Pepperdine, Day 1
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.