my love bank was filled by them – overflowing if that’s even possible. We loved each other where we were and for who we were. We acted as the church should act.
Since they have left my campus, I have been approached by faculty members who have questioned my sexuality. My name has been passed around by the people who are leaders at this school. I’m not announcing this to be rude or disrespectful in anyways towards my university, but I hope that someone will see it, and things will change.
I don’t need paper plates to represent Soulforce; once I began conversations with them I became “one of them” – I became someone who wants acceptance and would like the close-mindedness to end. I am Straight, I am a Christian, and the Equality Riders of 2012 changed my life because I let them.