For those of you who don’t know, last year (March & April 2007), I participated in a thing called the Soulforce Equality Ride. The Soulforce Equality Ride is an annual tradition , modeled in the tradition of the Freedom Rides of the 1960’s, of young adult activists going to schools that have policies that discriminate against LGBT students, with three goals in mind: to engage in dialogue with school administrators about the injustices of their policies (which call for expulsion of openly gay students, and sometimes even expulsion or discipline for those who speak up for the rights of gay students), to serve as a support for open and closeted LGBT students at these schools, and to engage in constructive dialogue with students about homosexuality, scripture, and the church. Soulforce’s ideology behind these visits is to work with the university months in advance to develop a day or two of constructive dialogue with panel discussions, meetings with administrators, conversations over a meal, and more. A great deal of the time, the school and Soulforce will work together and it will end up beautifully.

Take, for example, our visit to Cedarville University, a small school near Dayton, OH. This was the school I organized (each Rider was assigned a school to plan the visit for), and it was a fantastic visit. Carl Ruby, the vice president for Student Affairs, and I worked closely together to produce a great day of events–where dialogue on both sides was welcome. We had a panel discussion on ‘Homosexuality and the Church’, with professors from Cedarville representing the views of the university, and Riders representing the ‘dissenting opinion.’ We did a few workshops on various topics–one on ‘Homosexuality & The Church Tradtion: What Liberation Theology Can Teach Us’ and another called ‘Gay Christians? Stories from the Fringes.” We had lunch with our student hosts, representatives picked by the university to spend time with us throughout the day. Of course, it was still frustrating. The student hosts were hand-picked by the university, and were forced to attend weeks of workshops to be ‘prepared’ for our visit. The panel discussion wasn’t really fair, considering we were a mix of 18-23 year-olds and the other ‘side’ was tenured professors. But, nonetheless, the school still worked with us, and it was a fantastic day. I still keep in touch with many students from Cedarville, two of which have been quite brave and have come out in the weeks and months after our visit to their campus. These students continue to do the work that we went there to start.

A workshop we held at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa

A workshop we held at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa

The largest audience we had at a workshop, at Gordon College (Wenham, MA). There were over 1500 in attendance, and I had to speak!

The largest audience we had at a workshop, at Gordon College (Wenham, MA). There were over 1500 in attendance, and I had to speak!

Conversations happening at a coffeeshop near Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, TN). One of the girls in this picture still keeps in touch with me. (Laura, you need to start writing that novel again!)

Conversations happening at a coffeeshop near Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, TN). One of the girls in this picture still keeps in touch with me. (Laura, you need to start writing that novel again!)

On the other hand, however, are schools that forbid our visits on their campuses, that do not want to take any part in dialogue, citing that light can not be around darkness, and that we are simply a group of pagan homosexual activists who want to win innocent people to our evil causes. It sounds extreme, but this is what many schools thought of us. Take, for example, the letter that one school sent out to businesses around the city, encouraging them not to serve us. The manager at Panera Bread, where we did go for lunch, shared this with us:

Subject: Civil Protest

A group known as the “Equality Riders” is coming to Spfld. Sunday + Monday for a planned protest at Central Bible College. As much as I have been able to determine, this group is a collection of gays and vegetarian activists.  They usually like to get themselves arrested in order to publicize their beliefs.  They are planning to assemble on the street across from CBC sometime Monday morning 3/12/07 in an attempt to engage CHC students in “meaningful dialogue” (ie; get themselves arrested).  They also plan to make an appearance at a nearby Panera Bread (presumably the one on N. Kansas Exp) for the stated purpose of “engaging in discussion”  with the CBC students that frequent it (ie; get themselves arrested). The size of this group is unknown at this time, and S.P.D. has plans in place to deal with the situation, but if it starts spinning out of control they will of course be calling on us for assistance  I would like everyone in the Patrol Division to keep their cell phones turned on Monday and be prepared to suit up and report for duty if needed.  We have volunteered our jail transport bus for the effort if needed. It is unknown exactly what the “Equality Riders” are riding (no pun intended here, I was referring to bicycles of motorcycles).  Hopefully this will be nothing more than peacful protest, but this is not a good group to mix in with Ozarks hillbillies….

stay tuned,

Capt. Gibson

Vegetarian activists? Seriously?

Some city residents at one place went so far to try to forbid our visit and hurt our cause that they vandalized our bus with awful words and picture:

God does not love gay feary fucks and are accompanied by some oh so creative artwork.

The words on the bus read: God does not love gay feary fucks and are accompanied by some oh so creative artwork.

you fucking god damn gay homos go suck dick fuck off.

The sign reads: you fucking god damn gay homos go suck dick fuck off.

So, at these schools, one would assume we would just not go–what are we going to do if they won’t even let us come? Well, Soulforce has a bit of a different philosophy in  scenarios such as this, and that is—go anyways. What would it say to administrators to have us ‘cave in’ so quickly? I can assure you that, if this was our approach, the ride wouldn’t exist and the amazing relationships that are built and the change that occurs in all involved parties wouldn’t happen. Also, Soulforce is steeped in the traditions of non-violent civil disobedience, and we are taught the philosophies behind it and the importance of such a type of resistance. An original freedom rider and friend of Martin Luther King Jr., Jim Lawson, is actually on the board of Soulforce and spoke to us of the significance and importance of civil disobedience. At the time of signing up for Soulforce, I was posing as a ‘straight ally’ (ahahahaha) and remember talking to James, asking if a more moderate, relational approach was better. I remember him leading me to MLK’s Letter from Brimingham Jail, specifically where he says :

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

There is certainly a place for moderate, relational ‘activism’, something that I have learned much more about since being at Duke Divinity, but there is also a place for people to come in and stand up for justice and truth–in a lawful way. Now, some may say that getting arrested signifies a lack of lawfulness, but it really doesn’t. it just means, I think, a sort of lawfulness to a higher power, and a willingness to accept the consequences of the law. Which is what we did.

Lets look at another one of our visits–Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. This was the first school we visited which resulted in arrests, which happened to include me being arrested. It was decided on Abby Reikow and I be the one to risk arrest at the first school which this was a possibility. As we said during the Ride, we never planned on being arrested–we always hoped the schools where this was threatened were to change their minds and let us on (which had happened before). We were, however, always prepared, which is a very good thing (jail is not a spectacularly exciting place, and had we not been prepared, we would have had to spend much more time in it, and would be mentally ready for that possibility).

Anyways, Abby & I would be the first to walk onto CBC’s campus. We were the two, because we thought it would make a good statement with us being the straight allies on the trip (and, to note, Abby is indeed straight. This wasn’t me faking it for the sake of the trip, this was me being too scared to come out). Walking onto this hostile campus was also important for me because CBC is an Assemblies of God school, and I grew up in the AG denomination.

We arrive onto the grounds near the campus at around 8:30 in the morning, my emotions acting like a rollercoaster, which made me want to throw up, like most rollercoasters do. And, let me tell you, arriving near the campus to be greeted by a swarm, yes a swarm, of police does not help. There are “caution, do not trespass” signs around the edges of campus, signs that were most certainly put up for our visit, because the spraypainted lines marking where they should be hammered in are still clear on the freshly mowed grass. We step out of the big gay bus, so affectionately titled, and realize that not only are there swarms of police on the ground, there are police on the roofs of the buildings. Are we at the wrong school, I wonder? Is the president of the United States coming to the university today too? Are these his snipers? Nope, it’s the  local police, there for us. Why they felt the need to be on the roofs, however, is beyond me. (The campus was fully aware that we were a non-violent group).

We filter out of the bus, and into a line just beyond the perimeter of campus. We want to hold vigil for a little while, and then attempt to go on campus at just the right time so we can try our best to speak with students. We decide that that time will be at 10:15, right when the students get out of chapel and head to their respective classes. So, for an hour, we stand at the line, reading scriptures, telling our stories, and signing worship songs and old songs from the civil rights movement. These vigils remain in my memories as some of the most authentic expressions of worship and tangible senses of God’s presence for me.

At 10:15, chapel ends, and we notice students are not exiting the building. By this point, school administrators and police have already visited our vigil line and warned us of the consequences of our stepping foot onto campus. Yet, we know we will proceed anyways, and hope to talk to students despite the likely intervention by law enforcement (which, once we are approached by, we will comply with).

Yet, as 10:15 comes and goes, we notice no students exiting the chapel. The administrator comes and informs us that they have actually all been sent out through the back of the chapel, on a path that does not cross ours. So, hoping that some students are lingering and hoping to talk, Abby and I begin to take steps on to the campus. We actually make it a good ways (a couple hundred feet?) before we are approached by the police and subsequently arrested. Being arrested for something you deeply believe in is one of the strangest feelings in the world. One part of you (well, of me) is thinking what one should think when one gets arrested: What the fuck did I just do?! Yet, there is another part of you, a stronger part, that is proud, that thinks, I care about something so much, I will deal with this time in jail and this infraction on my record, for it–that, no matter what you do to me, this is more important. In reality, getting arrested in a situation like this is not a big deal- we were out of the jail in a matter of hours, and nothing really harmful happened to us. But still, to put yourself on the line like that, to feel so vulnerable and yet so powerful, its crazy, really. In my few arrests, I think I was able to put my mind around Jesus’ bizarre saying that ‘blessed are the meek’ more that I ever have been able to before, or since.

Before the impending arrest. I clearly have my 'game face' on.

Before the impending arrest. I clearly have my 'game face' on.

The best picture we got of my first arrest. Abby & I were instructed to 'put down our Bible's immediately and put our hands behind our backs.' We sat at the police van for over three hours before spending about seven hours in jail.

The best picture we got of my first arrest. Abby & I were instructed to 'put down our Bible's immediately and put our hands behind our backs.' We sat at the police van for over three hours before spending about seven hours in jail.

Right after I got out of jail. Freedom felt nice!

Right after I got out of jail. Freedom felt nice!

Like I mentioned above, I was arrested a couple times– at Central Bible College, and then again at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, which was an even more bizarre situation. Other Equality Riders were arrested at various schools across the country, at Bob Jones, Covenant, Cornerstone, Baylor, Oklahoma Baptist, Brigham Young, and quite a few other schools. At Baylor, the students who were arrested were held in jail for over 27 hours, and were humiliated by being strip searched. All for a known in advance non-violent act of civil disobedience.

Matt & Stephen's arrest at Cornerstone publicized

Matt & Stephen's arrest at Cornerstone publicized

The arrestees at Baylor told to line up and not move. Four of the arrested were equality riders, and were joined by one Baylor student.

The arrestees at Baylor told to line up and not move. Four of the arrested were equality riders, and were joined by one Baylor student.

Despite the difficulty of those months–the constantly having to defend yourself and your humanity, the humiliation and pain of being arrested and treated cruelly for trying to talk about an issue that you know is important, despite the emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that accompanies such activties—I miss it.

I miss the emotional and moral bravado I felt defending something I believed in so dearly, the ease of being able to stand up for myself and my fellow gay Christian peers. I miss the clarity that came with taking a stand against such outrageous behavior. I miss the honest, candid conversations that happened with the students. I miss the beauty and joy I felt when students at these schools felt safe coming out to one of us, thanking us in tears that we came. Most of all, I miss the community, the people who understand me, who stand beside me, who give me the strength to be who I am. The conversations with my co-Riders, the common goals we shared, the ways we supported and stood by one another (literally), the shared hurt, and more significantly, the shared happiness, and shared hope.

Here at Duke, things just aren’t like that. Its not a bad thing per say, its just different, and a little bit depressing.  Being in the daily grind at a semi-conservative, Southern, divinity school makes life more fuzzy. People aren’t as ‘against me’–nobody is vandalizing my car, and hell, I’m allowed to go here! But, like I’ve whined about before (I really don’t mean to whine), neither are many people ‘for me’, and that makes the journey rather isolating. There are many people who love God here who think that my choices are not faithful Christian living. Its easier when it doesn’t seem like people who are ‘against you’ love God too, or if it seems like they have been indoctrinated or something. But Dukians are smart, and good people. Its just so damn complicated, and lonely.

All that to say, I miss the Equality Ride days, where life was, in a sense, easier. But, I guess we are called to different places at different times, and that this is where I am now. Perhaps I will look back on this one day and think of it as ‘the good ‘ol days’ in a way of its own. I know that I will look back at this and remember how it has shaped me.  That, I am almost sure of. But thats about all that I’m sure of…..

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