By Jonathan Smith, Editor in Chief
With months of preparations, planning and organization behind, the campus now awaits Sunday’s arrival of the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender activist group Soulforce on its Equality Ride tour.
Dr. Royce Money, president of the university, said he thinks students and faculty here are prepared for Soulforce’s arrival this weekend and Monday’s scheduled day of activities and forums.
“Overall, the campus is ready,” Money said. “We have made an effort and will continue to be Christ-like in our approach but at the same time firm in our stance about scripture.”
Soulforce Equality Ride began visiting religious and military universities and institutions March 10 with the purpose of bringing “hope and healing to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students who are forced to live and suffer in closets of fear on their college campus,” according to its Web site, www.equalityride.com.
Jacob Reitan, 24-year-old co-director of Equality Ride, said for many people, oppressing or discriminating GLBT is second nature.
“But we’re trying to challenge that notion and make it uncomfortable for people to feel that way without thinking about it,” Reitan said.
ACU is the seventh stop on the 51-day tour, but it is the first university to cooperate with Equality Ride to allow members on campus and plan activities and forums for the group’s day-and-a-half stay. Four private universities visited by Equality Ride – Liberty, Regent, Union and Oral Roberts – have not allowed the group on campus. Almost 40 arrests have been made at these schools when Equality Ride members have set foot on campus property anyway. Lee and Oklahoma Baptist universities allowed the group on campus and to talk to students but did not schedule forums or activities with the group.
Activities on the ACU campus include several invitation-only sessions with select groups of students, administrators, faculty and staff. Members of Equality Ride also will meet with several classes, particularly graduate-level courses.
Members of the campus will have the opportunity to attend three open forums Monday:
¥ From 9-10:45 a.m. in the Hilton Room of the Campus Center, members of Soulforce will show a multimedia presentation documenting the history of violence toward groups that have suffered discriminated and university representatives will respond to and discuss the presentation with them.
¥ From 3:30-5 p.m. in the Hilton Room, students, faculty and staff can meet informally with members of Equality Ride for discussions.
¥ From 7-8:30 p.m. in Hart Auditorium, students can attend a discussion on how sexuality is portrayed in the media.
Whether the events are invitation-only or open forums, Money said all activities Sunday and Monday are for members of the ACU community only because they are meant as internal discussions with Equality Riders.
Although those watching Equality Ride’s other visits to universities have been able to see the group’s willingness to risk arrest and participate in civil disobedience by trespassing on the campuses that have not cooperated, Money said the circumstances involving the group’s visit here are different.
“I don’t know that the stops that are ahead of us are any reliable indicator of what to expect here,” Money said.
Because the university has cooperated openly with Equality Ride, Dr. Michelle Morris, vice president for university relations and the university’s contact person with Soulforce, said the group has promised it will not engage in civil disobedience while here.
“That’s been a clear message from them,” Morris said. “ACU has been cooperative; we’re going to have peaceful talks.”
Morris said working with the group has been very easy.
“Phone conversations and e-mails have been courteous and respectful,” Morris said. “They have made requests, not demands.”
The university’s cooperation also has impressed members of Equality Ride.
“ACU has reached out to us in a tremendous way, and we are excited about that,” Reitan said.
To better prepare and inform students about the visit, Dr. Wayne Barnard, dean of Campus Life, spoke to students in Chapel on Thursday to give information about the visit and answer students’ questions.
Those questions ranged from logistics about Equality Ride’s visit to ways to react in different situations during the visit. Barnard answered these questions and also talked about expectations of the students during the visit, particularly about how they respond to members of the group.
“We are providing for peaceful dialogue,” Barnard said. “Any other form of communication is not appropriate. Signage and posters are not appropriate.”
In an earlier interview, Barnard said students need to be conscious of how they respond to members of Equality Ride.
“How we talk about it is equally important as talking about it,” Barnard said. “If people want to express their beliefs, they need to do it as Christians.”
Differences of opinions among those on campus and members of Soulforce likely will arise from their biblical interpretations regarding homosexuality and the university’s policy.
Money said the university treats heterosexual and homosexual activity outside of marriage as the same: sexual immorality. The university’s student guide lists sexual immorality as a Section 2 violation, which can result in at least probation and potentially suspension or dismissal from the university. However, the university does not ban students who identify themselves as homosexual or struggle with same-sex attraction.
Money said the Bible says the only legitimate sexual expression is between a man and a woman in marriage, a premise Reitan finds discriminatory.
“The policy [at ACU] is unfair because homosexuals don’t have the ability to date, fall in love and get married,” Reitan said. “Gay people can’t.”
Reitan said the group decided to visit ACU “because we saw it as a school that could benefit from our presence.”
University administrators said they see this visit as an opportunity to model Jesus to the Equality Riders by peacefully talking with the group but presenting a strong stance against homosexuality.
“[Jesus] was compassionate, loving and kind, but he was firm with what is right,” Barnard said. “I think we’re approaching this in a very biblical way.”
Clearing up misconceptions
After hearing reactions and criticisms from alumni and others connected to the university, administrators said the university’s approach and acceptance of Soulforce’s visit to campus has caused misconceptions.
“People assume that mere conversations with Soulforce mean we are abdicating a historically held view on morality. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Money said. “It’s been a sobering reminder to me that it’s easier to condemn and avoid than encounter and be a Christian witness.”
Money said this visit does not indicate a change in the university’s stance or policy about homosexuality, and Barnard said the visit allows the campus community to strengthen its views that differ from Soulforce members.
“Having my beliefs sharpened by counter beliefs has been good,” Barnard said. “My beliefs haven’t always changed; they’ve been sharpened.”
Administrators also pointed out that the university did not initiate contact with Equality Ride or make the initial invitation to visit. Members of Equality Ride initially contacted the university saying they planned to visit the school and hoped administrators would work with them to organize forums and activities. At that point, Money said the university had two choices: resist or engage in conversation.
Money also said the decision to pay for the group’s hotel rooms came after he heard students were contacting Equality Ride to offer their homes for riders. Money said he thought it would be better for all involved if the university offered an alternative. Money said funds for the rooms came from privately donated money.
Money said he hopes people take the time to find out accurate information about the visit and the university’s stance.
“When the critics are furnished with reliable and accurate information, those against have become supporters or at least tolerant of our stance,” Money said.
Regardless of if they agree or disagree with the university’s position, Money said he asks all to be in prayer for the university and the visit.
“The true character of an institution is shown in the way it faces certain challenges, and this visit is such a challenge,” Money said. “Therefore, it is important we conduct ourselves in a Christ-like manner in what we do and say – and I think we will.”
Denton Josey contributed to this report.