Christian college administrators feared the Soulforce Equality Ride even before the series of protests was announced. They had seen the trouble that the homosexual advocacy organization's founder, Mel White, had caused for his former employer, Jerry Falwell, at Liberty University. And they were not at all interested in becoming media poster children for so-called "religion-based discrimination" against gays.
Indeed, when the protest tour was launched in March, targeting 12 members and 3 affiliates of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, news outlets looked ready to dance to the old Sexual Oppression Waltz. National headlines touted trespassing arrests at Liberty and Pat Robertson's Regent University. When someone sprayed "Fags Mobile" on the Soulforce bus outside Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, it looked like Christian colleges were going to be painted as Fred "God Hates Fags" Phelps training camps or, as Equality Ride leaders put it, "epicenters of intolerance and oppression."
But the Lee University stop also marked a change in response to the Equality Ride. The protesters were welcome to walk around campus and speak to students. An entry ban and arrests "would have served their purposes, but not ours," Lee president Paul Conn explained. "Their goal was to stigmatize us as a bunch of fundamentalist bigots. We weren't going to give them that opportunity."
Instead, Lee students washed the graffiti off the Soulforce bus. During the next seven weeks, other Christian colleges rolled out the welcome mat. Several offered the riders food and housing during their stay. Many offered to host open forums and panel discussions, with faculty and students offering counterpoints to the protesters' claims that Paul didn't understand homosexuality and that students at these schools were oppressed. Time and again, Soulforce's claims about the schools (that they automatically toss out any gay students and that closeted students are in danger if they come out) were shown to be false. After a while, reporters stopped showing up.
Part of the media boredom was due to the riders' inept methods. When the protesters blocked the doors at North Central University in Minneapolis, students, administrators, and the few local media who did show up were bewildered. The local alternative paper mocked the protesters as desperate.
There is ample evidence, therefore, to suggest that Falwell was right when he said that Soulforce is "not acting in good faith [in claiming to want dialogue rather than confrontation] and is simply trying to use such encounters on Christian college campuses as a media attraction and for their ultimate purpose of fundraising." But he was shown wrong in concluding that arrests were the answer.
It turns out Paul was right when he told Roman Christians, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head" (Rom. 12:18, 20).
The defusing of the Soulforce campaign isn't just a lesson in the power of hospitality. It's also evidence that '60s-era demonstrations aren't as effective as they used to be. In an era when enormous immigration rallies blossom in cities nationwide, what's the big deal about a busload of college kids?
In an increasingly polarized political culture, shouting slogans is predictable, not newsworthy. As biblical Christians find themselves at odds with various groups, it's worth remembering that "fighting the culture" is more effective with meals and washbasins than it is with posters and bullhorns.
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Christianity Today's coverage of Soulforce includes:
Gay rights group targets Christian colleges | Schools' responses to Soulforce's Equality Ride will vary widely (Mar. 9, 2003)
Coming Attractions | Gay activism is not just found in liberal churches. A Christianity Today editorial (July 28, 2003)
Falwell Tames His Tongue | Moral Majority founder promises to tone down anti-gay speech at meeting with homosexuals. (December 6, 1999)
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