Saturday, March 31, 2007

Albert Mohler's office gets sit-in from Soulforce, an LGBT-rights group

Also, academic compares them to Osama Bin Laden

By Hannah Elliott
Published March 27, 2007

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (ABP) -- A Southern Baptist seminary president's recent controversial comments on homosexuality caused a gay-rights group to target his office with a sit-in March 26, leading to 12 arrests.

Members of Soulforce, a religious gay-rights group, detoured their two-month "Equality Ride" to Louisville, Ky., to sit in at the office of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler.

Police arrested the 12 for refusing to leave the office without a public apology from Mohler for his statements about a potential biological "cure" for homosexuality. In postings to his personal blog, he said Christians should support "successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation [from homosexual] to heterosexual … as we should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate means to avoid sexual temptation and the inevitable effects of sin."

The ride engaged 50 college students and other gay-rights activists in tours -- modeled after the Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights Era -- in visiting campuses of colleges and other schools with anti-gay policies. Soulforce describes itself as being opposed to "religious and political oppression" against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people."

This year's Equality Riders were aged 19 to 28. The riders planned to visit 32 institutions of higher learning between March 8 and April 26. Southern Seminary wasn't the only Southern Baptist-affiliated school to draw Soulforce's attention.

On March 14, five Equality Riders were arrested on the Oklahoma Baptist University campus in Shawnee, Okla. Six days later, six others were arrested at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Riders also were arrested at Mississippi College in Clinton, Miss.
But, although unplanned, the arrests were almost expected.

At Samford University near Birmingham, Ala., administrators have taken proactive measures to address the issue of homosexuality. Even before they knew about the planned visit from Soulforce, school officials and students had planned two panel discussions on homosexuality and a campus lecture on the subject during undergraduate convocation March 22. The Equality Rider bus is set to hit the Samford campus March 30.

Matt Kerlin, Samford's university minister, said he plans to show "compassion and grace" throughout the upcoming Soulforce visit, even though he disagrees with the Soulforce premise.

"Samford hosts over 100,000 guests on campus each year, and we want to handle the Soulforce visit with the same courtesy we extend to all our guests. We expect likewise from Soulforce," he said. "I pray that our community will respond to Soulforce with grace and truth, that this will be a learning experience for us all, and that we will demonstrate Christ-likeness is all that we say and do."

Samford has a policy against sexual misconduct -- defined as including homosexuality -- that administrators plan to uphold. But Soulforce members and Samford leaders do agree on at least one thing, Kerlin said: "We agree that the Bible teaches love of neighbor and that Christians should treat others justly and mercifully, even those with whom they disagree."
One Christian academic criticized Soulforce's aims far more pointedly after last year's Equality Ride -- even comparing them to terrorists.

[Emphasis mine] Reuben David, an author and professor of mass communications at North Central University in Minneapolis, Minn., wrote an essay decrying the group. He said interpreting Scripture to "accommodate one's movement is not going to convince the public." Christians worldwide hold to the traditional understanding of heterosexual-only marriage, he said, adding the ideas promoted by Soulforce set a dangerous precedent for American society and a "cataclysmic precedent for human society."
"Osama Bin Laden's threat against the West is milder compared to the movements of [Soulforce founder] Mel White and others who are eating away at the vitals of a traditional society like zombies threatening to destroy traditional families," David wrote. "This is a guerilla war against traditional human marriages."

White is a clergyman and former Fuller Theological Seminary professor who wrote speeches and books for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham before embracing his sexual orientation. He divorced his wife and announced his homosexuality in 1994. He founded Soulforce after that.

White wrote Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay And Christian In America about his struggle coming to terms with being gay.
Jarrett Lucas, co-director of the Equality Ride, said he hopes the tour will "bear witness to the compatibility" of his faith and his sexual orientation. Disowned by his family "in the name of faith," he joined Soulforce in 2005 after a friend sent him a link to the group's website. It appealed to him because it supports the notion that "neither faith nor Scripture should be used to oppress and harm," he said.

"Disciples of Christ are identified as such by the love that they show," he said. "Biblical interpretations that make outcasts of God's gay and transgender children conflict with the spirit of inclusion exemplified by Christ."

Receptions at several of the schools on the tour have been less than welcoming. The arrests in Oklahoma came when 26 riders sought to enter campus and were refused entry. The six people arrested had attempted to carry onto campus a sheet covered in Bible verses and affirmations of homosexuality.

Current policies at the Oklahoma school ban advocacy for homosexual students, although last year administrators allowed Soulforce representatives to use a single room on campus for student dialogue. The OBU student handbook lists mandatory counseling, probation or expulsion as consequences of homosexual behavior.

At Baylor, Equality riders were allowed onto campus as guests of students. Once there, a group of Soulforce riders and Baylor students wrote Bible verses and affirmations of homosexual students on the sidewalk in front of a campus building. Police soon told them to stop the chalking, in accordance with university rules against some forms of chalking. Five riders and one Baylor student refused to stop, so police arrested them and charged them with criminal trespassing. They spent the night in the McLennan County Jail and were released on $11,000 in bonds March 21.

Baylor's sexual misconduct policy says "human sexuality is a gift from the creator God" to be used for procreation and "the uniting and strengthening of the marital bond." It says misuses of sexuality include but are not limited to "sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, incest, adultery, fornication and homosexual acts."

At Mississippi College, police arrested five riders for walking onto campus to deliver a poster-board mosaic of pictures and Bible verses. They chose to perform three days of community service rather than stay in jail.

So far, the cold receptions have not deterred Lucas and his colleagues. The tour is about reconciliation, they say. And they plan to force the issue.

"As a gay person of color, I know firsthand the danger of prejudice and the corresponding importance of understanding," Lucas said via email. "Today, ignorance and untruth are causing the suffering of many gay and transgender people. And as a Christian, it is my moral charge to liberate the oppressed and reach out to marginalized groups."

The cost of the entire Equality Ride is about $500,000, according to organizers. Bails were paid by funds raised from donors, which also covered all other expenses for the trip. Other colleges on the tour list include: Union University, Bob Jones University, Calvin College, Yellowstone Baptist College, Covenant College and other Christian and military schools.

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