By Jonathan Smith, Editor in Chief
Members of Soulforce said they knew something was different about their stop at ACU minutes after setting foot on campus. They said even being given name tags to wear made them feel like their visit to Abilene was official – something they did not feel during their previous six stops.
The university welcomed the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender activist group to campus Monday for a day of forums and conversations about the topic of homosexuality.
Events, attended by hundreds of students, faculty and administrators throughout the day, focused on various aspects of homosexuality, such as violence, discrimination, portrayal in the media and stereotypes, and people on all sides of the conversations say they were encouraged by the discussion that took place.
“It is a testament to academic freedom, democracy and Christianity that ACU was willing to engage in this dialogue with us,” said Haven Herrin, 24-year-old co-director of the Soulforce Equality Ride.
Dr. Wayne Barnard, dean of Campus Life, said the group’s visit allowed all sides to move past stereotypes about Christians and homosexuals.
“In society and around the world, one of our greatest struggles is painting groups of people with the same brush,” Barnard said. “Not every Christian school is alike; not every gay person is alike.”
Soulforce contacted the university several months ago to say it had been selected as one of 19 religious or military institutions chosen because of policies deemed discriminatory against homosexuality. Although the university could have barred the group from campus, members of Equality Ride likely would have come to ACU anyway, prepared to come on campus and risk being arrested for trespassing.
The university opted to cooperate with the group, planning a full day of activities and forums for students, faculty and administrators to attend on campus.
“We’re not afraid to talk,” Barnard said. “We’re afraid of what we don’t understand.”
Barnard said having members of Soulforce on campus talk about their lives and stories helped students better understand the issue of homosexuality, and Soulforce members said they appreciated that opportunity.
“This is why we have all this energy, money and time put into [this ride],” Herrin said. “Being here and having someone say, ‘Haven, I want to hear your story,’ what else do I need to keep me going?”
This had not been the case at the previous six stops of the tour for Soulforce members. At Liberty, Regent and Oral Roberts universities, members of the group were not allowed on campus, and about 30 members of the group have been arrested during the tour when they did try to go on those campuses.
Lee, Union and Oklahoma Baptist universities restricted the group’s presence on campus and did not plan public forums.
Conversations at ACU did real sharp differences of opinion on homosexuality and what the Bible says about it – something Barnard said was expected.
“They knew and did not intend for their visit to change our policies. What they wanted to was to have conversation with us,” Barnard said. “I would like Soulforce to leave saying there were points of significant difference, but we were able to talk about it.”
Herrin acknowledged the difficulty for ACU students and members of Soulforce to talk about issues on which not everyone agrees, but she said she enjoyed the opportunity given by the university to discuss the issues.
Despite differences of opinion about homosexuality and religion, those on all sides of the issues seemed to come together on certain points.
During a morning presentation by Soulforce members about how religion and the Bible have been used to justify acts of violence against homosexuals, Jacob Reitan, 24-year-old co-director of Equality Ride, called on listeners to change their focus on the issue of homosexuality.
“We need to change this discussion from the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality to ending the violence regarding this issue,” Reitan said.
Responding to the presentation, Dr. Glenn Pemberton, chair of the Department of Bible, Missions and Ministry, said violence against homosexuals was not acceptable.
“Categorically, emphatically, violence such as you have described is inexcusable,” he said. “I believe we can disagree on subjects and that not lead to violence.”
Reitan also stressed the need for safe places on campuses where students know they can go to discuss their thoughts and struggles with homosexuality without fear.
Barnard agreed and said the university probably needs more of those places. Students currently can go to talk to a counselor in the University Counseling Center, and the university offers some support groups for students struggling with issues like same-sex attraction.
Herrin said she and other members of Soulforce could also take lessons away from their visit here.
“I learned that I have a lot of allies at this school,” Herrin said.
She said she was glad to see Christians here did not all have one-sided beliefs on issues.
“I’m excited that that is the next face of Christianity,” Herrin said.
After all the concern and preparation the university put into the day’s activities, some observers might have wondered if all the planning for the visit was overblown. But Dr. Michelle Morris, vice president for university relations and the university’s liaison with Soulforce before its visit, did not discount all the planning.
“The preparation was very healthy and good for the university,” Morris said. “I think that’s one of the reasons it went so well.”