OBU Alum Comments on Equality Ride Arrests
On Wednesday, March 15th, 2006, five members of the Equality Ride planned and executed a demonstration that included an arrest for trespassing on Oklahoma Baptist University's campus to symbolize their opposition to the school's policy on homosexuality. The activity occurred outside the front of Raley Chapel at 10 am just as the weekly worship service was about to begin.
The intent to literally cross the line from a public sidewalk to the private property was made clear by the Equality Riders to both OBU administrators and Shawnee Police prior to arrival at the chapel. Although the consequence of being arrested was essentially scripted and all parties involved were planning for it, had the representatives from OBU chosen to allow the Equality Riders on campus, they were hoping to attend chapel with OBU students. The story made the front page of the local Shawnee News-Star:
While the University's desire to not interrupt normal campus life was achieved by the quick arrests, the Equality Rider's goal to draw attention to themselves was also successful. Six police officers were present along with several media outlets. Here is the story as reported in The Oklahoman, the daily paper for Oklahoma City:
(The websites for those newspapers require that you register - which is a real pain the butt - so I did it so if anyone wants to read those I will post them in another thread).
The following day, six more Equality Riders were arrested on OBU's campus for trespassing. In previous conversations between leaders on the Equality Ride bus and OBU administrators, it was made clear that about 15 demonstrators were planning to be arrested. There were no incidents of violence, threats to safety or disruption of the routine campus activities.
Past News Coverage
Last year, OBU was featured in Newsweek magazine as one of the stops on the Equality Ride sponsored by soulforce.org.
Last week, the weekly student newspaper, The Bison, ran a Cover Story and an Editorial about this year's upcoming visit. While OBU administrators were very hospitable last year and gave the visitors a room in the GC (student center) this year they decided not to do that. An explanation by OBU administration is given in these two links.
My Letter to the Editor
In anticipation of the Equality Ride at OBU, I wrote a Letter to the Editor about the visit that was printed yesterday, the day of the visit. Unlike when I was a staff writer for The Bison, this was printed in its entirety and left unedited.
Of course, the arrests yesterday happened before the paper was distributed. Not that my letter would have stopped it or changed anyone's mind, but I suspect there was a certain irony in reading the words "Please welcome them" AFTER they were arrested.
Here is what I have learned and what I think:
Prior to writing the opinion piece, I called and emailed various members of Soulforce and one of the members who called me back was on the bus to Shawnee. Today, I called Marty O'Gwynn, director of Public Relations at OBU to share my concerns and ask some questions. Marty and I know each other from when I was a student. I started to introduce myself in case he had forgotten and he cut me off saying that of course he knew me.
Based on those conversations as well as the press reports and email from Scott (below) I have drawn the following conclusions:
1. Last year's visit vs. this week's visit:
* The visit last year was a positive experience for the campus and visitors. The Equality Ride members were given a room free of charge (most outside groups pay a rental fee) in the student center. The one condition OBU administrators placed on them was that they were not allowed to distribute literature or give presentations. Although there are conflicting reports, it seems that some of the Riders did in fact share some things that were classified as "literature" or "presentations."
* Needless to say, OBU policy has not changed in the last year. It is also worth noting that there are two policy issues, one is forbidding sexual activity outside of marriage and the other is including GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual & transgendered) people in the list of groups who cannot be discriminated against. The exact language of the policy and what the Riders wish it would change to can be found on websites from both groups, but my point is not to discuss semantics.
* Following the success of the previous visit as plans were made to do it again, members of the Equality Ride requested to be able to set up in a different location and distribute literature. I think some members of the OBU administration were offended at the request and felt that their previous hospitality was very gracious. It seems that some members of the Equality Ride didn't think the previous accommodations were adequate. This conflict seems to be what led to OBU telling the Riders that they would be trespassing on private property if they came again this year.
Let me make a comparison: You ask me for a cookie. Well, I think sugar is bad for you, but I want to be nice so I give you a cookie out of graciousness and hospitality. You eat it, say thanks and then come back and ask for two cookies. Look, I wasn't crazy about giving you the first one and now you come back saying it wasn't enough and ask for more? Forget it, you can't come in my house and if you do, I will have you arrested for trespassing. So to make a statement you trespass and get arrested.
* Some - perhaps many - will say that you should not be rude guests or wear out your welcome. Others - perhaps many - will say that you should always be welcoming to visitors. In the end, it looks to the media like gays were arrested for trying to go to church. In any case, the fact that OBU had not changed the policy since the last visit and the fact that OBU wasn't going to, became the source of a conflict this visit as opposed to embracing dialogue which epitomized the visit last year.
2. Threat vs. Reality
* Riders made their intentions of "civil disobedience" clear to OBU. Administrators feared that such actions would be disruptive and divisive and cited examples at other schools such as protestors lying in the floor blocking doorways. But what would have happened if the Riders came on to campus without being accused of trespassing? OBU wasn't willing to risk finding out.
* With the conflict over the shift in host/guest expectations from last year to now along with the fear that "civil disobedience" would include disorderly activities… Well, I hate to oversimplify a complicated situation, but it sounds like a case of homophobia to me. I told Marty they should have let the Riders walk on campus and talk to students because if it turned unruly, then the guests would look bad in the media, not the hosts.
As an alumni, I feel a sense of embarrassment. I don't want people to know that I went to that college in the news that arrests gays for trespassing. Marty understands that. As a Christian, I feel outrage that anyone, for any reason, is not only turned away from worship, but actually arrested for trespassing on their way to the chapel.
My Closing Thoughts
The Bible is not a list of policies, but rather it is a testament of God's involvement with humanity. Jesus was sent to dwell among us and I think one of the most important messages in the New Testament is that God is still with us. Its important that the Green Book is based on Biblical standards. But its more important that the University community invokes the Holy Spirit for guidance. There are plenty of Biblical standards such as wearing veils, not wearing gold jewelry, handling poisonous snakes, getting drunk at wedding parties, plucking our eyes out and so on that didn't make the Green Book.
There is a great story in Acts 5 that I have never heard in a sermon or Sunday School lesson about a Pharisee named Gamaliel, "a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people." When Peter and the other Apostles were spreading the Gospel in Israel, the Sanhedrin had them arrested. The high priest wanted to have the Apostles killed, but Gamaliel stood up and reminded his fellow members of the council about other prophets who had a brief stint of power and small group of followers but quickly their movement faded away. He was suggesting that arrest and capital punishment was unnecessary because the movement of a false prophet will die out on its own accord. Gamaliel then stated: "Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God."
I think Gamaliel's words are an appropriate Biblical standard for guests visiting Bison Hill as well.
Scott Jones (a former classmate and good friend of mine) who is Pastor of Cathedral of Hope in OKC, was instrumental in organizing the visit last year and helped out again this year. Here is the email he sent out describing his experiences yesterday:
What does it mean when you offer communion and no one comes?
Five people were arrested at OBU this morning for attempting to attend chapel. Five people were arrested for trying to participate in a worship service, and many more were prevented. I know it is more complicated than that, of course.
Oh, how complicated it is.
I stood there watching and crying as five young people were arrested at my alma mater. I stood safely on campus, as an alum, talking to administrators, many of whom I've known for some time.
It wasn't a good day. Sometimes a situation cannot be redeemed, but an open wound, long ignored, must be exposed.
After last year's Equality Ride visit to OBU I was confident, ebullient even, that positive steps had been taken. Though that enthusiasm also covered a deeper, internal struggle about what is the right thing to do in such situations. A struggle that has risen to the surface again in the last few weeks.
Should I have been arrested today? Last year I was prepared to, this year I was less convinced of its efficacy. But now I'm somewhat ashamed that others were arrested and that I was unwilling to cross that line.
What are the appropriate tactics in our activism? I feel judged by both those who think this particular action futile or misguided and those who think I should be pushing harder than I am.
Why is there only one gay OBU alum out there? A community would make it easier.
To me relationships are the fundamental thing, and I think it is important and valuable to maintain the relationships I have in the Oklahoma Baptist world. I think such relationships give me a witness.
But, then, how much do I end up participating in the system of evil myself? For it really isn't simply OBU and its administrators, it is the system of religious based discrimination of which the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and many of its churches participate. Do I participate in and further that system of evil by not confronting it more directly?
Plus, I'm angered, disappointed, and hurt by those friends and colleagues at OBU or who minister in Oklahoma churches who are sympathetic to the cause of GLBT young people and may work quietly behind the scenes but who are unwilling to more boldly confront or abandon the system they participate in. Yet, I think I understand why they do, and I'm forced to be sympathetic because I face the same conflict, just a little further down the spectrum. I saw the struggle today in administrators who didn't like arresting these young people. How can they participate in such a thing? How can students, faculty, and members of churches not be outraged?
Oh, it is all so complicated, and I grieve because I don't know what the right thing to do is.
Plus, don't different people have different roles to play?
So, I prayed silently for an hour in the gazebo on campus that my class built (at the leadership of three gay men, including myself). The Equality Riders were not allowed to join me, but sat and kneeled on a sidewalk twenty feet from me. The area around me was filled with police, security, and some press. It was the strangest thing to pray in such a setting.
I had communion elements set out, hoping that this sacrament of the church could be an opportunity for healing. But no one came to take communion.
Due to Spring Break and what I assume is a revamping of the webpage, the OBU Student Paper finally released the pdfs online. Here is the story of the visit last month:
Perhaps this is a discussion for General Chat, but the main disconnect between the point of view of the campus and Riders is whether the plan and intent was to get arrested or enter a dialog. The Riders expressed their shock at being arrested on the way to chapel to me in person and in the press, but the fact that they called the police and told them of their intent to break the law suggests they shouldn't have been so surprised. The story linked above emphasizes that disconnect.
Good to see you again. I can see that when you express the two things as a dichotomy AND when you think of "shock" and "surprise" as synonyms that the E-riders approach might seem duplicitous. However, change your assumptions just fraction and their actions may seem more reasonable.
Having a dialogue and being arrested are two different things. You and the college administrators wonder about the e-riders motives. Do "they" really want to dialogue? Or do "they" want the publicity that comes from being arrested? Are they SAYING dialogue, but really just angling for the publicity? But its really NOT a dichotomy. A third possibility exists. Namely, that they Want a dialogue, but will settle for being arrested. Dialogue suits their purposes BEST but the publicity of being arrested ALSO works to their advantage. The e-riders "win" either way. The college only wins if they choose dialogue (read the blogs and news coverage of the schools that welcomed the e-riders! Everyone walks away from THOSE encounters smelling like a rose) But who is it who had the choice about how to respond to the e-riders presence? it was the schools who chose what kind of publicity came from the encounter -- not the e-riders.
"shocked" and "surprised" are not necessarily the same thing. I can be "shocked" by someone's behavior without being surprised by it. Every time that James Dobson twists a scientific study so far beyond recognition that the original scientist squeals with outrage, I am shocked. but I'm not surprised because he does it so consistantly. The e-riders are shocked that they are arrested by fellow Christians because it is a moral and spiritual outrage for them to be. But they are not surprised because it has happened to them (and to the freedom riders a generation before) so very often before.
A gay affirming church in Indianapolis has billboards up around town giving a gay-affirming Christian message. they are being defaced and repaired daily. Did the church put them up to get the publicity that the defacement has brought? No. They put them up to spark conversation, thought, dialogue, and reconsideration. The controversy surrounding the defacement , however, has MAGNIFIED the impact of the campaign probably TENFOLD. The gay affirming Church "wins" both ways. Non affirming vandals chose the "HOW" and that's fine... its a free country.