Stories From Our People
Some equate nonviolent activism with being nice or making everyone, especially the oppressor, feel "comfortable" or "safe" because they see the word nonviolence and think it must mean the absence of violence.
That's a utopian ideal that is only possible if we don’t account for the systems at play, seen and unseen, and the history that brings us to this moment.
This demand for perfect absence of violence becomes a moral measuring stick often placed up against the oppressed but rarely those in power.
Below are the stories of our people that situate the oppressed at the center of our nonviolent struggle since 1998.
“I have seen the ways bad theology kills: emotionally, physically, spiritually. I’ve seen the ways that institutions used religion to hide the truth of queer people’s belovedness and wholeness and beauty, and that breaks my heart.” -Caitlyn J. Stout, Spring Arbor University graduate, activist, current Vanderbilt Divinity School student
“One memory I will never forget is about Kara's singing while in jail in Washington, DC. Ken and I were in a separate cell than Kara. But, neither of us could sleep even with those stainless steel slab beds because Kara could be heard from the other wing singing Christian hymns all night long. Her singing made the thawed-out baloney sandwiches we collected to squish into pillows comfortable.” – Mike Perez
“I think Soulforce is important and unique in its size and ability to address homo/bi/trans-phobia from WITHIN faith communities...speaking their language to more effectively call in/out to create change. I believe Soulforce does so with an intersectional lens and utilizing our powerful stories as a liberational tool. Soulforce saved my life and taught me about activism. I wouldn't be here and doing the organizing I am without Soulforce.
Soulforce saves lives and empowers people to confront injustice.
I remembered the 2006 Ride coming to my AOG [Assemblies of God] Bible College and them blocking the doors. I hated that action for a number of years as a closeted queer student trying to get into my buildings for class, scared to death of being found out. But later, after seeing what they endured blocking doors and knowing they were risking arrest, [I knew] they believed so much in my right to move freely on campus...So I decided we should block the doors.
We did a die-in outside as the two of them and a security guard came to watch with big eyes. I read names and stats of people who had killed themselves or been murdered. One was my friend, Tommy who killed himself because he couldn't reconcile his sexuality and beliefs. My fellow Riders fell to the sidewalk in tears holding lilies with bloody red AOG hand prints wrapped around them. We ran out of room one way and had to send people further down. When we ran out of people to represent names, I quietly tapped each one, thanked them, and asked them to put a sign back on and get in line. We sang to lift our spirits as a few of us gathered the flowers and hand prints, placed them on the "Blood is on your Hands" poster and "Come and Talk to Us, George Wood" poster. I gave a few flowers to the men who came outside, then set the rest on the rock (there is one at every AOG college) that read: ‘For I know that my redeemer lives.’” –A.L. Genaro
“I found me on the Equality Ride. Though my original purpose was to take an external journey to save the world, the Equality Ride became an intense internal journey that challenged EVERYTHING I thought I knew about myself. For the first time I was accepted and loved without conditions. And often in the face of hate and ignorance I stood in love and clarity–a ONENESS with God and my fellow Rider. I became a true leader, organizer and minister which has not only shaped my career but has led to my success and the success of those I now lead.”
– Beau Reynolds
“People often ask about the impact of the Equality Ride, and I always struggle to encapsulate its effect. We know that some schools changed their policies and became more accepting and affirming of LGBTQ students, and I’m confident that the Ride played a role in the larger cultural shift that’s taken place in America over the last two decades by helping to expose and interrupt the true violence of fundamentalist Christianity. (When ‘loving the sinner’ involves police in riot gear, even the most devoted follower is often challenged to reconsider whether or not that’s really what god intends.)
But the changing of ‘hearts and minds’ is a difficult thing to measure, and the Ride’s greatest impact is impossible to fully define, because I think its true legacy lives on in the individuals who heard, often for the first time in their lives, that god loves them just the way they are.
In 2008, the Ride visited Louisiana College, a Southern Baptist institution in a small town called Pineville. The school’s president was unwilling to allow us on campus or engage in any sort of dialogue, but we met with numerous community members, including several former students, who shared story after story of the spiritual violence they’d endured there. Together, we decided to hold a silent, candlelight vigil on our last night in town as a form of both solidarity and resistance.
When we arrived at the predetermined location near the school’s entrance, we were surprised to find a large group of students had gathered on a hill overlooking the small strip of sidewalk upon which we quietly assembled. A line of police officers stood between our two groups, and based on the one-directional porousness of their ranks, it was clear whom they intended to 'serve and protect.'
A handful of young men from the school were allowed to pass through the police line, and as we stood there holding our small, flickering candles, these men began pacing back and forth behind us, muttering prayers under their breaths and occasionally pausing to lay hands on us, admonishing the “demon of homosexuality” to relinquish its control on our spirits. One of the men carried a giant, heavy flashlight in his hands, and rather than pray, he would simply tap the torch against the palm of his hand, the weight of it offering a steady, thudding beat of intimidation.
Eventually, we broke our silence and sang through several of our usual songs, as much to bring comfort to ourselves as to communicate any particular message. In between songs, alumni of Louisiana College and other members of the community who had courageously joined our humble protest that night shared their stories, invited dialogue, and offered up messages of love to the menacing crowd gathered just a couple hundred feet away. Their response was to turn their backs.
Finally, we climbed back on the bus and headed to our hotel on the other side of town, feeling somber and defeated, as well as somewhat shaken. As we turned into the parking lot, I noticed an old pick up truck pull in after us, and watched it come to a stop and shut off its lights on the far side of the parking lot. Not wanting to alarm others, I approached the front of the bus and alerted our co-directors, Katie and Jarrett, of the situation. They consulted with one another and ultimately decided that Dondi and Bill should check it out while everyone else stayed on the bus.
Within a few minutes they returned, accompanied by two young men, both students from Louisiana College, and both closeted gays. They sheepishly explained that they had never met out, gay Christians before, and just wanted to thank us for our presence.
I don’t know how many other young queer and trans students were similarly affected by the Equality Ride, but I’m sure that those two guys weren’t the only ones, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to share god’s boundless love with all of them.”
– Cole Parke
“I was a student at Abilene Christian University the first time you all came through our little neck of the Bible Belt. At the time, I was majoring in Christian Ministry and was proud of the way we opened our campus to you all when you came through. We all were. Although our contemporaries were not pleased with us, we made sure it was what I felt at the time was a safe place for Soulforce to come dialogue with students.
And although members of soul force were grateful for the warm reception from what I can remember, I recall that this sense of pride was what kept me from really grasping the most important part of the Soulforce journey, to challenge university leaders to create a safe environment where GLBT folks could thrive as much as those students who were not.
It has taken me 5 additional years to fully understand that it was not we at ACU who had something to be proud of, but you all and the work you do. It has taken me this long to fully and totally, without reservation, humanize GLBT people in my own mind and heart. I am sorry it took me so long.” –Mathis Vila Kennington, Abilene Christian University alum
“I don’t know if I touched or changed one single Southern Baptist person. But I do know that I was changed by the experience. Personal transformation is what Soulforce is all about any- way.... Changing ourselves and therefore, changing society in the process.
So...transforming oneself is the principle which comes to mind as I evaluate and try to understand what difference sitting in jail for two days in Orlando might have made.
The obvious answer again comes to me ... Of course, the experience in Orlando made a difference! Why? Because it made a difference in me; as a result, I will make some small difference in our world!” – Dotti Berry
“I can genuinely say that, were it not for Soulforce, my life and my work would be radically different. Soulforce brought me hope as a Southern, Christian-identified college student struggling with identifying how to reconcile the love I had for my queer friends with the teachings of my faith tradition. A year later, Soulforce equipped me to do truly intersectional social justice work as an Equality Rider, where I not only gained skills in having conversations about faith, sexuality, and gender but also about race, class, ability, citizenship, and so much more.
Soulforce was an integral part of my own growth and development as a queer, bisexual woman, but more importantly, an integral part of the work that I do every day. There is not a day that goes by that I don't draw from a tool that I learned from Soulforce and my community of activists and friends from the Equality Ride. I am empowered to work toward LGBTQ, racial, and social justice in every area of my life, and Soulforce and the people within it lit this fire within me.” –Chelsea Gilbert