At 8:45 am we circled together in the basement of the hotel to center ourselves for our last stop as the West Bus of the Equality Ride. Many thoughts were running through my head, and this moment seemed incredibly surreal. That evening, after two months of separation, we would reunite with our East Bus counterparts. A few of us had volunteered to stay behind from the school and prepare for a celebratory reunion.
Northwestern College comprised the shortest welcoming stop, with only four hours on campus. There was a lunch and three presentations from us, and after each presentation a brief response from the college followed by small table discussion in the room.
I made pleasant small talk with my student and faculty hosts during lunch. It didn’t take long before I launched into my own personal story of coming out and eventually getting involved with Soulforce.
The first presentation after lunch was our progressive theology’s “What Would Jesus Do: Beyond the Catch Phrase”. A man named Nate then stood as the university’s response. He didn’t look much older than a student, and he wore a painfully forced smile. He began by agreeing that the Church had made some gross mistakes in its treatment of “homosexuals”. Nate’s voice was slow and tempered, as if every word was spoken with forced effort. Thus when he finally spoke about “moving away from homosexuality” I wasn’t surprised. This man could not hide the pain and suffering embedded in his eyes. It was like they stared without really seeing anything – whatever reality was being processed was a fixed perception that needed no vision. His words sounded hollow and rehearsed. As a homosexual, he said, he had been broken in his ability to love, but Jesus fixed all of that for him. After all “the opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality,” he said, “the opposite of homosexuality is holiness.” His words were a physical punch to my heart and lungs. The air in my body escaped with a soft “oof” at the impact. This man had just said homosexuality was pure evil with one simple statement. I wanted to cry for him knowing that he had mistakenly believed this to be true about himself.
Two more ex-gay speakers followed Nate’s performance. I got the feeling that these two were relatively new ex-gays. They told awful stories of the destructive nature of their lives: addiction to porn, sex, drugs, and alcohol. They felt utterly alone, unloved and abandoned. Sadly, somehow, they had confused this with their sexual identity.
Only three spoke, but after they were done, it was apparent that the whole room was filled with ex-gays. As the day progressed, I had to address a multitude of issues at my table in the allotted fifteen minutes between the presentations, with each ending in more and more soul-wrenching discrimination. Those table discussion moments were too short, with too many unaddressed issues. I was compared to fornicaters, drug-users, those addicted to porn, and even pedophiles. Worse, I realized that many of the ex-gays present believed these lies and had internalized them, leading to their own deep suffering. My head began to hurt as I recognized the depth of the confusion and pain that surrounded me.
Before long, I was numbly shaking hands and saying goodbye. Many people thanked me, but their lips said one thing and their eyes another. Once most of my table had said their thanks and left, a lingering girl approached me. She did not smile. Her eyes were filled with what I can only call fear and an indelible sadness. “Thank you,” she said taking my hand in hers. “Thank you for coming to this school.” I couldn’t take my eyes off her as she walked away from me. My heart had stopped beating. She turned her head back before walking out of the room and our eyes met again for a shared moment that left an eternal mark on my soul.
My heart broke in two as I thought of those LGBT Northwestern students who had emailed us or passed us notes asking us to pray for and remember them in confidentiality. If four hours at this school could have the effect it did on me, I couldn’t imagine what going to Northwestern College as a student must do to those who are closeted. I wanted to scream in fury, but I instead opened my heart and mind to prayer. Dear Creator, bless these students. Truly, they are the reason we do this work.
I’m thankful this school was last for our bus. It made the East Bus homecoming all the more sweet and wonderful. But, more importantly, it set my soul restless. I will never find rest now until there is justice for all. Even though this ride draws to a close, I know that my life as an activist has only begun.