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?”
Jones tackled that question by organizing a series of lectures leading up to the visit. The lectures, which covered a wide range of Christian views on gay and lesbian issues, were similar to panel discussions planned ahead of the ride at other schools such as Bethel and Azusa.
“It’s a complex reality,” said Jones. “When you see their Web site, I think it’s very clear that their goal is to change the church’s morality.” In the same breath, Jones acknowledged the value of giving attention to something that might previously have been little more than a faceless, hot-button social issue to some students.
“Prior to the visit, our students thought about homosexuality as a moral abstraction, but now they’re thinking about it in terms of real people,” Jones said. “You can have moral convictions and deal with these people mercifully, patiently, and with kindness. I think we modeled the kind of response that our students need.”
HUMANIZING GAY RIGHTS was a high priority for Equality Riders such as David Coleman, a student who was expelled during his final semester at North Central University (a pentecostal school in Minneapolis) when he refused to seek counseling intended to change his sexual orientation. Coleman, who was majoring in evangelism and hopes to plant churches someday, felt most encouraged by dialogue with students who seemed to be seeking true understanding.
“We had awesome conversations with students who were ready to lay aside prejudice and see us as brothers and sisters in Christ,” recalled Coleman, who believes this brand of understanding is “the future of the evangelical church.”
When schools decided to welcome the riders, it felt like a victory to Reitan, who has gotten used to dealing with cautious college administrators.
“I think some people mistake our deep convictions with a desire to create chaos. Our goal was not to mess with these schools. It was to break bread together and have genuine conversations,” explained Reitan, who was arrested numerous times during the tour for acts of civil disobedience at schools where riders were denied access. At Falwell’s Liberty University, for example, riders were welcomed off-campus by a handful of students but maintained that attempting to enter school property in front of law enforcement and assembled media was a symbolic action worth the risk. Similar nonviolent direct actions took place wherever riders were not officially welcomed.
While the arrests of riders attracted national media attention, Reitan much preferred stops that involved fewer camera crews and more authentic discussions. A high point for many riders was the stop at Azusa, where they gave presentations in classrooms, hosted informal conversations in campus lounges, had lunch with administrators, and even shared Easter communion with the student body. The day at Azusa also included a symbolic ceremony in which riders, students, and administrators placed stones on the ground one at a time.
“If you’re looking for a place to exchange ideas, then you’ll be welcome here,” said Terry Franson, dean of students at Azusa, who has been leading a small support group for gay students since 2004. “People want to start with, ‘here’s what’s wrong with how you think or live,’ instead of developing a real relationship. Christians want to speak about truth and love, but often the love quotient is too far down on the list. Our job was to love, listen, and learn, and not to play the trump card at the end of the day about our position.”
About a month before the Equality Ride stopped at APU, Reitan and co-director Haven Herrin joined a panel discussion on human sexuality as part of Azusa’s “Day of Common Learning.” The event laid groundwork for Soulforce’s impending visit and built trust between the Azusa community and Equality Riders.
“Because of the way we function and talk with people, they come to trust us,” said Herrin. “Our methods underscore the fact that we come with a spiritual commitment that gives weight to what we say and earns us respect. It’s much easier to converse when people see where our convictions lie.”
For Bethel’s provost Barnes, hearing from Reitan far in advance of the tour enabled him to trust the sincerity of the Equality Ride’s stated objectives. “I believe one of their goals was real dialogue,” said Barnes. All riders took part in mandatory nonviolence trainings before the tour and were mindful about keeping love at the center of their message, but there was also a sense of urgency about addressing the widespread problems of self-hatred and suicide among gay Christians.
“I was so depressed I wanted to die,” recalled Coleman, who made countless attempts—from constant prayer to asking friends to cast demons out of his body—to change his sexual orientation. “Nothing worked. The way I translated it was that God hated me. Thankfully, I eventually realized that the only way I could be an emotionally stable human being and live in harmony with my Creator was to come to terms with my homosexuality.”
While he described the tour as “a daily defense of [his] humanity,” Coleman welcomed the challenge of meeting people with the same grace he sought from them. “My relationship with God was revolutionized through this. I can understand love and grace in ways I never could before.”
For Coleman and many others, there are memories of prejudice-induced pain that drove them to join the seven-week tour. And for many riders, it wasn’t enough to simply tell their stories at each school. A central part of the presentations was a call to action in an attempt to save other students from suffering.
“The common ground place was to say we, as evangelical Christians, have to stand against hatred and violence toward any of God’s people,” said David Wright, dean of Azusa’s Haggard School of Theology. “Christians have a sorry track record of coming to blows about our convictions.”
During the visits, Reitan routinely challenged schools to commit themselves to academic freedom, which he views as a non-negotiable in higher education. “Most students took this as an opportunity to learn,” said Reitan. “We were very encouraged by that.”
As an academic provost, Barnes saw similar value in the exchange of opinions between parties that may still disagree at the end of the day. “We have an obligation, if we claim to be a liberal arts university, to credibly represent multiple points of view. It’s too easy to build up a straw man and run him over with a bulldozer in the classroom,” said Barnes. “We tend to create God in our image. Many students come to college thinking Jesus is a white guy who lives down the block and votes Republican. I believe we see God more clearly in the person whose life experience is incredibly different than our own.”
Franson agreed. “Being in relationship with people and developing trust is where true learning occurs. I think it’s about radically accepting people. Ultimately, it’s not about us. Our job is to love as Jesus would.”
Wright viewed the events as transformative for Azusa. “I was so glad they existed in the presence of our student body and staff, and I know it was a redemptive, stretching, growing experience for our community.”
In the months since the Equality Ride, many students are still thanking administrators like Barnes for welcoming Soulforce onto campus. “They helped us to think compassionately, biblically, and thoughtfully about homosexuality,” said Barnes.
Reitan, a student at Harvard Divinity School, seemed pleased with the results. “The proof was in the pudding. I truly believe we brought constructive, meaningful dialogue. Schools we visit next year will be able to look back and know what to expect. It gave us an opportunity to have important conversations, and the students and schools are better for it,” said Reitan.
Two concurrent rides will visit 40 schools next spring as part of Soulforce’s ongoing effort to challenge Christians to think beyond traditional political wedge issues and seek a deeper understanding of gay rights. “This will be a large nationwide conversation,” predicted Herrin, who is directing the 2007 rides.
While a new group of colleges wrestles with how to respond to future Equality Rides, schools like Azusa remain thankful that they opted for discourse. “We knew we needed to lay down our stones, make way for the love of Jesus, and let that love rule the day,” explained Franson, who hopes Azusa will be on the list again next spring. n
Amy McDougall is a writer and graduate student at Washington State University. Jake Nyberg is a Minneapolis-based writer and speaker. This article has been amended from the print version.