The pastor’s booming voice filled the Spring Arbor University chapel as he grew more passionate, testifying to students about the power of prayer.
“I don’t have the time to tell you the history of those who have come to our church transgender and given their heart to God and changed,” the visiting pastor said during the hour-long service on Nov. 6, moving around the stage in jeans and a button-down shirt as he spoke. He held a Bible in one hand and gestured with the other to underscore his points.
“I don’t have time to tell you the stories of lesbians that come to our church and repent of their sins and now are living straight lives. I don’t have time to tell you about murderers who walk in and they get changed by the power of God,” he continued, his voice rising with each refrain. “I can’t tell you the drug dealers who actually hand me drugs and say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ And it’s not by my might, it’s not by my power, it is by the spirit of the Lord.”
He paused. Applause filled the room.
But the LGBTQ people in the audience who’d just been compared to murderers and drug dealers were not inspired. They were filled with sadness and frustration. And they wanted to do more than sit in silence.
So, they did the unthinkable. This small group of students organized a protest.
They sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the concrete steps of the university library following that chapel service. They waited to see how people would react as they held up a rainbow flag – a gesture meant to force people to acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ students at Spring Arbor University.
The protest lasted only 20 minutes. But, it took guts.
Students can be dismissed from Spring Arbor University, which is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church, for being openly gay or transgender or violating other expectations outlined in the university’s “community standards.”
“It’s very much a profound frustration with wanting to be able to stand up for yourself and not knowing what you’re allowed to do and not knowing to what extent you’re allowed to stand up for yourself without facing consequences,” said Caitlin Stout, a 22-year-old lesbian from Jackson who finished her sociology degree at Spring Arbor University in January.
Stout wasn’t at that chapel service, but she agreed to help her friends take a stand against the words that hurt them. As a recent graduate and prominent figure in Spring Arbor’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, Stout no longer fears consequences from the administration.
Spring Arbor University goes further than most in setting parameters on how LGBTQ students can express themselves, but many Christian colleges have similar policies specifying that sexual activity should be reserved for marriage between a man and a woman.
Those policies are putting Christian colleges increasingly at odds with a growing societal pressure to affirm the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.
The result is a tangle of theology and practice as college administrators try to find a middle ground. They proclaim love for all people but condemn same-sex relationships and “conspicuous cross dressing.” They support LGBTQ students but do not affirm aspects of who those students are. They welcome students to campus, but only if students act a certain way.
Like Spring Arbor University, Hope College, in Holland, saw student demonstrations this academic year calling attention to campus instances of homophobia and racism.
LGBTQ students at these schools don’t know how “out” they can be, and they often feel undervalued or ignored within the Christian community.
The basic premise of queer pride is claiming your value and demanding respect, said the Rev. Elizabeth Edman, a queer priest with the Episcopal church.
“I view it as a spiritual crime,” she said. “It is a type of gas lighting. It messes with your mind to be told this integral part of you simply does not exist.”
‘Potentially unpopular view of the world’
The majority of American Christians now say homosexuality should be accepted, although Christian colleges and universities are among the last institutions to fully affirm LGBTQ rights.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2014 found 54 percent of U.S. Christians say homosexuality should be accepted by society, which is up 10 percentage points, compared to a similar survey from 2007.
Young Christians are leading that shift, with 51 percent of Millennial Evangelical Protestants (those born between 1981-96) saying in 2014 that homosexuality should be accepted, according to Pew. That compares to one-third of evangelical Baby Boomers (now ages 54 to 72) and one-fifth of evangelicals ages 76 to 93 who felt the same.
Christian institutions are not afraid to go against the grain of popular opinion. A guiding principle for the followers of Jesus is not to conform to the ways of the world.
“At Spring Arbor University, we hold what we understand to be an increasingly polarizing and potentially unpopular view of the world,” states an internal email sent by Spring Arbor University to the campus community following a couple of pro-LGBTQ student demonstrations last fall “… We understand that this belief and instruction may be in conflict with the practice or the vision of the larger culture, as Christian beliefs have been in other times and places.”
Some people will not recognize any progress on LGBTQ issues unless Christian universities change their theological stances, said Shapri D. LoMaglio, vice president of government and external relations for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.
Others see any effort to welcome LGBTQ students to campus as a betrayal of traditional religious principles, she added.
The CCCU is an association of 180 Christian higher education institutions worldwide, including Calvin College, Cornerstone University, Kuyper College and Spring Arbor University in Michigan. The council wants to help colleges improve the experience of all minority groups on campus while staying true to their religious foundation, LoMaglio said.
Here’s what Christian colleges have to say about LGBTQ issues
Andrew Deeb, a transgender man, felt isolated at Spring Arbor University.
Deeb, now 25, fully transitioned to male in 2013. As a result, he said university officials told him he had to live off-campus for the 2013-14 academic year, his third year of college and second year at Spring Arbor. The move presented a financial hardship because Deeb’s university scholarship couldn’t be used for off-campus housing.
He also was not allowed in either the male or female dorms on campus beyond the common rooms or outside of visiting hours. A university administrator “very heavily implied” that he should not use the restrooms on campus, Deeb said.
“I was by myself most of the time. I couldn’t go visit my friends in the dorms really,” Deeb said. “They classified me as this third group that wasn’t really allowed in a lot of spaces on campus.”
Deeb filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in the fall of 2013 that alleged Spring Arbor University was violating Title IX by discriminating against transgender people. He was not happy when SAU received an exemption from complying with Title IX in 2014.
Title IX is the federal law saying education institutions receiving federal funding cannot discriminate against people on the basis of sex, although the law allows for exceptions for religious organizations if compliance would violate their religious tenets.
“(There’s an idea that) the legal right of an LGBTQ person somehow trumps religious right,” said LoMaglio, with the CCCU. “Actually, the religious right for an institution that teaches or promulgates the faith … that actually trumps this other thing.”
Deeb decided to transfer from community college to SAU because he wanted to major in worship arts, and he wanted to be part of the Christian community he saw there.
Deeb then transferred to Concordia University in his hometown of Ann Arbor in the 2014-15 school year. He said he felt more welcome on that campus, and he graduated from Concordia in spring 2016 with a degree in pre-seminary studies and theological studies. He now attends seminary in San Francisco with plans to go into ministry.
“At least as far as my personal faith, before I transitioned, I needed assurance from God that God would be with me through the transition or I wasn’t going to be able to do it,” Deeb said. “I had that assurance, so I was able to hold onto that throughout all my experiences at Spring Arbor.”
No longer a taboo topic
Today’s LGBTQ students say they are tired of the theological gymnastics required to navigate what it means to be gay but not act gay, in order to play a respectable role in the church. They refuse to choose between being Christian and being LGBTQ.
Spring Arbor University President Brent Ellis said sexuality is becoming more widely discussed within the church in general. SAU is having conversations on the topic more frequently, he said, although the university has not changed how it treats students in the past decade.
The university intentionally sets clear expectations for students, he said.
“We do not attempt to be all things to all people. We are not a place that every person would want to be a part of,” Ellis said. “We create an intentional community that we believe is most conducive for young men and young women to be successful and live a fully-integrated Christian life.”
A professor who taught at SAU for more than a decade – who requested anonymity to avoid repercussions for differing with the university’s official stance on LGBTQ issues – credited the current generation of college students, and specifically the LGBTQ community on campus, with forcing a conversation about LGBTQ issues there.
“The positives I have to say about the Millennial generation is that they are highly motivated, and they have a strong sense of justice,” the professor said.
Meet 16 LGBTQ students, alumni working to change the culture at Christian colleges
Joshua Chun Wah Kam spent much of his teen years praying to be straight.
During middle and high school, he went to counseling once or twice a month with his family to address his same-sex attraction. He committed to remaining celibate, but even then, he said some members of the counseling group told him he still needed to renounce his attraction to men as sinful.
Chun Wah Kam, now 21, stopped going to counseling when he started attending Hope College. By his senior year, he had publicly come out as gay. He graduated from Hope last December, with a double major in history and classics.
Born in Montana and raised in Malaysia, Chun Wah Kam says he is an orthodox Christian. After applying to a mix of Christian and secular colleges, he decided to attend Hope due to its financial aid offerings and the “genuine warmth” he experienced during his campus visit.
Hope College, in Holland, is affiliated with the Reformed Church and enrolls about 3,200 students. Hope recognizes the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman and believes the unmarried are called to a “life of chastity.” The college will not recognize or support a group whose aim “is to promote a vision of human sexuality that is contrary to this understanding of biblical teaching.”
This winter, Chun Wah Kam spearheaded a “95 Stories” project at Hope – a campaign coordinated by students to share via social media 95 anonymous stories of instances of homophobia and racism on campus. He easily hit his target.
This spring, students and alumni involved with the 95 Stories project coordinated a “Love Thy Neighbors Day” to welcome prospective students to campus during Hope’s Admitted Student Day and let them know about the unofficial support system available for LGBTQ students and people of color on campus.
While Hope College staff and faculty have been willing to talk about LGBTQ issues, Chun Wah Kam said, in his experience, the Christian community accepts only a “certain type of gay.”
“The harmless gay is always accepted … But let that never cost me anything, let that never inconvenience me in the form of protest or any LGBT students being too loud on campus,” he said.
One of the goals of the 95 Stories project is to break down the divide between the church and gay community, he said. In April, the group published a list of eight proposals for ways the college could provide more support for LGBTQ students and students of color.
Ideally, they would like to see the college eliminate its statement on sexuality, recognize a Gay-Straight Alliance on campus, add gender identity and sexual orientation to Hope’s non-discrimination policy and offer gender-inclusive housing options to make transgender and non-binary students feel more comfortable.
“We’re not interested in pitting the church against the gays,” Chun Wah Kam said. “… This is our home and we’re part of that home as Christians. This is our home and we’re part of that home as gay people.”
Hate the sin, love the sinner
Many Christian colleges and universities frame their stance on LGBTQ issues in the context of affirming the dignity of all people and recognizing everyone is worthy of love and respect.
“I do believe actually that it’s that primary teaching of the dignity and worth of all people … that is the leading value for the community,” said Gretchen Jameson, senior vice president of student affairs for Concordia University, which is affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and has 10 campuses across the country, including Ann Arbor.
The philosophy can be summed up by a common Christian cliche: Hate the sin, love the sinner.
“‘Hate the sin, love the sinner’ is probably my least favorite because it’s a license to not only be fake, but to hurt people in a way. … It gives a license to say some people are not fully human beings, and just tolerate them,” said Aubs Thompson, 26, a 2014 Calvin College graduate who is a lesbian and works as a social worker in Grand Rapids.
The Rev. Elizabeth Edman agrees that mindset can be damaging to Christians who identify as LGBTQ. Edman authored the book, “Queer Virtue,” which talks about the parallels between the Christian community and queer community and how those two identities complement each other.
“There’s a lie embedded in the trope (of loving the sinner and hating the sin), which is that the way one lives one’s sexual life is a choice as if it were external to who a person is,” said Edman, 55, who lives in New York. “So, when Christian communities say to people, ‘We love you, but we don’t love this thing that you do’ … what they’re doing is splitting people right down the middle.”
Alexandria Alveshere thought she would probably go to hell when she realized she is attracted to women.
It was a Friday evening during Alveshere’s sophomore year at Calvin College. She and a group of friends were sprawled on a couch, chairs and the floor of a dorm room talking. As she listened to a friend describe a guy she had a crush on, Alveshere realized she had those same feelings for a female friend.
She quickly left the room, not wanting to draw attention to herself as she sorted out her emotions.
“From the way I was raised, I grew up thinking that being gay was a choice and that all of the gays weren’t necessarily going to hell, but probably were going hell,” said Alveshere, now 24, who grew up attending Presbyterian and non-denominational churches.
Ever the academic, Alveshere said she began reading books and essays on the topic of same-sex attraction from a Christian perspective and looking for answers in the Bible. After praying about the issue, she eventually came to terms with her sexual identity.
“At no point did I ever just wake up one day and decide to put my gay pants on,” she said. “It was never something I chose.”
Alveshere, originally from Peoria, Illinois, was more worried about how her friends would react to expressions of her sexuality than how Calvin College’s administration might respond. She saw Calvin College as a good place to grow as a person in addition to getting a quality education, and she graduated in 2015 with a degree in chemistry. She now lives in Vermont with her wife.
Calvin College’s student conduct code prohibits sexual relationships “in conflict with biblical teaching.” The conduct code applies to all students, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, and violations of the policy are dealt with on a case-by-case basis, said Julia Smith, the sexuality series director at Calvin, which enrolls about 3,900 students in Grand Rapids and is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church.
Smith pointed to Calvin’s Sexuality And Gender Awareness student organization and an LGBT+ support group run by college chaplain Mary Hulst as signs that all students are welcome on campus. The visibility of LGBTQ students on campus humanizes what otherwise could be limited to a theological debate, Smith said.
Alveshere came out publicly as a lesbian during her junior year. She thought it might negatively impact her chances of being elected president of Calvin’s choir, but it proved to be a non-issue, she said.
Toward the end of her time at Calvin College, Alveshere said there was more discussion about the role of LGBTQ people in the church and the campus community – which she said was both helpful and stressful.
Future of the LGBTQ church
SAU President Ellis says the university is not changing its policies. The best way to show students love is to help them obey the known will of God, he said, acknowledging that may be more difficult for people who experience same-sex attraction.
“Some people say love equates to license and acceptance, but Scripture is clear that love is obedience,” Ellis said. “We create an environment that helps all people try to figure out what that looks like for them to walk in obedience to the will of God.”
The belief that people who openly identify as LGBTQ cannot be Christians tends to push people who defy that dichotomy to one of two extremes.
Some renounce their faith and walk away from the church.
“You can only feel marginalized for so long before you don’t want anything to do with those people and what they’re doing,” said Scott Greife-Wetenhall, a gay 2009 SAU graduate raised with Christian beliefs who now identifies as agnostic.
Others like Stout, the SAU graduate, and Deeb, the Concordia graduate, are propelled into ministry because they want to give other LGBTQ people a better experience than they had at their Christian schools.
“It reinforced that’s not how the church should be and it’s not how the church should treat people,” said Deeb.
Stout has become increasingly outspoken in advocating for equality for LGBTQ people in Christian higher education, since she came out publicly on her blog in June 2017. Spring Arbor was a natural choice for her since she lives nearby in Jackson and wanted a Christian education.
Now, the top priority for pro-LGBTQ students at Spring Arbor University is to get the university to drop the clause of its policy that says students cannot promote, advocate for or defend activities that violate its student code – including homosexual activity.
“We’re not asking them to change theology or anything like that, but just make it so these conversations can happen,” said Stout, who recently received a full-ride scholarship to Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, where she will begin a master’s program this summer.
Seeing LGBTQ people go to seminary gives Stout hope for the future of the church, but she is not optimistic that Evangelicals or institutions like Spring Arbor University will change.
“But they are only one tiny, tiny sect of the church,” Stout said. “The church is a rainbow, and there is room at Christ’s table for everyone. I think that queer Christians will be the ones to preach that good news to the rest of the world.”
Lead reporter Leanne Smith contributed to this report.
This piece took third place for best enterprise reporting in the 2018 Michigan Associated Press Media Editors awards and honorable mention for most innovative storytelling in the 2018 open class Michigan Press Association awards.