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.