Initially, I was torn between whether I should do the Texas leg or the California leg of the Equality Ride. In retrospect, I’m glad I chose the Texas leg, because I doubt if I would have fully believed the reception we got at Abilene Christian University (ACU), if I had not physically been there to experience it. There’s definitely a bit of the “doubting Thomas,” in me.
We joined the bus in Dallas, and arrived in Abilene, Sunday evening in time to be hosted to a wonderful dinner put on by ACU. We spent a couple of hours with the staff getting acquainted, and then joined them and the students in worship which was very beautiful. I was unaware that the Church of Christ worship services are without any instruments and the harmony of the music was outstanding.
We were back at ACU the next morning around 7:30 a.m. and treated to a Texas breakfast again with the staff and some of their students. During that breakfast session two of our students, Jesse and Rebecca, gave their stories. What was a bit unsettling was that ACU had picked a teacher to wind up that session and she was an ex-gay. We felt a bit waylaid by this, but handled it well in our individual discussions with people.
Around 10 a.m. we gave the first of two presentations regarding the history of religion-based violence, starting with the crusades, then the inquisition, slavery, segregation and women’s oppression. Three of our student riders spoke about individual experiences with violence. They were great. Each of the two sessions had around 250 students attending. There were so many, that I had to ask one of the students if attendance was mandatory, and she said no it was purely voluntary.
After worship and lunch, again hosted by ACU, we took part in sessions on family life and theology again with a strong attendance by the students. There was a reception following with lots of opportunity to speak to a number of people. I personally spent almost an hour with Sally, the teacher who had spoken about being an ex-gay. I have to acknowledge that after listening to her story, I could for the first time accept that for some people, their homosexuality may separate them from God and so a healing of that could be a blessing. Up until then, I had always stated that I did not believe there were any ex-gays, that those who appeared to have successfully made the transition were simply bisexuals who had learned to suppress their homosexuality. I still believe that is, for the most part true, but I came to a point where I was able to put forth to her that while for her, her homosexuality might have separated her from God, my homosexuality brought me closer to God, so for me there was no need of healing around that issue. She appeared to accept that fact. Later in the discussion, she talked about a gay friend of hers who had not “healed,” and again I reminded her that perhaps there was no need of healing for him, because his homosexuality didn’t separate him from God. It seemed to me that she heard that because she seemed to have a startled but rather affirming response. After six years of persistent attempts at dialogue by Soulforce, it was at long last happening. The evening ended with dinner again hosted by ACU. The openness of the faculty and students was truly awesome.
The next day we spent mostly in travel from Abilene to College Station, Texas (just west of Houston) where Texas A&M is located. Again, we were welcomed on campus, but not as actively welcomed by the students as by the head of Texas A&M. We did a presentation on the campus and then had lunch. After spending time on campus we had dinner with the cadets at their mess hall. A number of very excellent conversations took place. But other cadets as we asked to join their tables quickly finished up their dinners and left.
The next day, we traveled back to Dallas to prepare for a press conference and vigil outside of the Christian Colleges and Universities Conference taking place in Dallas. That evening we hosted a reception for the conference attendees and representatives from ACU, Bethel (St. Paul, MN), Wheaton (Chicago, IL), Azusa (Azusa, CA) and California Baptist (Riverside, CA) (all schools we have been in contact with and will be or have already visited). Again, the conversations were lively and open.
I stayed with the bus until El Paso, where Sunday morning I caught a flight back home to Oakland, California.
I continue to believe that more miracles will occur on this trip. Abilene certainly has become an icon of how other schools might welcome us and I’m excited about the prospects for change arising out of this historic ride.
We’ve heard from one Lee student (in Cleveland, Tennessee) that supposedly, as a result of our visit there, the counselors have pressured the administration to change its expulsion policy to one that is based exclusively on a student being caught having sex rather than simply being gay. This has not as yet been confirmed but comes from a student who had been expelled from Lee simply because his profile on myspace.com indicated that he was gay. If this is true, we have certainly already accomplished significant change in at least two schools – Lee and ACU.
The ex-gay teacher, Sally, who I spent so much time with indicated before I left that she had been opposed to signs that would state that the school was a safe place for LGBTs. Her feeling was that as a Christian school it should be assumed, but after hearing our stories and talking with us, she understood that it was not a correct assumption and she has agreed to start the process of creating safe places at ACU.
If you haven’t already spent any time on our Equality Ride website, I highly recommend that you read the students reports and take a look at the pictures. The student’s reports are inspirational.
Two years ago, when the Equality Ride was simply a dream of Jacob Reitan’s, I never would have believed that this could happen. It seemed to me to be a good idea, because we would be training young student activists to get involved and to make a commitment to nonviolence. But I never would have expected the response that it has received. The dialogue has begun and we must find ways to ensure it continues.
I’m so thankful that Jake has pursued this. Clearly we are doing amazing things.
Lifelong activist Kara Speltz joined the Texas leg of the Soulforce Equality Ride in 2006 and spent three days in Baghdad in 2003 witnessing and documenting how the U.S. bombing of Iraq was affecting the country and its residents before the Iraqi government expelled her and other members of her group from the Christian Peacemakers Team for taking unauthorized photos. She graduated from Oakland (Calif.) Diocesan Pastoral Ministry Institute in 1998.