A group that claims it’s committed to the nonviolent defense of sexual and gender minorities visited Bethel on April 16. Soulforce believes religion is the main reason for misinformation about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning people. (LGBTQ) The Equality Ride is an effort by Soulforce to engage students and faculty about these issues on college campuses across the country. This year’s Equality Ride included a stop at Bethel.
Before the visit Dr. Dennis Engbrecht, senior vice-president of Bethel, sent a letter to students.
“We believe that this visit allows Bethel College to openly share the love of Christ through a clear understanding of Scriptural holiness and sexual purity," he stated in the letter. “ Further, we are convinced that our students need to be prepared to address the issue of homosexuality while living within a community of believers”
A group of students and faculty hosted the Equality Riders during their visit. The group’s time on campus included a visit to chapel, a lunchtime forum and attendance in select classes. There was also a discussion hosted by Dr. Chad Meister and Dr. Cristian Mihut. The forum was held in AC 433 at 1 p.m. and lasted until just before 3 p.m. About forty students and seven Equality Riders attended.
Mihut began the time by welcoming the Equality Riders and praying that God would “speak through the walls that divide us.” He proceeded to establish basic rules, including: do not interrupt, refrain from using derogatory language, and introduce yourself.
Mihut continued by reading Soulforce’s mission statement, which says, “Guided by the spirit of truth and empowered by the principles of relentless nonviolent resistance, Soulforce works to end the religious and political oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning people.” He then established that all in attendance were “committed to resisting oppression and violence.” However, “at the same time, many Christians disagree with homosexual practice,” he added.
To launch the discussion, Mihut began by posing a scenario.
“Imagine someone who might be puzzled about how Christian discipleship fits with homosexual practice”, he said. He went on to say that he sees an essential dichotomy between homosexual tendency and homosexual practice.
The conversation among the students and the Riders played out largely as a question and answer session. To begin, Mihut asked the Equality Riders, “What does your faith journey look like?”
One Equality Rider, Brian Adkins, said he grew up in a Pentecostal church. In fact, his father was a Pentecostal evangelist.
“I was taught first and foremost about a God who loves us unconditionally,” Adkins told students. “I discovered, as I grew older, that I am also a gay man. I felt a lot of condemnation and hatred from the church. When we hear, ‘love the sinner; hate the sin,’ we only hear the hate.”
Students further questioned whether or not Adkins took his realizations to God.
“I spent a lot of time talking with God and looking for my identity-- for who I am,” said Adkins. “I came out first as a gay person to my Christian community. It made a lot of relationships closer. It was actually harder to come out as a Christian to the LGBTQ community. Living as a queer person, as I believe God created me to be, my faith has never been stronger. I took a lot of internalized hatred to God. God’s response was to love and affirm me.”
Mihut responded to Adkins with a question. “If you were forced to choose between the community of the church and the LGBTQ community, which would you choose?”
Adkins was the rider who first responded. “I pray God would never ask me to choose,” he said.
The next question posed to the Riders was, “Do you think that the homosexual part of you is what it means to be the image bearer of God?”
“Yes, this is part of the image of God,” responded Equality Rider Isaiah Winterson. “I think to say that God can only make heterosexual people is really limiting God. I truly believe with all my soul that this is who God made me to be—that I am a Lesbian woman and this is how I best emulate love.”
The idea of identity was very prevalent throughout the discussion.
“How do you define identity?” asked Bethel sophomore Nick Strickland.
“Identity to me is something that is personal,” stated Conner. “I am a Child of God.” Furthermore, “I would view it as an unchangeable part of oneself,” commented Asher Kolieboi. “How you view the world means everything.”
Students also felt compelled to express understanding toward the Equality Riders. “I was thinking about flipping the coin,” stated Bethel junior Dave Pepin. “I would be hard to have everyone in society condemning me for being attracted to women. I want to affirm your struggle.”
Questions arose about whether the Riders handle this tendency as they would other tendencies in being human.
“It’s not a tendency for me,” responded Kolieboi. “It’s who I am. It’s how I view the world. As for personal struggles, I struggle with being prideful. I feel like this is damaging. Being LGBTQ isn’t damaging anyone. I think about: what am I doing that’s hurting anybody?”
At this point in the discussion, Dr. Mihut again entered the conversation. “If we place our lives under Christ, we have to say that even sexuality is subsumed. So then, is there something that keeps sexual practices on track?”
This elicited many responses. “My lifestyle is living Christian values,” said Conner. “I can be gay. They’re not mutually exclusive.”
Meister probed the issue further with another question. “How do you determine what is right and wrong? How to you determine what your Christian values are?”
While “reading the Bible and praying a lot,” was the response Winterson offered, other Riders responded differently.
“Who am I harming?” questioned Adkins. “What systems of oppression am I fighting? We have to recognize that an object held in one position is a tool and in another is a weapon. I am not going to prescribe what is right for me to be right for everyone. I bring all that I am to God. I am open to God still speaking.”
Despite disagreements, students strove to end the conference on a loving note.
“You guys have really brought some challenging things to us,” said senior Derek Moser. “I really appreciate that. I hope that you guys in turn, appreciate our efforts, too. I hope you’ve had a positive experience.”