BOLIVAR — Characterizations of the Soulforce Q Equality Ride stop at Southwest Baptist University April 14 range from “gentle” to “spiritually violent,” depending upon the person asked.
Most years since 2006, Soulforce Q, the young adult division of Soulforce, has hosted a national bus tour to faith-based colleges and universities the organization’s members believe discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and “queer” (LGBTQ) individuals.
The 12-year-old parent body, Soulforce, describes itself on its Web site as a national civil rights organization that works to end religious and political oppression of LGBTQ people.
Approached for the first time, university officials decided to allow a strictly controlled visit this year as a way to engage others with a “divergent” worldview.
SBU provided a faculty or staff person and a student host to accompany each Equality Rider. Riders attended a missions-oriented chapel that morning and participated in a panel discussion later in the day. The university also provided an informal time for the SBU community and Riders to talk.
None of the events was compulsory for students, and all were closed to all media.
“Our number-one goal was to provide an opportunity for students to talk about the issue without any condemnation…in an honest, gentle, non-judgmental forum,” SBU Redford College of Theology dean Rodney Reeves said in an April 16 telephone interview.
Reeves repeatedly emphasized the gentle nature of the panel discussion that allowed questions from both sides and that provided Equality Riders an opportunity to share their personal stories.
Equality Ride director and a rider Caitlin MacIntyre characterized the encounter differently. “I think most Riders felt as though SBU was one of our most difficult stops,” she wrote in an e-mail response.
“Unfortunately during the day, especially at chapel service…, it felt like the messages that were heard loudest were those of judgment and condemnation rather than love and compassion.”
Riders were offended at the chapel’s missions tone. “We felt it was important to challenge the sermon’s message of going into different cultures without knowledge of their lives and traditions and proselytizing…them without actually understanding the complexity of their experiences or being aware of our own privilege as Americans, often of a certain class, and often white,” MacIntyre wrote.
Both sides aired their convictions about homosexuality and homosexual behavior during the panel discussion, beginning with questions agreed upon in advance. Riders wanted to know how SBU could ensure the safety of its students, regardless of their sexual preference.
Characterized as “very respectful,” the encounter allowed both sides to air concerns. Equality Riders were concerned for students’ emotional and spiritual safety, as well as physical safety. University participants wanted to hear the Riders’ understanding of Scripture and reasoning behind their beliefs.
“I thought it was very, very good…very healthy, very informative,” Reeves said. “We were challenged about how Christians should not be hateful…regardless if we felt others were wrong. We have to consider: what does it mean to love one another?”
The two sides explored their difference of opinion over the lifestyle. “They have the opinion that…the behavior is acceptable by God…and celebrated by God,” the dean said.
But some of the Riders considered the university’s responses “oppressive” and “hate speech.”
According to Reeves, one of the SBU panelists asked, “If I have a different opinion…and express it, that is oppressive?” The Riders responded, “That’s right.”
“What we would say is an expression of opinion…they say is oppressive,” Reeves said.
MacIntyre characterized the university’s response as simply failure to listen. “During the panel, it often felt like Riders’ experiences weren’t being heard or understood by some of the panelists, which is unfortunate since we are all experts in our personal stories and having one’s testimony challenged is very painful,” she wrote.
“I felt Riders were beautifully and courageously vulnerable and spoke poignantly to the very real harm of SBU’s religious doctrine.”
The Equality Riders held a “vigil” on public property across from the university after the planned events “to provide an affirming time” for the Riders and to talk with anyone from the SBU community who wanted to continue discussions.
“We felt…there was definitely more conversation that needed to take place and that we needed a space where we could provide open love and affirmation both for ourselves and for students after a difficult and, in many ways, spiritually violent day,” McIntyre wrote.
SBU faculty and staff offered three forums before the visit to prepare students for their encounter with Soulforce Q. One dealt with what the Bible says about sexuality, and one examined the issue through social and biological sciences. The final forum helped participants discover how to respond to those with whom they disagree.
Before the event took place, SBU president Pat Taylor emphasized that the university agreed to allow Equality Riders on campus for two reasons — to “speak the truth in love” as a Christian and caring community and to engage divergent worldviews as an academic community.
But he emphasized, the university will not compromise. “We do not seek to condemn any individual or group whose views may differ from our own; however, we do not intend to compromise our convictions, based on the tenets of our faith, that homosexual behavior is contrary to the principles of Christianity.”
Reeves agreed. “We’re an educational institution. We consider opposite views,” he said. “We don’t fear the truth…. The truth is eternal.”
He added that the Soulforce Q Equality Ride visit opened continued discussion on a difficult and often hidden topic. “We used it as an opportunity to show light on what the church doesn’t seem to talk about,” he said.
So far, none of this year’s Riders have been arrested, a tactic Soulforce Q has used during vigils on past rides, often contacting law enforcement and the media in advance. “In the past we have used civil disobedience as a way of illuminating the injustice of the school’s policies and demonstrating the lengths to which these schools will go to silence our message,” MacIntyre wrote.
“Previously, it has been a useful way to use voluntary redemptive suffering in the form of arrest to bring attention to the discriminatory policies and silencing of…LGBTQ people and to pressure the school to allow us a space for dialogue.”
Riders still have the option but Soulforce discourages it because of injustice in the prison and justice systems, particularly against LGBTQ individuals and people of color, MacIntyre wrote.
This year, Soulforce Q is concentrating on negotiation as a way “to create a new relationship,” even “in places where we have been historically unwelcome,” she added.
“This year we are especially aware that through our conversations with students, sparks can be created and movements can be started by those individuals in their own communities, which is the outcome we are hopeful for and we have seen in action this year a great deal,” MacIntyre wrote.