Saturday, August 21, 2010

Stops 13-16... and Beyond!

It's been nearly 4 months since we finished our Equality Ride journey, and I still haven't finished writing about the stops.  Oops!  For more detailed summaries of those stops than I'm about to do here, my fellow riders did amazing jobs of covering Stop 13 (Southwest Baptist University in Boliver, MO), Stop 14 (Bethel College in Mishawaka, IN), Stop 15 (Union College in Lincoln, NE), and Stop 16 (Malone University in Canton, OH) on the official Soulforce blog.

Well okay, sadly not the last stop. We obviously got pretty exhausted at the end there and, admittedly, parts of it have begun to blur together in my mind.  Was Union last or was it Malone?  Where did that one crazy panel happen?  What about that McDonald's that gave [name protected] diarrhea?

One of my reasons for blogging about all of this was so that I could remember it all clearly later.  But after a few months of introspection and heavy processing, I've realized (of course) that those details were never the important part.  What stuck with me were the moments of clarity, confrontation, and grace.

One such moment I already wrote about (again on the Soulforce blog), when a fellow rider showed me what it really means to lay down your shield and defeat your fear. Her name is Amanda Lee and she could actually use your help right now.

Here's another:

While on a panel at the end of the stop at Southwest Baptist University, we were getting into that sort of classic issue of "I do care about LGBTQ people, so what can I do to help without changing my views about the Bible." This is seemingly well-meaning enough and might strike some as a decent foot forward. But ultimately what it feels like to me is asking what you can do for the cancer patient short of actually treating them for cancer. The root of the suffering has been acknowledged, yet the person capable of alleviating it refuses to act - it's too late, it's too hard, it's too costly, it just can't be done.

Now, this is obviously a pretty extreme comparison, and while I am occasionally prone to hyperbole (who me?), I do try to measure my words fairly and thoughtfully. But try as I might, it's one I keep coming back to, and remember that I've been mulling this over for 4 months now.

But I'm jumping ahead a little bit. Let me get back to the panel and show a little bit more of what led me here:

That line of discussion led inevitably toward just what those views on the Bible were, and then to how I felt about people that hold them. A professor on the panel asked me, "You ask us to open yourselves up, but would you really let someone like me be your friend?"

My answer in the moment was as honest as I could muster: "I would be happy to interact with you, to work with you, to have discussions with you in a friendly way. But to truly be friends? To allow you, invite you even, into the intimate and crucial moments in my life? What if I break up with a boyfriend and am in deep mourning over the relationship - will I call you first or at all, knowing that a part of you will be celebrating? Probably not, no."

The irony, the hypocrisy, did not escape me. I had come to the school asking for people to open their hearts to not just what I had to say but also to who I was, and I had just admitted I could not do the same for them.  I was not wrong in my analysis, which then and now made me feel all the more trapped in its inevitability and frustrated by my limitations.

Still, I would hope to answer differently now, having had 4 months to think about it.  (Ain't that always when the best comebacks come to you?)  Now, I would hope to say:

"Let me reframe that question for you so as to make this as clear as possible what you're asking of me.  To do that, we have to start with sin.  God never calls something sin just for the heck of it, just to stoke his ego and watch us flitter around trying to live up to arbitrary rules.  No, if God tells us something is sin and to stay away from it, it's because it's harmful to one of three things: our relationship with ourselves, our relationship with other people, or our relationship with God.  Sin as illustrated in the Bible is always, always harmful to relationships.  So when you tell me that you see my identity as a gay person as sinful, you want me to be able to take it as just a matter of differing opinions.  But what you're really saying is that this beautiful, intricate part of myself, a part of me I have fought to understand and accept and celebrate, the part that is built specifically to forge intimate relationships with other people - you're saying that part of me is, in fact, harmful to myself and those around me.  Not just wrong in some abstract way, but that who I am is actively harmful to the people around me who I'm trying to love.  And then you ask if we can be friends, to be invited to witness the triumphs and failures of my life.

"Well, let me ask you instead: what if I told you I believed your identity as a Bible-believing Christian was sinful?  I'm not saying I do believe this, but let's make the comparison clear, since you keep saying your Biblical beliefs form the most essential part of your personal identity.  Let's say that I told you I believed that your identity was sinful, and that what I meant by that was that this system you hold as precious and intimate, to which you have devoted years of study and devotion, and which is intended to bring you closer to God and enhance your relationships with yourself and other people - what if I told you that I believed that all of that was instead actively harmful.  That your belief in the Bible as it stands and your practice of your faith in its current form is not just something I academically can't see eye-to-eye with but which I really, truly believe is destructive to yourself, to those who matter most to you (and many other besides), and most of all offensive to the God you're attempting to worship.  If I told you all that, would you truly want to be my friend?  Would you be able to?

"Because that's exactly what you're asking of me."

Now, that's a lot to say on the spot on stage in front of hundreds of people, so I'll forgive myself for not laying it out so thoroughly or thinking so clearly in the moment.  But if I had my druthers, that's what I would say if it happened again (and in fact it has).  And I would really be interested to hear her answer.

There's two reasons what I would want to frame it that way, and not answer the question the way I did the first time around:

1. People ask questions of others all the time that they are not willing to ask of themselves.  Christians asking gays to be their friends and put up with a constant subtext of judgment is one of them.  LGBTQ folks asking Christians to just accept us already without first accepting them is absolutely another.  For everybody, it's important to have those questions turned around on us.

2. My response, though honest, was indeed rooted in fear - my fear, well-founded and well-rooted, of being judged and rejected yet again.  I wish that instead I had rooted it in hope, in love.  Because if sin is what pulls us apart from ourselves, each other, and God, then love is what brings us together.  And love is never one way - for it to be real, and valuable, it must go both ways and involve genuine sacrifice and genuine transformation.  I did not demonstrate real sacrifice in my turning away from her, and I did not allow myself to be transformed, nor ultimately allow her the opportunity to herself be transformed.

I guess I would hope that I could answer with one more thing then, when asked if we could be friends:

"I'm willing to try, if you are."

I am the cancer and you are the cancer.  I am the cure and you are the cure.  Ah, relationships.  Ah, Love.  Ah, God.  Amen.

Next: a surprising redemption song.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Stops #11 and #12: Abilene, TX - Hardin-Simmons University and Abilene Christian University

Just three hours away from Waco, the journey to Abilene in west Texas was our shortest yet on the bus, a welcome change from 10-12 hour travel days with cramped necks and kinked backs.  But we exchanged travel time for work, as no sooner did we arrive in town and check into our hotel than we were off to meet with faculty and administration from Hardin-Simmons University, our first of two schools in town.

Most schools we visit list “homosexual activity” in a prohibited list with other examples of sex outside of marriage – premarital, extramarital, adultery, etc.  But at HSU, homosexuality was listed in a clause prohibiting “acts of moral turpitude” and compared directly to the sexual molestation of minors.

I knew about the policy before going into the meeting, of course.  It would be silly to go to a school about a policy and not know anything about that policy, after all.  But it wasn’t until after we had spent thirty minutes chit-chatting, then twenty minutes eating, and finally begun talking about our reason for our visit to the school that it hit me.

These people work at an institution that equivocates who I am with the violent rape of a young child.

While the other riders did an excellent job of explaining to the assembled HSU representatives how that comparison was inaccurate and how harmful it was to the school’s students and staff alike, I sat in anger and fear.  My hand shook as I lifted a glass of water to my mouth, hoping to find my voice. The dinner ended, we were thanked for our time and thoughts, and we headed back to the hotel to prepare to meet with students the following morning, my heart still racing.

The next morning, we had two sessions with students and I feared a repeat of the previous evening – but rather than forcing us to spend any time justifying our humanity, the students actually seemed hungry for knowledge about what it means to be an ally for LGBTQ people.  They understood that their friends and peers were suffering in silence, and wanted to do something about it.  After our time on campus, we staked a claim at a nearby coffee shop and students continued to come and ask questions.  My voice was raspy from overuse by the end of the day, but I felt light – we had at last come to a place where we found allies who cared just as much as we did.

With no time to waste, the following day was a stop at another school, Abilene Christian University.  ACU was a stop on a previous ride and had responded well to the last visit by changing their policy, but they still listed ex-gay ministries as the only resource for LGBTQ folks on their counseling center website and would not allow the creation of a safe space on campus for queer folk to talk about their identities.

Emboldened by the previous day at HSU, we spoke passionately about the dangers of so-called reparative or ex-gay therapy and the urgent need for affirmation for LGBTQ identities among their students.  Through sessions with students, administration, and the counseling center itself, we told our own stories of being hurt by these therapies and by rejection from the church and our families.  We talked about rates of suicide attempts and homelessness among LGBTQ youth and how misinformation contributes directly to the spiritual and material suffering of current students.  We pressed for a commitment to take down the resources, to draft a plan to create safe spaces, for anything, but were met with a firm “we’ll consider it.”

At the end of the day, we felt frustrated yet again – we had done everything possible to make the danger clear and seemed no closer to progress in creating safety for LGBTQ students that before.

But guess what?  Four days later, the links were taken down.  And my heart beat a little faster then too.

Next up: Springfield, MO.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Stops #9 and #10: Clinton, MS (Mississippi College) and Waco, TX (Baylor University)

After the mid-way point at Belhaven, our next two stops represented for me the truest tests of our resolve (as I understood it at that point, at any rate).  Mississippi College in Clinton, MS and Baylor University in Waco, TX are both Southern Baptist schools the Equality Ride has visited in years past, and both places at which riders not only got arrested but received poor treatment from the police.  During our first training back in January, we were told stories of cavity searches, solitary confinement, and bail posted at ten times its normal rate for riders caught chalking on campus pathways or stepping too far onto university grass.  As we approached them in the itinerary, MC and Baylor gradually became the two "big bads" in my mind - the ones I knew could really hurt us, the ones of which I was really afraid.

Mississippi College was first, just a few miles from our last stop. Through extensive and careful negotiations with the school's administration, Jason (the MC stop planner) had ceded the possibility of civil disobedience (crossing onto the private campus against their wishes and getting arrested in order to raise media awareness and illustrate the injustice of the policies).  In exchange, MC had promised to allow and even promote two off campus events for its students to attend: a community service project in conjunction with Belhaven and the Equality Ride, and a forum with diverse perspectives about faith and sexuality held at a nearby church.

We were excited - the ride had actually visited MC twice before and each time it had been scarring for both the riders and the school, so being allowed to engage with MC students in real dialogue and service would have been a major breakthrough.  But about a week before we got there, we discovered that not only had the events not been promoted to the students in any way whatsoever (as in, the students had no idea they were happening at all), but that the church hosting the panel had been pressured by the school to go back on its commitment.

Well, this dampened our spirits considerably.  So instead of the forum, we spent the afternoon standing outside the main entrance to the school with signs protesting the policy.  A group of riders wrapped themselves in caution tape and duct-taped their mouths shut, the words "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual," "transgender," and "queer" written across their shirts - representing how the school's policies silence their LGBTQ students every day.  Another group of riders held rainbow balloons, then popped them one by one as the names of LGBTQ youth who had killed themselves were read, representing the violent way their lives had ended due to the silence and rejection policies like MC's represent.

Although MC had not upheld its end of the deal, we upheld ours and remained off campus grounds throughout the demonstration.  Just one local TV news crew came, and newspapers reported the next day that our visit had been "quiet" and "low key."  We had some good conversations with students and locals that came out to see us, most of whom said this was a good step forward.  But was it?  No one got arrested, sure, but the policy is no closer to changing and students are still suffering.  Was it a step forward, or was it simply less messy?

Still unsure of the answer, we left Mississippi and made our way to Texas.  After a gloriously rejuvenating Easter weekend in Austin involving bars, restaurants, live outdoor music, dancing, and an outdoor swimming pool at just the right temperature, we landed finally in Waco and prepared ourselves for Baylor.

Baylor was going to be different this year as well.  Although the school's policy was no different and they would not work with us on creating a forum or event, they did allow us on campus to approach and talk with students.  We arrived at school grounds at 9 in the morning and spread out strategically, then began trying to have conversations with students.

Many people simply ignored us (which, I'll be honest, I usually do to folks wth petitions or who want to interrupt my day with conversations I don't want to have).  Some were willing to talk until they found out who we were, then walked away smirking, or perhaps suddenly in more of a hurry than before.  And a few people actually did stop and talk.  Like always, these conversations ran a gamut, from folks who didn't the know policy and were shocked by it (including a clause that prohibits even straight allies from advocating for LGBTQ people or issues) to folks who fully supported it and wanted to save our misguided souls.

The overriding feeling I got was that, regardless of their position on the issue, no one thought anything could be done about it.  Everyone felt disempowered, voiceless.  It's just the way things are, they said.  The school is too powerful.

An open mic-style event afterward lifted our spirits and gave us hope that queer life in Waco was no lost cause, that fierce beauty arises amidst unimaginable resistance every day.  But the questions remain: what about Baylor?  What about their students?  One student told me that, as a bisexual  on campus, she felt like her "soul is being sucked dry" by the oppressive silence at the school.

At both schools, this year's ride seemingly made headway by receiving recognition from the schools that previous rides had been unable to get.  But were we simply less messy?  Had the schools simply learned that the best way to deal with us was to give an inch, and leave us with no leverage to go the remaining mile?  As always, I guess my hope lies in the hearts of the folks we actually got to talk with, in what they will choose to take from our stories and love.  It's up to them now.


Two weeks later, we have gone to four more schools and are gearing up for our last two.  But as it turns out, MC isn't done with this issue - they are flying two riders back to Mississippi to be part of an on-campus panel on homosexuality.  Please pray and send your love to these riders who will be vastly outnumbered by folks with PHDs in a very public setting, that their message of hope, truth, and love will be heard by those who need it most.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Stop #8: Jackson, MS - Belhaven University

At our first training back in January, each rider was assigned a stop to organize during the trip. What this means for me is that I had been working on our stop at Belhaven University in Jackson, MS for about 2.5 months by the time we actually got there on March 29th. Naturally, I was a little bit anxious that things would go smoothly and productively.

Mostly, they did. We had a lovely day on campus filled with conversations with students, faculty, and staff and interspersed with lots and lots of great food. Far from the hospitality for appearance’s sake it felt like we had received elsewhere, it seemed that the folks at BU really wanted us there to have conversations and talk about the issues. We – the folks at the school as well as us on the ride – learned a lot and walked away with new friends. We were also able to do a service project with a group of students the next afternoon, and had two awesome potlucks at community churches with lots of networking opportunities. Success!

Aside from the “usual” discomforts of folks pulling out the same passages of the Bible and urging us to reconsider our sinful ways, and (especially for the non-Christians among us) prayers for our souls and salvation, we also experienced a special kind of tension in Jackson – a place that in many ways is the heart of the Deep South. A city with 85% African-American population and also one of the poorest major cities in America, in a state where racism both remembered and present in a fashion unseen anywhere else. A place where the Freedom Rides made a stand and are still remembered with fear and anxiety. And, it turns out, a place where the only LGBTQ affirming spaces are largely white.

A fellow rider, a person of color, pointed this out to me and requested that I allow one of the smaller events to be optional, to give folks a break from the pressure of being so identifiably different all the time. Upset that I had failed to account for this in my planning, I responded initially by saying no and justified my response by saying it would be rude to the folks who were hosting us. My response was rooted in my ego as well as in ignorance of what it means to be a person of color anywhere, and especially being a person of color doing something like the Equality Ride. My response was racist.

When I realized this, I was crushed. I just didn’t know what to do. We worked it out eventually, on a personal level at least, but I was left with the realization that in my desire for things to run smoothly I had failed to meaningfully confront racism yet again. I had neglected to account for the experiences of folks who are different from me – a unique kind of hypocrisy when I’ve had the audacity to confront so many people at the schools we’ve visited with similar truths. The log in my eye is bigger than I thought, it would seem.

I am still satisfied with much of our experience at Belhaven. I really do believe that some folks we talked with will be allies for LGBTQ people at that school and that our message of God’s affirmation and love for all God’s children was received. But here, at the halfway point in our trip (8th of 16 schools), I am learning all over again of the inadequacy of my approach. If I could go back and repurpose those 2.5 months, I would. But I can’t.

All that’s left is tomorrow.

Next: Mississippi College in Clinton, MS.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Stops #6 and #7: Daytona Beach, FL and Atlanta, GA

Stop #6: Daytona Beach, FL
After our stops in North Carolina, we headed down to Daytona Beach, FL. With a school, Bethune-Cookman University, featuring a policy that discriminates against LGBT students and a community deeply immersed in conservative United Methodist traditions, we knew we had our work cut out for us. The riders who planned the stop had been relentlessly trying for months to make contacts in the community, reaching for any kind of dialogue. Yet we were met with a resounding wall of silence as the school and dozens of churches and community organizations steadfastly ignored us over months of attempted contact. Friends, friends of friends, and professional contacts who at first were excited to welcome us mysteriously stopped returning emails and phone calls. With three days to go until our arrival, we had just one event firmly scheduled, a community service project with a local organization. But two days before our arrival, we were informed without explanation that we could no longer serve.

Still we came. We tried everything we could think of to reach out to the community and engage in dialogue, from walking up to tourists to talk to attending services at other local churches to flyering outside of the college's campus to spending time in our Equality Ride gear in local restaurants, and we did have a few good conversations. But the silence surrounding LGBTQ issues and identities remained, as other disturbing questions arose.

For example: a white police officer approached a white woman in our group as she flyered on a corner near the college's campus and informed her that she appeared to be a prostitute, and that anyway we (a group comprised of about 60% white people) were in "a dangerous neighborhood" and should probably leave. The university, by the way, is an HBCU (Historically Black College or University), and the woman is transgender. How would the situation have been different if she had been a person of color, or if more of us were people of color, or if she had not been transgender, or if this were a predominantly white school and more of us were people of color?

We left Daytona, many of us disheartened and discouraged. We had done everything we could think of, and yet it didn’t seem enough. I left feeling like we had failed the school, the community, and ourselves not just in our attempts to let LGBTQ students know they are affirmed and loved, but also in our stated goal to address racism, classism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of oppression in a meaningful way. But how? How can this possibly be done?

Stop #7: Atlanta, GA - Morehouse College
Morehouse College, another HBCU, is located in the heart of Atlanta and is often considered “the black Harvard.” An all-male school famous throughout the world for producing black leaders in many fields – including Martin Luther King, Jr. – Morehouse’s significance to the black community cannot be overstated. The fact that most white people in America are not familiar with Morehouse (or at least, its significance) is itself an indication of the racism still inherent in our social structure.

We came to Morehouse to address a new policy, implemented last fall, regarding dress code – which made it clear that “a Morehouse man” could not wear clothing associated with women in class or school-related events. Let me be clear that Morehouse is a fairly progressive school in a lot of ways – they actually do have a group for gay, bisexual, and queer men on campus (“Safe Space”) that does a lot of important things, and as a school is working to create a more inclusive community surrounding GBQ issues and identities on campus. But the dress code policy, created in response to several students who were wearing female clothing around school, clearly discriminates against gender variant folks as well, including transgender people (the “T” in LGBTQ).

We were welcomed onto campus, met with administrators, given a tour, allowed to approach students in dialogue, and invited to participate in another campus event. We largely felt welcomed and heard. Yet during some of my own conversations throughout the day, it became increasingly clear to me the limitations I faced as a white man in being able to understand and address the oppressions facing black men. The demonization of black masculinity has a long history pre-dating slavery and is clearly manifested today in a multitude of ways in this country (see: the incarceration rates for black men). As a white man, who am I to come to this place and begin a conversation about gender identity and expression?

Despite a lot of great conversations, I did not find an answer to that question that satisfies me. Perhaps there isn’t one. Certainly not an easy one.

I know there are no easy answers to the questions raised in Daytona, either. Justice is messy, complicated, and frustrating because people are messy, complicated, and frustrating. Yet we have to try anyway.

And tomorrow, I will try again.

Next up: Mississippi.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Stops #4 and #5: NC – Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Campbell University

The Equality Ride left Alabama and headed north on our zig-zagging route to Raleigh, North Carolina, where two schools awaited.

The first, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is located about thirty minutes outside the city and is famous for its “Bible based teaching,” emphasizing that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. We were technically allowed onto campus at SEBTS – we rolled up in our big queer bus, got off, were escorted by security guards conspicuously holding handcuffs to chapel, and then escorted back to our bus shortly afterward.

The chapel service itself was a bit of a show, with a preacher that stared at our group while speaking in coded language about sexual sin and the deceitful nature of the tongue (as well as reinforcing that a woman’s role is in the kitchen – and I'm not overstating here). We were able to meet and interact with students for about 20 minutes after the service before being reminded by security that we had to go, and those conversations were earnest, if predictable:

Student: We’re all sinners, but the Bible is very clear about this.
Me: We’re all equal, and people are suffering because the church is doing this wrong. I have prayed a lot about this, and feel at peace knowing I am loved just as I am. What do you think it’s like for LGBTQ students at this school? How will you treat LGBTQ members of your future ministries?
Student: We’re all sinners, and homosexuals are just like alcoholics and prostitutes. Pray harder!

Through a vigil just off campus and a community picnic nearby, we were able to meet with more students and have more of the same conversations. Finally, as we were packing up at the end of the picnic, I spoke with frustration and urgency to one of the students. “Look, everyone today has told me they acknowledge the church has failed, but no one can tell me anything else to do except keep telling the gays about our sin. Forget about our sin for once – why don’t you focus on the church for once? That’s your community, that’s where you have influence, that’s what you can do. What can you do in the church?” He had no answer. I felt defeated.

The second school was Campbell University, about 15 minutes west of Raleigh. We were allowed on for a full day of dialogue and were assured by students and administration alike that we would have a very different experience there than at SEBTS. Indeed we did: through morning presentations, campus tours, a meeting with campus representatives, a catered lunch with real Southern fried chicken, an afternoon panel discussion, and a surprisingly affirming chapel service, our day was chock full of activity.

And yet, something was off. Whereas a campus event discussing homosexuality and the Bible had attracted over 200 students just a few weeks before (which the school had put on in preparation for our visit), our events managed less than 100 each. Although the school paper had several articles in it denouncing our arrival, every person we met greeted us with a smile. Despite being the first day back after spring break, the campus was a ghost town as we walked through it. And large portions of our official “dialogue” involved receiving lectures on the school’s new construction and the history of the mascot. At the end of the day:

Administrator: Did you feel welcomed? Did you enjoy the fried chicken? Isn’t the campus lovely?
Us: Thank you for the meal, but what happens after we leave? What about your LGBTQ students?
Administrator: Oh, I’m so glad you felt comfortable.

So yes, we had different experiences at SEBTS and Campbell. At SEBTS, we were given the school’s honest answers to our questions. The students said hurtful things, but at least they listened and really wanted to talk. Campbell was all smiles and handshakes, evasive answers to direct questions and a schedule of activities that ensured most students couldn’t come.

Which do you think was more authentic? Which do you think actually listened?

As they stand, both schools remain unsafe spaces for LGBTQ students who desperately need affirmation. I can only hope that the sparks of conversation we had at both places will encourage further discussion and community mobilizing in the months and years to come

Evidence of progress already though: a few students are working on creating a GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) at Campbell. Support their efforts by signing and forwarding their petition. You can make a difference!

Next up: Daytona Beach, Florida.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Stop #3: Huntsville, AL - Oakwood University

Don't worry, you didn't miss anything - my synopsis of our second school stop in Houghton, NY can be found at the official Soulforce blog.

As for lucky number 3, the Equality Ride bus arrived in Huntsville, AL on Friday night, our visit to Oakwood University not scheduled until Monday. Although we had not notified the school or the local authorities of the timetable for our arrival (except for confirming Monday’s schedule), we received a phone call within a half hour of stepping into the hotel, welcoming us to town.

Creepy. Silver lining? Goal of visibility reached!

We spent the weekend trying to spread the word about Monday’s events and getting to know the town of Huntsville, including meeting with a several Oakwood students to help us better understand the atmosphere at the school surrounding LGBTQ issues.

We learned that Oakwood, a Seventh Day Adventist school and HBCU (Historically Black College or University), has a culture of enforced silence surrounding LGBTQ issues, in which openly gay students are discriminated against and often expelled by the administration. Therefore, there are few openly LGBQ students (each of them sure they were the only one), and no openly transgender students that we met or heard of.

When asked if she would again choose to go to Oakwood if she had known beforehand the environment in which she would be placing herself, one lesbian student said “absolutely not!” So why did she stay? Her parents wouldn’t pay for any other school and her credits weren’t transferrable to any other school that would have been any better. If she wanted an education, this was it.

On Monday, we boarded the bus and made our way from the hotel to Oakwood, escorted by school police to the only spot where we would be permitted to go: a building on the corner of campus which most of the students we spoke with had never heard of. Not that it would have mattered – our agenda involved one half hour of structured dialogue with selected students and administration, followed by a short catered lunch. With a school population of about 2000 students, we were given access to talk to about 15 of them.

The administration stated that it had not received our communications (first send last October) until two weeks ago, and anything more would have been impossible to arrange. When we asked to allow for a longer period of dialogue or make the event open to more students, we were informed that either we accept the terms or not be allowed onto school at all.

So we went, and we spoke our piece about a need for safe spaces for LGBTQ students, and shared our stories as best we could. And in a funny turn of events, when the riders were ready to move on after 30 minutes, the students and some administrators pleaded that we continue with our stories. Small, subtle shifts in understanding began to ripple throughout the closed door meeting as we continued talking, a sensation of urgency replacing the skepticism and fear that had marked our arrival.

The conversations continued throughout a hurried (and deliciously vegan, rock on SDA!) lunch and then again near the entrance to the school where we set up with signs reading “We are here for you!” Student leaders tweeted and Facebooked their friends to come and meet us, and over the course of the afternoon we spoke with nearly 100 students. Some of them wanted us to know we should try harder to stop being gay, some of them were LGBQ themselves and grateful to meet us (and meet each other!), and many committed to continue this dialogue after we left. No one was sure what would happen next, but the conversation had begun at last.

Later, we continued talking with students as we staked out a corner of a local Chili’s restaurant and communed over greasy appetizers smothered in bacon (this is the South, y’all). When we were finally done, we left the restaurant with our stomachs and hearts full.

I wonder whether anything will change at Oakwood, a school deeply entrenched in the SDA tradition as well as Southern culture. LGBTQ people are welcome so long as they deny the reality of who they are. Painful , harmful silence will continue to be enforced there, most certainly.

Yet those small, subtle shifts we saw in the first closed door meeting grew perceptibly larger throughout the afternoon. I think they will continue to grow. I hope they will. The students of Oakwood deserve to know they are not alone, and that they are loved just as they are. All of them.

We all do.