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The Equality Ride
II: Welcome to the jungle

The Equality Ride
II: Welcome to the jungle


Soulforce's second Equality Ride begins with 50 young adults in two buses stopping at 32 Christian colleges and universities in the pursuit of social justice for LGBT students. In the first two weeks the west bus logs 12 arrests--and that's a good thing.

A long, long time ago, when Christianity was still in its Jewish phase and its adherents were few and generally landless, hospitality was an issue of morality. The outsider was welcomed into the community and into the home as a guest because tribal warfare and the harsh climate meant anyone left outside the city wall could be dead by morning. Deny hospitality, and the outsider's misfortune was on your conscience.

The notion of "welcome" is often on my mind because I'm on a bus traveling to the most inhospitable places in this country for LGBT people. As codirector of the west bus, one of two buses crossing the United States this spring in the second annual Soulforce Equality Ride, I am leading 25 young adults in the conversation of sexuality and faith on Christian college campuses from Indiana to California to Idaho.

All of these schools (14 on the west route and 18 on the east route) are antigay in policy and creed. Their handbooks indicate that LGBT students are to be expelled; they also engage in the dangerous practice of legislating religion. To use their words, these schools are strangling the Holy Spirit. Their policies communicate to the students that their faith journey cannot involve loving nor affirming LGBT people. It is a position that is antithetical to both religious freedom and academic freedom.

We have been on the road for only two weeks of our two-month journey, and the responses have nearly given us whiplash.

Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., refused to negotiate a Soulforce Equality Ride visit in any way. My calls were never returned, and my various letters, e-mails, and faxes were similarly ignored time and again. The assistant to my contact at Notre Dame expressed her confusion that I would keep trying when I had already been told "no." These administrators, I have found, have been heeded for so many years that they are confounded when someone my age, looking and sounding like a college student, does not take "no" for an answer.

One day while we were at Notre Dame, two brave students stood up in the cafeteria and offered the Soulforce Equality Riders a welcome on behalf of the university, and then gave their testimony as queer students at Notre Dame. Plainclothes security officers started haphazardly handing out trespassing warnings. When we returned the next day to deliver floral wreaths to a memorial statue for a gay Navy veteran on the campus, six of us were arrested, and two students were given "summons for notice of possible expulsion."

Holding the banner at Notre Dame

Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee followed that with an even more definitive response. While Notre Dame ignored us until we had a voice on campus, WLC made it clear four months ago that we were not welcome at all. Twenty of us stood vigil just outside their stone walls, getting splashed by the cars coming and going from campus. The remaining five met with administrators and selected students off campus at a hotel on the outskirts of town, which sent a clear message to the students: Culturally divisive conversation about sexuality and faith belongs far away from the academic institution. It sounds seedy, and it was.

WLC had told the Equality Ride that we were not allowed on campus; but they told their students that we would be allowed on campus--just not into any buildings, which would be protected by two guards at every door. They told the students there would be a tempered, prejudiced welcome. But to the Soulforce Equality Ride they showed a face no different than the stone walls around campus. We walked onto campus the second day to hold prayers, set up tables, speak with students, and attend chapel. We were all instructed to leave immediately. Six of us were arrested for standing outside the chapel door, and three were cuffed and taken away right in front of 30 WLC students, many of whom stood in tearful shock at how their college was treating us.

MidAmerica Nazarene University just outside Kansas City, Mo., has a very different definition of welcome. They invited us in without fear of reprisals. The school's president has been traveling to visit church elders and other influential people within the school heirarchy for the last three months to defend his decision to officially sanction the Equality Ride visit. He made no small sacrifice to do the Christian thing and welcome the outsider. We presented in classrooms, participated in a plenary session, were hosted by students, and shared breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the campus.

Riders praying outside locked chapel doors at Wisconsin Lutheran

Two rare things happened at MNU. First, the school allowed us to speak uncensored. Schools often feel the need to reiterate their stance, which is already maintained every day of the year by traditional church teachings and school policy, just after our last word. It is as though the administrators fear the students will forget what they have been taught all their lives, or that the donors and parents will accuse the school of being morally irresponsible. School presidents have in fact told me that unequivocally. Second, the pastor at MNU thanked us for coming to his school. We are sometimes thanked for our decorum, our intellectual preparedness, or our ability to keep our word. But never before have we been thanked for being an educational opportunity.

So there it is: three Christian schools and three different notions of hospitality. The first passively welcomed us as long as our stories and our struggle were kept silent. That is not a welcome to us as human beings. The second approach assumed the worst in us and refused any kind of welcome, even though they lied to their students because they knew that locking us out was immoral. The third put faith in us, took a chance on the outsider, and welcomed us in to be heard and acknowledged. MidAmerica Nazarene was, of course, the most transformative place for the Equality Riders and the students because of this school-sanctioned hospitality.

Thinking back to the ancient Jewish people, I wonder how that religion went from being the creed of so few to a dominant religion today. I would argue that being welcoming made it a viable faith. By continuing to open the door to let in other religions, people with different skin colors, and women helped keep Christianity faithful to principles, not conventions. Challenging itself to function according to values rather than to dogma has made Christianity pliable and adaptable--not completely, of course, but enough to survive and convince a few adherents along the way.

Will the door open a little wider again to let lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into the club? Our job on the Soulforce Equality Ride is to bring the universal themes and teachings of faith down into the practical realm, where they are being used against LGBT people rather than to embrace us in the long-standing tradition of hospitality.

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