For the next seven weeks, the group Soulforce will test the hospitality of Christian colleges. Some schools have decided to withdraw the welcome mat for the national pro-gay activist group, while others are accommodating the protesters with housing and events.
Sixteen Christian colleges are preparing for the uninvited guests from what Soulforce is calling Equality Ride. The seven-week bus tour launching today will take 35 gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and straight 18- to 28-year-olds to colleges with behavior codes that Soulforce calls discriminatory.
The religious schools Soulforce is protesting specifically ban homosexual behavior along with other non-marital sexual activity.
Soulforce will visit 12 members and three affiliates of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. CCCU president Bob Andringa told CT he has not seen protests at colleges like this in his 12 years heading the council. "I knew that none of our campuses would welcome that kind of outside [message]: 'We're coming, whether you want us to or not.'"
College presidents "are not afraid of violence, but more afraid of outside organizations intercepting [the protesters] on or near the campus," Andringa said. "Christians who are anti-gay will try to confront the riders, and that may cause unanticipated conflict."
Each college is taking a different approach. Some colleges are not allowing Soulforce on their campuses. Others are permitting the riders to hold panel discussions. One college is paying for the group to stay in a hotel, and another college is inviting them into their homes. Andringa said the CCCU is not recommending any particular approach to the schools.
"They would love to have good dialogue, but I think they fear the motivations of some of the riders that will be visiting the campus," he said. The protesters, he said, "may be looking for confrontation, even arrest, in order to get media attention. Our hope would be that they would keep it an educational visit."
In addition to demonstrations at colleges, Soulforce will hold a March 31 rally at the CCCU's International Forum in Dallas, Texas.
"I understand they received a permit to have a demonstration just outside the hotel's property, and that would be fine," Andringa said. "If they wanted to register a few people to attend our forum, they could do that. If Equality Ride wants to schedule a dialogue, we would make an announcement, and those interested could go to a site nearby that they arrange."
Seeking media attention
Equality Ride leader Jacob Reitan said one goal is to raise public awareness of the colleges' policies by using the media.
"We also hope to send out a clear message to gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender students that God loves them as they are," Reitan said. "Today, it's gay and lesbian people who are the outcasts of the church, and later the church will have to repent from it."
Reitan also wants to convince administrators to allow for biblically based dissent of school policies.
"When Paul was writing in the New Testament, he didn't have an understanding of homosexuality as we know it today," he said. "We believe that Christ is our best defense, because the message of Christ was always to embrace people and love them."
Reitan, 24, who graduated from Northwestern University (Ill.), was raised in a Lutheran home. He decided to form the Equality Ride after he met a closeted Wheaton College student in Chicago who spoke of his difficulty in reconciling sexuality with Christianity at a Christian institution.
Lee University, the first CCCU member to be visited by the protesters, is not going to block the Equality Ride from campus, but President Paul Conn said the school will not offer a platform in chapel or classes during the March 16-17 visit.
Conn said he wishes his school, located in Cleveland, Tennessee, were later on the list. "It would be helpful to me if I could pick up the phone and ask other presidents, 'How did it go?' I wish I had that luxury."
Conn says he asked Reitan to not bring his group to Lee's campus.
"It was clear he knew nothing about Lee and describes Lee in a one-size-fits-all cartoon-like description of angry fundamentalists," Conn said. "We have lots of discussions about homosexuality on our campus, and that dialogue occurs among those of us who have investment in our campus."
Soulforce sent a letter to the Cleveland chief of police stating that there will be a day of "nonviolent direct action and a possible nonviolent act of civil disobedience" on March 16. Conn doesn't think the visit will be a major concern, however, and said the school has not changed its planned schedule.
Before its stop at Lee, Soulforce will pay its first visit to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, on March 10.
Liberty, which was the target of an earlier version of the Equality Ride last year, has decided not to allow Soulforce on campus. "It is now our firm belief that Soulforce is not acting in good faith and is simply trying to use such encounters on Christian college campuses as a media attraction and for their ultimate purpose of fundraising," Chancellor Jerry Falwell said in a written statement.
Before acknowledging his homosexuality and forming Soulforce, president Mel White was Falwell's ghost writer. The two have a long history of conflict over the issue, and both groups are based in Lynchburg.
Preaching to empty pews
When the Equality Ride travels to Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, on March 18, it will find an emptier campus. The students will be on spring break.
"I was grateful that we wouldn't have the same challenges that some of the other colleges might have with their uninvited visit," said Union President David Dockery. Still, Union will provide a meal for the group. It has refused a request for a public forum.
Abilene Christian University is still determining a schedule of events with Soulforce, but President Royce Money said the university decided to put Equality Ride participants in a hotel. Money explained that the offer to pay for hotel rooms was made after students offered to host the protesters in college apartments and in off-campus houses.
"We are a university that is able to talk about all sides of the issues and teach our students how to respond," Money said. "One of the good things it has done was to make us realize that we had not done a good job in informing our students to deal with a variety of cultural forces that they will face after college. So this has encouraged us to do a better job."
Biola University spokesperson Irene Neller said Equality Riders will talk with administrators and student leaders, but Biola will not give them a public forum during their April 4 visit to La Mirada, California.
"It's just not a form that we practice," Neller said. "For any solicitor, any vendor, we just don't give access to our students at free will. That's the protection we give our students at a private school."
Unlike many schools, Neller said, Biola has not informed the student body or parents about the visit.
"I think sometimes by informing people, you are drawing alarm," she said. "I know that many Christian organizations really become frightened and even become threatened from a group like Soulforce. We see it as a really good opportunity for the evangelical community to dispel beliefs and attitudes with Equality Ride members."
Unlike Biola, Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, is filling the Equality Ride's April 18 visit with events. Plans are tentative, but the school has agreed to allow Soulforce to distribute information near post office boxes, visit classes on invitations, perform a dramatic presentation, and hold a forum with Bethel. "We're trying to make this an event that we control as much as possible," said Provost Jay Barnes.
Bethel President George Brushaber said he thinks Soulforce is using the Equality Ride as a media stunt, but that the riders are sincere people.
"I think these are people who are very, very wise in the use of media and have chosen many of the schools because of the potential for media prominence," he said. "I do think they're people who genuinely think they can bring about change in position or in attitude."
Wheaton College Provost Stan Jones called Soulforce's April 20-21 visit to Wheaton, Illinois, "a challenge to be met. Soulforce is claiming that one student will come out of the closet, and that concerns us. But we're just going to have to manage that as it happens."
Wheaton has rearranged its schedule due to the protests. One of its weekends for prospective high school students was moved to later in the year. Wheaton also changed its chapel schedule. Instead of hearing a sermon from the college president, students will disperse to several smaller meetings around campus. Jones says the move was made to minimize the possibility of a disruption during the chapel service.
Wheaton will host six seminars in the weeks leading up to the Equality Ride visit. During the stay, Soulforce will hold two presentations with responses from Wheaton faculty members and one panel discussion. Jones said Soulforce has agreed to refrain from using civil disobedience techniques.
While there are only 35 official Equality Ride protesters, Jones anticipates anywhere from 100 to 600 to come to campus for the visit, since Soulforce may seek a turnout from supporters in the Chicago metropolitan area.
End of the road
The Equality Ride will end its visits to Christian colleges at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, on April 24, the week before final exams. "It certainly will be a distraction," said Eastern President David Black.
Plans are still being formed for the visit, but Black said administrators, faculty, and other people in the area will host Equality Riders in their homes.
While Black says Eastern will benefit from seeing how other colleges responded to Soulforce, he says those encounters may also make it harder for the school "if the riders come from unpleasant visits. They might become closed to the possibility that Eastern is willing to talk with them."
"To stop them at our gate would unquestionably invite a confrontational media event supported by a very large network in Philadelphia that would cause Eastern to be viewed differently than we really are," Black said.
Among the Equality Ride's 20 stops are six other CCCU member schools, two other CCCU affiliate schools, two military academies, Texas A&M's ROTC program, and Brigham Young University.
"I think this is a significant event," says Wheaton's Jones. "I think it signals a heightening of the pressure that's going to be on our institution as we are discordant with the general culture on our stand of sexual morality."
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Soulforce's visit to Liberty last year was covered in the local media.
Other news coverage of the Equality Ride includes:
Falwell won't allow visit of gay-rights group to Liberty | A nationwide bus tour to promote gay rights at conservative Christian colleges may get off to a rocky start Friday when it visits Liberty University, which has announced the activist group is not welcome on its Lynchburg campus. (Associated Press, March 8, 2006)
'Equality riders' seek justice at anti-gay colleges | A fellow college student told Reitan he had to stay closeted at Wheaton College, a nearby religious school, because of its explicitly anti-gay rules. "That's horrible! Something has to be done about that," responded Reitan, a lifelong Lutheran. "Oh, no," the Wheaton student replied. "It's a good policy. I think it's a sin to be gay." (Deb Price, Detroit News, March 06, 2006)
Gay rights group aims for LU | On Friday, a group of gay rights activists may risk jail to come to Liberty University. (The News & Advance, Va., March 5, 2006)
A 'freedom ride' to anti-gay colleges | Four Minnesotans will be among a group of young people who will begin a bus journey to 19 Christian colleges that have anti-gay admission policies. (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, March 3, 2006)
Christianity Today's coverage of Soulforce includes:
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)
The CCCU has issued a press release about the Equality Ride launch, which happened outside CCCU's Washington offices.