Azusa Impact

by Di Gray

We had a wonderful day at Azusa Pacific University today. This school has been the most welcoming by far, and I personally had been looking forward to it since the beginning of the trip. Jake has a particularly strong working relationship and friendship with Vice President Terry Franson, and having met him and David Peck at the CCCU Conference in Dallas, I had high hopes for the visit, and they were certainly met

The warm reception began when we pulled up to the school and people were clapping and hooting for us. We received name tags and met our "buddies" for the day: each Rider was assigned a student (who had expressed interest in hanging out with us) to accompany us through the day’s activities. We had a lovely breakfast and introduction, then proceeded into Easter Chapel. It was a large service and included communion in cute little plastic shot glasses. On the way out of chapel, I got a call from an Azusa student with whom I had been corresponding via email and who had just written an article in the school paper outing himself and discussing his struggle to resolve his sexuality and his faith. I was able to get a copy of the paper from him and give him a big hug. He said the response to his article had been mostly positive and that he was glad we were there. It was really great to connect with someone who’s doing such brave work from the inside.

After chapel we had a lunch and discussion time with various members of the president’s cabinet. At my table were seated two administrators, who were overall quite friendly. They were interested to learn more about how to properly talk about LGBT people and how to care for them. That seems to be a significant issue on many of these campuses: people who would be allies don’t know even how to speak correctly about our community; they’re not going to make any friends by saying, "I welcome your homosexual lifestyle." Definitely work to be done there. There was a moving moment when one of them said he had seen his nephew’s profile on Myspace, which identified him as gay. The administrator asked if I would contact his nephew and tell him that if he needed anyone in the family to talk to, he would support him. I have since begun a dialog with the young man.

From the lunch we proceeded to a large auditorium where we gave our presentation entitled "History of Violence". There were something over 1,000 people in the audience, and it was broadcast live on the Internet. It was by far the largest audience we’d had, and it went well. After Pam’s testimony on being attacked in Hawaii, a pastor offered a prayer for forgiveness and reconciliation that was very nice. During the question and answer period after the presentation we got a couple of moderately hostile questions about the Bible, but also had quite a bit of applause when we discussed marriage rights and equality in the Church. After the presentation I had a number of students come up and thank me for being there. I have high hopes that we really reached some people that afternoon.

Next it was on to a casual meeting space that allowed us time to discuss the day with our student buddies (and have more excellent food). It was nice to finally sit down with my buddy, as I had spent most of the day running around answering my cell phone. He and I had a really good conversation about a number of issues, including gays serving openly in the military. He is in the ROTC and says that he would be very willing to serve. Two birds with one stone, yay.

Then we began a sort of closing ceremony. Terry Franson, Jake, and Diane each spoke a bit about the day, and then Jake read the Biblical story of the woman caught in adultery, wherein Jesus says, "Let you who are without sin cast the first stone." On each of the tables were some small smooth stones, and we were each invited to select one, go to the front of the room and speak for a minute, and then throw the stone into a pail of water, thus symbolically casting away our weapons against each other. I admit I found the idea a bit hokey at first, but I was surprised when so many of us, Azusa students and Riders alike, came forward to say that they were letting go of anger, fear, resentment, and wrong impressions. It was a true moment of reconciliation. Unfortunately I had to leave early to plan the community dinner, but my buddy and I traded our stones and promised to pray for one another regularly.

That was the end of our scheduled day on campus. However, we then retired to a chain Mexican restaurant across the street where we’d arranged to meet with interested students in a casual atmosphere. Robin and I were the first ones there and within 10 minutes we had 15 students, many of them LGBT. All told we must have had at least 50 people there from the community and the school, and were able to begin some great conversations about the future of Azusa Pacific. It was great to speak with these people and allow them to connect with each other as well. I look forward to going back after the Ride and continuing to work with those awesome people.