The first Soulforce Equality ride took place in 2006, visiting 19 schools with anti-gay policies. This year two buses, on east and west routes, are taking 50 young people to 32 Christian colleges. Some colleges are welcoming, but at others, like Brigham Young, in Utah, the riders are not allowed. One rider and his mother were arrested for attempting to deliver a message to the university administration.
I met up with the West Coast Soulforce bus at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. Unlike some of the schools they visited, George Fox welcomed the riders and invited them to give presentations about homosexuality and Christianity in classes and coffeehouse discussions. George Fox does have an anti-gay policy. The student handbook states: “Certain behaviors known to be morally wrong by biblical teaching are not acceptable for members of the George Fox University community. They include theft, lying, all forms of dishonesty, gossip, slander, backbiting, profanity, vulgarity (including crude language), sexual immorality (including adultery, homosexual behavior, and premarital sex), drunkenness, immodesty of dress, and occult practices.”
Homosexuality and ReligionI spoke with two riders and a professor at George Fox University about the Equality Ride and its mission.
Amy Brainer-Medellin is a 24 year old queer-identified Soulforce rider from Chicago. Amy says she got involved because as a student at a Christian college in Chicago she became concerned about the treatment of LGBT students on campus. Although her school didn’t have an anti-gay policy for students, it did fire one teacher for being gay. “Having a professor fired sends a very clear message to your lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students that this is not a safe environment and that we’re not fully welcomed here,” Amy said.
After she came out, the issue hit home. “I have experienced division in my family as my parents wrestle with these issues of faith and identity,” she said. “I recognize that on campuses like this one there are future parents of lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender people like myself.”
Since being on the ride, Amy has realized the kind of impact she can have on individuals and a community. Even in places where they were not welcome on campus, students sought them out to dialogue about the issue of homosexuality and faith. But they are not just speaking to people who share their beliefs, although they have connected with many who do identify as LGBT. “We also meet with people who have questions, or who are unsure, or who want to have a deeper conversation, so they can evaluate their own perspective on it,” Amy adds.
Gay Christian Youth in the ClosetAlexey Bulokhov, Ride coordinator, relayed a story to me of an email he received from a student at one of the universities. This young man wrote to say he was counting down the days until the Equality Ride came to his campus. But, he wasn’t going to be at any of the events. He feared that he might show an emotion or somehow in his reaction to them, give away the fact that he is gay. Yet, Alexey said the ride was giving this young man hope. He said in this way the ride is also a suicide prevention action.
Bill Carpenter, logistics coordinator, chimed in and said that there is actually a higher than average percentage of LGBT students at Christian colleges because these youth are somehow trying to redeem or cure themselves of their homosexuality.
Christian Teachings and HomosexualityCaitlin Corning is a professor of Christian foundations and she invited riders to address her class which deals with issues in the Christian community. “Obviously the issue of homosexuality is very relevant to the church today,” she said. “I want the students to understand that even though the riders opinions may differ from their opinions, the riders have very thoughtfully considered. They are Christians who have struggled with this issue. They didn’t just come to this conclusion over night. They have explored the bible and we need to be able to engage with them intelligently,” she continued.
When I asked her if her students came to a different conclusion about what the Bible says about homosexuality. “Yes,” she replied. But riders tell a somewhat different story. They have students who, while walking past them on campus whisper, “I’m gay too.” They have students come up to them and tell of gay siblings or friends whom they wholly support.
The main argument, according to Professor Corning is the interpretation of the Bible and what parts apply to the culture of the day and what parts are universal. “I think you see that in a lot of issues. I’m a woman teaching theology, certainly some could interpret that as wrong,” she said.
For Young Queer ChristiansFor young people struggling to reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation, Tab Dansby, a 23-year-old rider from Corvallis, Oregon said, “I would say God doesn’t hate you. God created you in his/her own image. God loves and affirms you just as you are. Hold fast to that because that’s what is true. God is far more about love then he is about hate.”
When asked to define one memorable moment, Tab said, “The whole thing is amazing. We go out and we’re discussing all the things Miss Manners says you shouldn’t. We’re discussing religion and politics and sexuality all in one fell swoop with people we don’t even know.”