On a cold, rainy morning in the sleepy town of Cleveland, Tenn., Jen Ham huddles with a dozen young adults in dark blue jackets beneath the only picnic shelter in Deer Park and talks about "relentless, redemptive suffering." Ms. Ham, 23, asks the group if they are willing to deny themselves, serve others, and pursue "purity in what we know is right." She tells the group: "God loves each one of us."
It sounds like motivational language for college-age Christians, but across the parking lot a tour bus is emblazoned with the group's true purpose: "End Religion Based Oppression! . . . LGBT Rights." "LGBT" is shorthand for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender," and the bus belongs to Soulforce, a gay-advocacy group that targets the "misuse of religion" to oppose homosexuality.
Ms. Ham is one of 32 young adults participating in Equality Ride, Soulforce's current project. Identifying themselves with Martin Luther King Jr.'s freedom riders who toured the South fighting racism in the 1960s, Equality Riders are on a seven-week trip from New York to Los Angeles to confront 19 colleges that forbid homosexual conduct among students. The list includes two military academies and one Mormon university. The remaining 16 schools are private, evangelical Christian colleges, including Lee University, a 3,900-student Church of God school in Cleveland, Tenn.
Jacob Reitan, 23, director of Equality Ride, stood on the steps of Lee University's student union explaining why the group is targeting religious universities: "These schools have taught a one-sided view for far too long." Though Mr. Reitan says he recognizes a private school's right to determine its own policies, he adds, "We're here to challenge the morality that underpins those policies."
To challenge the morality of the schools, which Equality Ride says commit "spiritual violence" and are "largely responsible for LGBT discrimination," the group has contacted each university on its tour, informing administrators of impending visits, asking for meetings with school officials, and requesting platforms to address students and distribute literature. Mr. Reitan also says the group is connecting with "closeted" students on Christian campuses to "offer support" and wants students to know "you can be gay and be a Christian." The group says that a school's failure to provide access may provoke "civil disobedience," and that Equality Riders are willing to face arrest.
Pam Disel, a rider from Oklahoma, said so far the group hadn't encountered physical violence, though she was "one of the first to be arrested and last to be released" at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., the school's first stop.
Liberty chancellor Jerry Falwell said the school refused to give the group permission to enter campus because of an obligation to parents "not to expose their children to a media circus that might present immorality in a positive light." He noted that Liberty had hosted the group last year. (Soulforce founder and gay activist Mel White is a former evangelical author who once worked with Mr. Falwell, helping him to write a book more than a decade ago.) Ms. Disel was one of 24 Equality Riders who stepped onto Liberty's campus on March 10 and was peacefully arrested and released without bail.
Four days later, six more riders were similarly arrested at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. Regent spokeswoman Melanie Temple said the school initially worked with Equality Ride to set up panel discussions. Regent rescinded its offer when Equality Ride failed to remove a statement from its website that read: "Regent University has refused dialogue thus far with Equality Ride. . . ." In a letter to Mr. Reitan, associate vice president Randall Pannell said the group was no longer welcome "due to Equality Ride's public misrepresentation of Regent University." Mr. Reitan says Regent never asked the group to remove the statement.
Lee University, the group's third stop, did not bar the riders from campus, and Ms. Disel hoped for interaction with students and led a role-playing exercise beforehand in which riders took turns showering each other with crude insults and practicing stoic responses. Two hours later at a picnic hosted by the riders in the park, the group found they wouldn't need the practice. Several Lee students showed up to eat grilled hot dogs and have friendly conversation.
Jesse Jenkins, a Lee senior from Knoxville, said she came to the picnic because she was curious: "This whole thing is foreign to me." Though she "truly believes homosexuality is a sin," Ms. Jenkins also believes "Christians who are mean or hateful are sinful too. . . . I wanted to at least give them the respect of caring enough to hear what they had to say."
Ms. Jenkins and a friend chatted with three riders about spring break, classes, and the best places to eat in Cleveland. Ms. Jenkins also carefully explained why she believes homosexuality is wrong. Chad Grandy, a 20-year-old rider from Mount Pleasant, Mich., who outlined his beliefs as well, said he was pleased with the conversation and hoped he "planted a seed" with Ms. Jenkins.
When riders showed up at Lee's student union later in the afternoon, they found more students eager to talk. Small groups of students and riders sat scattered around tables in the union and the patio outside, discussing everything from Old Testament law to whether a person is born gay. Christina Vera, a freshman from Atlanta, said she wasn't sure she was up for an intense debate, but that she wanted to "hear their stories and find out how I can pray for them. . . . They're hurting just like everyone else."
Though Mr. Reitan said Lee students received the group well, he was disappointed the administration didn't provide an open forum for the group on campus. Lee University president Paul Conn told WORLD he asked the group not to visit, saying it "wouldn't be constructive." When Equality Ride insisted, Mr. Conn says he told the group they would not be allowed to formally assemble on campus or make presentations: "I told them that we are unwilling to provide any kind of platform that might signify that we regard their viewpoint as having any parity with our viewpoint."
Mr. Conn pointed out that Lee's school policy prohibits not just homosexuality, but all sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and a woman. He says he did offer to stage a debate between representatives of Equality Ride and Lee University. "I even told them I could get it on public access television," he says, "but they refused to debate." He also says he encouraged students to treat any visitors to the campus "with kindness and respect."
On the second day of their Lee visit, Equality Riders staged a "prayer vigil" outside the administration building, singing praise choruses and praying that the school would be more tolerant. Hours before the group left town, several Lee students helped the group scrub an obscenity off the bus left by off-campus vandals the night before.
As the group travels east, other schools are preparing for their visits. Stan Jones, provost of Wheaton College in Illinois, says his school is conducting six preparatory sessions dealing with topics like biblical teaching on homosexuality, and homosexuality in the church. Though Equality Ride "won't have free run of the campus," Mr. Jones says, the school will host faculty-supervised panel discussions. The school wants to strengthen students' understanding of the biblical teaching against homosexuality, he said. The visit, he hopes, will teach students about the "jumble" in mainline denominations regarding homosexuality, "and help them prevent the same thing from happening in the evangelical church."
Scott Davis of Exodus International, a Christian ministry that helps people come out of homosexuality, says Equality Ride's visits are more than complicated challenges for school administrators: "It's very dangerous when a student is struggling with same-sex attraction and a group comes to campus, saying, 'It's great to be gay.'"
Mr. Davis says five schools on Equality Ride's route have asked Exodus to help prepare their students for the group's visits. Exodus has conducted seminars and chapel talks on the pro-gay agenda, the Bible's teaching about homosexuality, how to help a friend who is gay, and interacting with homosexuals with "compassion and kindness" while "not compromising the truth."
Mr. Davis says families, churches, and Christian schools need to foster an environment in which young people struggling with homosexuality can ask for help. "It's definitely a big issue," he said. "Most of the students who call us for help are from Christian schools and universities."