Features

Forgiving their trespass

Culture | Christian colleges gear up for visits from the activist gay group Soulforce

Issue: "History speaks," April 1, 2006

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.

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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."

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