(WHEATON, IL) - Equality Riders wrapped up two days of dialogue with the students, administration and faculty of Wheaton College today. Riders were welcomed to the campus, where they spoke in classes, presented and shared meals with students.
Wheaton was, in many ways, the inspiration for the ride. While he was an undergraduate at Northwestern University, Equality Ride co-director Jacob Reitan met a closeted gay Wheaton student in Chicago. When the discussion turned to the evangelical school’s policy on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, the student told Reitan if he came out, he could be expelled from the school.
"I told him I thought it was a horrible policy, and it should be changed," Reitan said. "But then he looked at me and said, ‘Actually, I think it’s a good policy. I think it’s a sin to be gay.’"
Reitan was taken aback, and promised to bring a group of LGBT-affirming Christians to Wheaton to present a different message.
"Coming to Wheaton is the fulfillment of a dream," Reitan said. "We’re here to keep a promise I made three years ago, that I would bring a group of LGBT people to Wheaton who affirm their sexuality and know God loves them as they are."
Reitan continued, “We are very thankful to Wheaton College, President Duane Litfin and Provost Stan Jones for welcoming us to campus. They worked with us admirably to plan this visit and the presentations and discussions went smoothly and fairly.”
A highlight of the two days of dialogue was a panel discussion in the school’s gymnasium, which drew around 1500 students, faculty and community members. The college, whose most famous alum is Billy Graham, has a strong academic reputation and the discussion was spirited and wide-ranging. Soul Force panelists Jacob Reitan, Richard Lindsay, and Jay Johnson discussed subjects with the Wheaton panel ranging from biblical exegesis, theology, psychology, sociology, law, politics and Christian ethics.
A central part of the forum was the issue of academic freedom. The school’s administration explained to the Equality Riders that Wheaton’s community covenant, which restricts homosexual behavior, is a statement of faith that applies to all students, straight or gay. Wheaton administrators stated that any students standing in support of the goals of the Equality Ride would be risking disciplinary action.
"It is unacceptable for an institution of higher education with a reputation like Wheaton’s to suggest that a student could not, after study, thought and prayer, come to the conclusion that homosexuality is not a sin without risking expulsion," Reitan said.
In addition to his academic training in philosophical theology and position at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA, Jay Johnson provided the personal experience of being a Wheaton alum and son of a Wheaton faculty member.
Johnson’s motivation for sitting on the panel with Soulforce was more than academic. Johnson said, “I was thinking about what it was like for me to be a scared, closeted student at this school and how much it would have meant to me to hear someone say I could be gay, I could be Christian, and I could have a wonderful life.”
After the presentations and formal dialogues were over, Wheaton students gathered with Equality Riders and other community members at a local restaurant for dinner and informal discussion. As their time together drew to a close, Equality Riders went through the now-familiar ritual of breaking off the intense conversations that had started over dinner, exchanging hugs and e-mail addresses with students and heading for the bus. Before the bus headed back to the hotel, some Wheaton students took a brief tour of the bus and even donated jars of food for the Equality Ride hamster, Ryder.
"We’ve made so many new friends at every stop," said Equality Rider David Coleman. "It’s like we’ve planted seeds everywhere we’ve been and we’ll just have to wait to see which ones bear fruit."