CONVERSATIONS ACROSS THE DIVIDE
“I was told I was going to Hell. … Now I want to work toward reconciliation and loving our neighbor.”
An Oklahoma Baptist University student watched and listened for a few minutes, then had the courage to introduce herself and shake the hand of every one of the Equality Riders. It was a moving moment for the bus riders.Photo by Josh Varner
PHOTO ESSAY from the ’07 Equality Ride
On March 22, 2007, a bus pulled up in front of Mississippi College in Clinton, Mississippi. A group of 25 young people got out and formed a line at the edge of the campus, which college administrators had forbidden them to enter. One of them announced that they had come to share their experiences with homophobia and Christianity.
Hundreds of students milled around eying the newcomers. A few approached and engaged them in conversation. Others got on their knees and prayed for God to forgive the riders. One black student compared the treatment of the riders to the treatment of African-Americans during the civil rights movement. The riders’ leader said they wanted to come on to the campus to talk with other students. As five of them attempted to enter school property, policemen arrested them.
This encounter was part of the 2007 Equality Ride, a tour that brought 50 young people to 34 conservative campuses across the United States.
The riders hope to show the humanity and spirituality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, and to represent others on campus who are too scared to speak out for themselves. Following the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., riders see Conservative Christians, not as enemies, but as “victims of untruth.” The ultimate goal is reconciliation, not confrontation or “winning.”
That philosophy is so essential to Soulforce, the group that organizes the rides, that they named their organization with the English translation of Gandhi’s word for nonviolent activism, “Satyagraha.” Soulforce was founded to overcome the religious bigotry at the root of homophobia.
That doesn’t mean they have anything against religion itself. Many of the participants in the 2007 Equality Ride are life-long Christians who want to talk about tolerance with others who share their faith. Several are former students at religious colleges the ride visited in 2006, its first year.
Vince Cervantes, one of the 2007 riders, attended a Christian college and endured “reparative therapy” for his same-sex attractions. “It gave me a deep understanding of the harm of homophobia within the faith community,” he says.
Angel Collie went through the ordeal of coming out in a conservative Baptist family at age 14. “I was told I was going to Hell,” Collie says. “Now I want to work toward reconciliation and loving our neighbor.”
Relationships with LGBT friends motivated Abigail Reikow and other straight allies on the ride.
Not all schools reacted to the riders like Mississippi College did. At some universities, administrators embraced the ride as an educational opportunity and set up breakfasts, debates, discussion groups, and other forums for interactions between students and riders. “Easily more than half were welcoming,” says Soulforce outreach director Jarrett Lucas. Even at colleges where the riders were not allowed on campus, they were still able to connect with students, often at a nearby location like a coffee shop. At Mississippi College, the riders who avoided arrest shared lunch with students off campus, where they continued their dialogue.
Some students wanted nothing to do with the riders. Others wanted to confront them over their sexuality or their interpretation of the Bible. But many were interested in talking, despite differences in beliefs. Some students, “didn’t seem to know what to do with a bunch of Joe Schmoes,” said one rider, who guessed they were “expecting lumberjacks and drag queens.” The majority of those who disagreed were civil. Some of the students had never spoken with a gay person, let alone one who shared their deep commitment to Christianity.
Robin Reynolds, one of the 2007 riders, was inspired to see “the look a person gets when they’ve never heard an idea before.”
“It was harder to throw out one-liners and rely on stereotypes when students were face-to-face with LGBT people,” she said.
Some students approached the riders because they wanted to know how to support their LGBT friends and family. Others were closeted gay and lesbian students who thanked the riders for showing them they weren’t alone.
After the riders moved on, students continued the conversation through emails and Facebook. Some have started Gay-Straight Alliances on their campuses to keep the momentum of the ride going.
The Equality Ride will hit the highway for a third time this October, this year visiting colleges exclusively in the South. As Angel Collie put it, “there are a lot more people out there that we need to reach.”
|Noah Grant wrote this article as part of Purple America, the Fall 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Noah, YES! Editorial Assistant, is an activist for LGBT rights.
Interested? See this Photo Essay from the ’07 Equality Ride.