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angles, those who can’t sleep pass the time by taking compromising pictures of their snoozing comrades, my Discman has been replaced by an iPod but the Spice Girls are still my jam, and though I no longer think that my life will be over if I don’t get to play the solo French horn part in my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)