A Mission of Understanding: Young Gay Leaders on a Mission to Christian Colleges

Second Annual Soulforce Equality Ride Highlights Experiences of LGBT Students

Notre Dame – Pepperdine – BYU Among Stops

For Immediate Release
Contact: Haven Herrin, West Bus Co-director
Cell: 469-867-5725, haven@soulforce.org
Katie Higgins, East Bus Co-director
Cell: 843-259-8876, katie@soulforce.org

(Minneapolis, MN) — On March 8, 2007, fifty young adults will board 2 buses for the trip of a lifetime. The 8-week Soulforce Equality Ride will bring them to 32 Christian colleges with climates or policies that silence lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students.

Their mission: to open a dialogue about the painful consequences of discrimination and the religion-based prejudice that sustains it.

"We come in pursuit of greater understanding," says Haven Herrin, Co-director of Soulforce Q, a youth-led movement within the national LGBT social justice group Soulforce. "Our goal is to foster a conversation about LGBT people and faith. While such conversations are often marked by politics and divisiveness, we bring open minds and hearts to academic settings, where we hope for a genuine exchange of ideas."

More than 200 U.S. colleges and universities have explicit policies that discriminate against LGBT students. In 2006, the inaugural Equality Ride traveled to 19 of those schools and held vigils, Bible studies, class discussions, and community forums. This year the Ride’s reach has nearly doubled. Equality Riders will bring their mix of education and advocacy to 2 separate routes that stop at 32 schools, including the University of Notre Dame, Pepperdine University, and Baylor University.

Herrin sees the diversity of this year’s cohort as another indicator of the project’s growth. "We come from a variety of experiences, a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. There are 5 straight allies on this year’s ride. There are 4 riders who identify as transgender. There are Buddhists, Jews, Catholics, and evangelical Christians. We’re all here to have a conversation with America’s next conservative religious generation about our personal lives and our personal relationships to the scriptures that the schools use to condemn us."

Eight of the 2007 riders are current or former students from schools on the 2006 ride, including Vince Cervantes and Vince Pancucci, a young couple who experienced Equality Ride 2006 as students at Azusa Pacific University. This evangelical Christian school welcomed the riders and hosted a public forum; more than 1,200 Azusa students listened, cried, and prayed for healing as Equality Riders shared their experiences of anti-gay violence. Inspired by that event, Cervantes and Pancucci have come out to the campus and become activists in their communities.

Says Cervantes, "I’ve had first-hand experience stepping up in a ‘faith-based’ community to authentically and vulnerably share all parts of my life. I aspire to open eyes, broaden views, and get people talking by sharing my story at the institutions we will visit on the Equality Ride."

Other highlights of the 2006 Equality Ride

  • When the Equality Ride was defaced by anti-gay graffiti, students from Lee University in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains joined the Equality Riders in washing the bus and restoring its original message: "Learn from history. End Religion-based discrimination."
  • After Regent University in Virginia barred the Riders from entering the campus, several Regent students approached the bus, some of them kneeling and taking the hands of Equality Riders in gestures of humility, and offered "an apology on behalf of Christians who have mistreated the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community."
  • At Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah, where Equality Riders were barred from making formal presentations or speeches, 9 current and former BYU students joined the Equality Riders in a "die-in" to represent the hundreds of LGBT young people who have ended their lives due to the Mormon church’s teachings on homosexuality. Twenty-four young leaders were arrested for trespassing on school grounds.

BYU junior Matt Kulisch, a member of the Latter Day Saints and one of the students who participated in the action, cited his faith as part of his motivation for being arrested with the Equality Riders. "My church has always taught me the principle of standing for something true. My integrity demanded that this message of God’s love for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people be told in its entirety."

What to watch for in 2007

This year the Equality Ride west bus will return to BYU with Kulisch and two other former BYU students on board. The 2007 Riders plan even more outreach to the community and a six-hour march around the walls of the Provo campus, where, according to the honor code, "No one known to be guilty of overt and active homosexual conduct is to be enrolled or permitted to remain…." Campus officials have made it clear that Riders will not be allowed to enter campus as a group or as individuals.

The west bus will begin its route at Notre Dame, where AllianceND, an LGBT student group, has been denied official status as a student organization for the past 2 years. Official student organizations may not be in conflict with the teachings of the Catholic church, which holds that homosexual orientation is "a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil." Although Notre Dame has established a Standing Committee to examine the climate for LGBT students, the university is currently indicating they will not welcome the Equality Ride visit on March 8 and 9.

In contrast, Calvin College, identified by a Princeton Review survey as one of the least hospitable schools for LGBT students, has invited the Equality Riders for dialogue and shared worship services. Pepperdine University in Malibu is also welcoming the Ride and collaborating on two full days of public forums and conversation.

The riders on the eastbound bus expect a different kind of experience at Bob Jones University, which has in recent years warned openly gay alumni that they will be arrested for trespassing if they attempt to return to campus. The South Carolina school turned to the Bible to keep African American students off campus until 1970 and to keep interracial dating a punishable offense until 2000. Led by east bus Co-Directors Katie Higgins and Jarrett Lucas, and by Mandy Matthias, a rider with close ties to Bob Jones University, the Riders plan to enter campus to engage students in conversations. They will also visit a non-profit art museum on campus that, by law, must be open to the public. It is not yet clear how administrators will respond.

"We are called to the places that cry out for justice and compassion," says Herrin. "Where is it the darkest? We will go there."

The 2007 Equality Ride is a project of Soulforce, a national civil rights and social justice organization. Our vision is freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from religious and political oppression through the practice of relentless nonviolent resistance. For more information go to www.soulforce.org or www.equalityride.com.