The Soulforce Equality Riders are a team of GLBT youth and straight allies who are touring Christian and other conservative colleges in the South this month to bear nonviolent witness to their faith. In their latest e-newsletter, Equality Ride Co-director Katie Higgins reports on the group’s visit to Palm Beach Atlantic University (excerpt reprinted by permission below):
After a ten hour drive to southern Florida, the Equality Riders arrived safely in Boyton Beach, a neighboring town to West Palm Beach. We had a chance to relax and catch up on thank you notes (!) before our efforts with Palm Beach Atlantic University began on Sunday.
Nick Savelli organized this stop and scheduled a community picnic in Flamingo Park, which is a beautiful space within a short walking distance to campus. Throughout the day, about fifteen students joined us in the park, including a PBAU alumna and her girlfriend. She experienced the ‘welcoming environment’ that PBAU promises to provide for all of their students: it involved years of ex-gay ministries and when she finally graduated and decided go come back to the area for grad school, her former classmates would only continue their friendships if she continued to struggle with being a lesbian. There is no room for her as the healthy and affirming person she is.
That evening, our third time driver, Dondi Penn, noticed that someone had smashed in the glass pane on our bus door. This came the night after cars drove by and yelled homophobic slurs as he walked to the bus in the parking lot of our hotel. A report was filed with the police department and the 2008 Riders have now experienced what all have before when our bus is vandalized. It may seem like a small pane of glass, but it is our home and this was a very real indication of the region’s climate.
With our experiences in Florida in hand, along with the other interactions we have had with the PBAU community since announcing our visit, the Equality Riders decided that we would attempt to join the students during their Chapel service. We arrived to campus on Monday morning at 9:30. After talking with parents of students, ex-gay ministers, students and administration, we all walked to the doors of the Chapel. It was here that an administrator read a statement saying that as Equality Riders, we were not allowed to participate in the Chapel with the students. A statement followed this from the police department and with that, ten of us stepped back to stand vigil. Jarrett Lucas, Enzi Tanner, Lauren Parke, Danielle Cooper, Nicholas Rocco DeFinis, and Zak Rittenhouse decided to move forward with their intent to sit in Chapel with the students they had met the day before. One by one, they were placed in handcuffs and lead to the police car that awaited in the middle of the street.
The remaining Equality Riders stood alongside campus for the next eight hours, many of which were in the rain. A number of students and administrators weathered the storm with us, but by the end of the day, we were soaked to our bones. It was nothing compared to the 27 hours that the PBAU Six spent in prison, but it was empowering to hold sacred ground there. Witnessing and experiencing any kind of redemptive suffering never gets easier for the soul; it only provides more resolve. The following day, we waited for our beloveds to be released from prison and when they were, I saw on their faces the growth that occurs when you join the ranks of those who haven been jailed as a form of nonviolent communication. They are forever changed just as much as the students we spoke with.
We are now in Florence, Alabama, at Heritage Christian University. President Jones has told us that our credentials are not enough to speak about our own lives to his students. Because of your support, we have the strength to stand before the school and show them that our humanity is not something to be qualified. We will go to campus on Friday. Please visit our website, equalityride.com to read about what happens.
In the spirit of equal time, here is a link to PBAU’s website and their own account of Soulforce’s visit, headlined “Students Stand for Their Beliefs”.
The two groups’ opposite perceptions of the same event makes me wonder what the evidence of our lives does and does not prove. Sincerity and a willingness to suffer for one’s beliefs may be emotionally compelling in a face-to-face confrontation, but sincere martyrs can be found in many traditions with irreconcilable views.
I’m currently listening to the audio book of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which inspires me with its message of radical equality before God, yet also troubles me with its over-reliance on personal sanctity as an evangelizing tool. Little Eva, the child of a slave-owner, inspires him by her pious death to begin freeing his slaves, while the improbably holy Uncle Tom would rather stay to convert his Massa than go home to his still-enslaved wife and family. I understand that the redemptive suffering of the innocent can be one way we imitate Christ. However, what I’ve seen of abuse and codependence makes me wary of the false hope that if we just suffer long and patiently enough, our oppressors’ hearts will be warmed.
I continue to support the brave work of the Soulforce riders. Their presence on Christian campuses surely gives hope to students who have had to hide their true selves in order to be educated about their faith. Their peaceful witness in the face of harassment adds credibility to the claim that the Spirit is equally at work in the lives of GLBT Christians. However, let’s remember that God’s grace is sufficient for us all. No one can interpose a man-made test between us and our Savior, be it conformity to traditional gender roles or super-human virtue. GLBT Christians are equal because they are human. End of story.