The Case For Not Running: Why I Chose To Stay in a Position of Power

I hope for a future where the church is more inclusive, queer Christians are still on fire for the Gospel, and we choose to fight to improve imperfect institutions rather than abandon them — even when they oppress us. I’m willing to do this even if I don’t see results in my lifetime.

Institutional change is slow. So slow that you may not live to enjoy the fruits of your labor. I remember the shock I felt when a mentor told me that she didn’t know if she’d ever see a change in the institution where she worked during her career. The point of activism, another friend told me, is working to make institutions better for the next generation, not just pointing out how they need to change to better serve us.

When I was on my college’s student government, we once had a discussion on how to table meetings that, ironically, was tabled after more than an hour of discussion. The core curriculum developed during my year as student body president at Calvin University had been in the works for over a decade. Despite rekindling conversations on queer representation when I came out as Calvin’s first openly gay student body president in 2020, the Christian Reformed Church (the denomination Calvin is associated with) has been refining its stance on homosexuality for more than 50 years.

Like it or not, institutions help us organize ourselves in society. Even if I organized 20 friends to have the most efficient meetings, we wouldn’t have access to the thousands of dollars to enact our policies that our official student government has. Even though I could have proposed a new core curriculum on my own in a few weeks, it wouldn’t contain nuances that only extensive feedback from each department could offer.

Most importantly, if I left the CRC to start my own denomination with queer people in positions of leadership, there are still hundreds if not thousands of queer kids growing up in the CRC who would have one less, perhaps even zero, queer CRC role models during a crucial time in their personal and spiritual development.

The specific changes I want to see within student government, Calvin University, and the Christian Reformed Church have not changed — but the ways that I’ve gone about that change have. Prior to being president, I thought that tearing down long-standing yet imperfect institutions was nobler than becoming part of them to improve them for future generations.

Yuval Levin’s A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream argues that there’s value in having the humility to allow ourselves to be formed by institutions while working within them, not just canceling institutions when they don’t meet our every need perfectly. This idea, and the one that more queer representation in faith-based institutions is needed, are not mutually exclusive.

I’m a strong proponent of speaking truth to power. But I’ve learned that it’s easier to speak truth to power than to actually become the one in power. It’s even harder to speak truth to power once you are in power.

When I found myself with influence after being elected student body president of a Christian college that, to my knowledge, had no openly LGBTQ+ faculty or staff, I chose to just share my story rather than focus on specific policy outcomes. I was hard on myself at first for not “doing enough,” but there are many ways to make change, and I don’t regret the one I took.

If you’re part of an institution that oppresses marginalized communities, I initially thought, didn’t that make you personally responsible for all of the injustices that occurred within it? Not necessarily. Two epiphanies during my last semester of college nuanced this line of thought.

First, a professor told me that I’m only liable for unethical behavior within an institution if my actions perpetuate norms that encourage that behavior. To me, that was a huge relief. I didn’t have to be on every committee to show my commitment to queer folks: Being fully invested in two committees with top university leaders was better than being somewhat invested in many. Plus, I could ask the occasional pointed question to the people who held the most power on campus.

Secondly, I became strangely comforted by the Reformed church doctrine of total depravity, which says that sin touches every inch of our world. There’s not a single institution that’s immune to the effects of human wrongdoing. If I left the CRC’s congregation of 210,000 because of a specific problem, only to start a new denomination: It would have different problems and a congregation of zero.

Out of these 210,000, I’d be willing to bet that a few of them are queer youth who are trying to reconcile their faith and sexuality in secret, on their own, just as I once had. If I had transferred to the big state school I had quietly applied to during my sophomore year, if I had decided not to run for president because Calvin had “too many problems,” or if I had started my own church denomination instead of staying in the CRC — who would be there for queer youth in CRC churches when they ask themselves if they are loved by God, if they should leave the church, or if it’s even worth it to be alive right now?

Thirty-nine percent of LGBTQ youth in the U.S. are religious, according to a 2019 survey by the Trevor Project. There are also 5.3 million religious LGBTQ adults in the U.S. — yet growing up I knew zero queer adults or youth who were also religious.

The church needs us to be the mentors, pastors and leaders for the next generation of LGBTQ+ youth. I know why we leave the church.

I’m not asking every queer person to fix problems they didn’t cause yet face every day. I just want there to be more of us: For those of us in faith communities to own our LGBTQ+ identities so that we can be there for the ones who might otherwise leave the church and their faith. And ultimately, I want the love our communities have for us to be an unmistakable reflection of the love that God has for us.