When his phone rang in December 2004, Bethel University Provost Jay Barnes couldn’t have imagined he was about to answer a call that would change his job for the next year. The person on the other end was Jacob Reitan, co-director of a nationwide bus tour being organized by Soulforce, a Christian gay rights organization. Reitan, a self-described “Christian gay activist,” called to inform Barnes that Bethel, located in St. Paul, Minn., was one of 19 schools to be visited in spring 2006 by the Equality Ride, which was designed to bring attention to the issue of gay rights and foster dialogue on campuses with what Soulforce considers anti-gay policies. Bethel had a decision to make: Welcome the 33 Equality Riders onto campus or turn them away.
“I don’t think there was ever a point where we said we wouldn’t welcome them,” explained Barnes. A media circus was later created at schools such as Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and Pat Robertson’s Regent University, where riders were not only turned away but, in some cases, arrested for attempting to speak to students and distribute literature.
Among other schools that chose to welcome the Equality Ride were Azusa Pacific University in California, Biola University (La Mirada, Calif.), Eastern University (St. Davids, Pa.), and Wheaton College in Illinois. Wheaton, perhaps the most notable evangelical college in the United States, saw a benefit in allowing its students to engage the issue.
“Our position from early on was that it would harm the college to turn them away,” said Stanton Jones, Wheaton’s provost. “Uppermost in our minds was how do we make this the best educational opportunity for our students, given that it is going to happen?”