I’ve watched the scene over and over. Gay teenager Jake Reitan and his parents walk onto the property of Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs and are immediately arrested. This act of civil disobedience was immortalized in the 2007 film For the Bible Tells Me So. Seven years after the Reitan family’s arrest, I chose to ride into FOTF territory on a big queer bus as part of the 2012 Soulforce Equality Ride.
Soulforce is a national non-profit that seeks to end the religious and political oppression of LGBTQ people. Its flagship program is the Equality Ride, a two-month bus trip across the country that visits Christian colleges and conservative communities to discuss policies and practices that discriminate against its LGBTQ and allied members. Soulforce is deeply rooted in nonviolence, the way of life exemplified by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. It is dedication to nonviolence that led me and 19 other Equality Riders straight into the heart of Christian conservatism.
Post-James Dobson, Focus on the Family is meeting with groups that don’t share their viewpoints. They agreed to a three-hour meeting, including a tour of the massive Welcome Center, formal and informal discussions, and a twisty ride down a three-story slide in the play area.
Our queer and allied, mostly liberal group remained silently listening during the tour, despite pro-life and American imperialist displays. But conversation quickly started in the second hour, when we began discussing this phrase from the FOTF website: “Homosexual behavior violates God’s intentional design for gender and sexuality.” FOTF arrived at this conclusion based on their interpretation of the Bible. But for the first time in history, many voices rose up that challenged FOTF’s interpretation. Many of these voices were queer. Many of these voices were Christian. All of these voices were beautiful.
At the end of our time together, nobody’s worldview was completely shifted. But I believe that FOTF staff members saw the harm that their anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is causing. I pray that on the Day of Dialogue, FOTF’s annual anti-bullying campaign which is expressly anti-LGBTQ, these staff members take a sobering look at the death of Kenneth James Weishuhn, Jr., the 14-year old Iowa teen who committed suicide due to bullying online and at school. FOTF would argue that the reason for the bullying doesn’t matter, but what must be evident now is that their teachings directly influence the parents, teachers, and pastors who reject, remain silent, or preach against these precious lives.
The truth is that we all have a responsibility to our community to be honest about our own privilege and our complicity in others’ oppression. And there is no positive change when we refuse to dialogue with those who oppress us. But when we do meet with our adversary, we are able to share our own truths: “My boyfriend and I are affirmed by G-d as gay men.” “My parents were emotionally manipulated by the false hope you gave them about my identity.” “I am a transgender man who loves his body, and I want to carry my own child.” These phrases from the lips of Equality Riders were heard by listening ears at FOTF, and I must believe the seeds of our wholeness and beauty were planted.
Seven years is a long time to be waiting for a conversation to start. But it has been promised that the conversation will continue between Soulforce and Focus on the Family. And there are so many conversations waiting to be started, in our synagogues, parent-teacher conferences, and DMV lines. Once we stop fearing, and often hating the religious right, these dialogues will begin and they will shine a spotlight on our shared humanity and goodness. While being vulnerable can be difficult, there is an easy way to start the process. Most conversations begin with hello.
RYAN BARNETTE is an Equality Rider from Ohio who was once the city planner for the Denver area. See more photos from their visit to Colorado on the following pages, including when some riders were arrested while visiting Colorado Christian University.