Soulforce Equality Ride Reprises

The very idea of “faith in action” calls forth in my mind visions of potlucks, Bible studies, and the phrase I have come to adore: “heart of hearts.” The substance of faith-based activism, religious-based dialogue, and the slow and steady progress of the religious establishment on GLBT issues is, by and large, the intimate realm of conversation and personal connections. It’s the social equality I seek.

After several years in the world of working with religious attitudes toward queer people, I am more convinced that GLBT equality in this country only comes when religion on the whole supports it. I am equally convinced that such widespread support cannot be achieved without a lot of long and perhaps painful conversations, Bible in hand.

Our need to talk about religion, because it is a factor in most issues facing the GLBT community—youth homelessness, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and marriage inequality, for example—is what guides my work.

But in this vast sea of potlucks, diffuse panel discussions, incremental conversations, and slow neutralization of millennia-old scriptural biases, how do we mark progress? How do I measure the movement of a heart? Of a mind?

These are the twin barometers upon which I travel in the faith-in-action world.

This spring, one of the projects I work on, the Soulforce Equality Ride—a bus tour to discriminatory colleges and universities—is in its preparation phase. We are accepting applications from young adults, and raising the funds that put a bus and 25 advocates on the road for two months.

It is no small endeavor, in terms of human participation, financial commitment, logistical considerations, or effects on those we visit.

The first time we put a bus on the road in 2006, it was part wing, part prayer, and part deep and personal conviction that this crazy idea would work.

Two years thence, I am glad we believed in the possibility and the efficacy of it, because we are starting to see the fruits, the beautiful fruits, of our belief in the potential of young adults working with young adults to come to a new and shared understanding of GLBT people.

We ought to have good reason for such a large undertaking as the Equality Ride, and we do…in spades.

Now, 15 of 53 colleges and universities we visited have queer-straight alliances. Some have official school sanction; some administrations and clubs live in tacit recognition of each other; and some are completely underground.

Straight allies at Seattle Pacific University (its club is named “Haven,” much to my blushing) and Samford University (Birmingham, Alabama) have taken bold steps to help usher these clubs into existence. Messiah College (Grantham, Pennsylvania), and Cedarville University (Cedarville, Ohio) have created GLBT alumni groups as voices of power and advocacy with their alma maters.

The student groups are active, too. They have letters to the editor printed in their school newspapers months after the fact—at Baylor University in Texas, in particular. They publish pamphlets with first-person stories of what it’s like to be queer on a Christian campus. They take part in other Soulforce campaigns, even getting arrested with us in nonviolent civil disobedience.

Two schools, Brigham Young University and Samford University, have changed their policies: the former to recognize and honor the difference between identity and behavior; and the latter to complete parity among all students, regardless of orientation.

The Equality Riders themselves take what the Equality Ride teaches them, and create change elsewhere. In Chicago and Kansas City, past Riders now host Bible studies with youth to work with the Good Book to find that place of knowledge, confidence, and affirmation.

We are making it into several graduate thesis papers, which is a hoot, but also affirms that the Equality Ride takes historic steps, measurable steps, toward equality worth defending for degree candidates.

I meet people whom the Equality Ride affected, two or three generations removed. For example, I was in Lithuania at the International Lesbian and Gay Association of Europe gathering last fall. There, I met a young woman, a lawyer from Latvia. She told me about her girlfriend, who goes to Abilene Christian University, and this bus of young activists that came to her school. That is an impressive ripple effect.

It is the momentum and proof of past measured successes that enable us to keep adding to the reach of this project. We try to bring new dimensions to the Equality Ride to keep it exciting. Part of the success is in the anticipation, the energy, and the feeling of bigness about the events we are a part of.

This fall, we add new denominations, Free Will Baptist and Methodist, and visit, for the first time, faith-based, historically Black colleges and universities.

I did not get into this kind of work because I ever thought I would reach a point of mastery, or feel a sense of comfortable completion. Nobody even takes a vote at some point to say that the hearts and minds have moved (this far). It is a stream, I am swimming with delight, and there are many miles to go.

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