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Gays battle homophobia at Bob Jones

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Silence. Smiles. Blaring bullhorns. All with the same message: condemnation. Gays will repent or burn in hell.

Last week, 27 young gays and lesbians and their supporters combated it all with silence as they stood in front of Bob Jones University, the latest stop in one of two Equality Ride bus tours by the interfaith lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) group Soulforce. They're asking for dialogue with students and faculty at 32 religious schools and calling to task those schools that refuse to hear a different interpretation of scripture.

It should come as no surprise to those familiar with Bob Jones University, South Carolina's most staunchly conservative religious school, that it has a written policy against homosexuals.

"Dishonesty, lewdness, sensual behavior, adultery, homosexuality, sexual perversion of any kind, pornography, illegal use of drugs and drunkenness all are clearly condemned by God's Word and prohibited here."

No one expected that the school would change its policy. University leaders had already told the group that there was no reason for dialogue because the Scriptures are clear on homosexuality. But the riders are visiting schools like Bob Jones on a two-month tour to reach out to students, both gay and straight, said Jarrett Lucas, one of the rides' leaders.

"We are here before Bob Jones to deliver a message to the gay and transgender students across the gate that we bear witness to the fact that they are loved by God and us," he said.

The 10th stop in the 18-city eastern route, Greenville provided the largest, loudest, and vilest counter-protest the group has seen, proving that if there's one thing that South Carolina excels at, it's ignorance.

"I can't believe this is where I grew up," said Katie Higgins, a Goose Creek native leading the ride with Lucas.

"Welcome to God's Country"

The strip malls, community churches, and modest apartment buildings that surround the school made the entrance to Bob Jones University stand out. The old men in their Sunday best screaming on the sidewalk about hellfire and damnation made it even easier to spot.

Two groups of about 35 people yelled at the top of their lungs, even when assisted by bullhorns. The city police had separated the groups to keep the peace: one sent across the six-lane highway and the other relegated to the side of the BJU entrance, opposite where the Equality Riders stood.

"Welcome to God's country" is about the tamest thing they said through three hours of screaming. The rest took various forms of "You are responsible for bringing AIDS upon our nation," "It's not a lifestyle, it's a deathstyle," and "You hate God and despise those who are good."

Those without the bullhorns, including a few young men and one solitary woman, held signs with phrases all too familiar to those who have been on the receiving end of the wrath of God's so-called Christian messengers: "God Created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" and "Man Shall Not Lie With Man."

A pastor and his followers from North Carolina who purported to be supporters early in the morning turned on the Equality Riders, smiling as they told the riders that homosexuality was an abomination and that the riders would go to hell if they didn't repent.

"You really see the continuum here," said Higgins. "Bob Jones has given us silence. We have the people who will smile and offer us water and say, 'You are sinners' and 'We hate you.' And then you have the people yelling."

The riders stood silent through it all. They spoke only when spoken to directly, often challenged about their faith. Even then, the riders spoke with no emotion, be it anger or pride. Meanwhile the other riders stood silent, staring straight ahead or reading from Bibles. Their response exasperated one foe who had come to witness the riders' protest for the first time.

"They're not usually like this," he tried to tell some local reporters.

Actually, they are.

Respond, Don't React

Similarities drawn between the fight for gay equality and the civil rights movement of the '60s angers some, but the way Soulforce delivers its message is rooted in the principles that Martin Luther King Jr. practiced, just as Mahatma Gandhi had before him — namely, nonviolence.

"We want people to recognize that our goal is to end violence, whether it's physical violence, emotional violence, spiritual violence," Lucas said. "We cannot meet violence with violence, and anger and fear are what translate into violence. You have to respond but not react. You have to say, 'How do I respond through a filter of love? What's best for this person to hear? What's best for this person to see?' That's what should guide your actions."

Before heading to Bob Jones, the riders and supporters met at a nearby park and talked about the principles of nonviolent responses. Don't smile — that's antagonistic. If you see a fellow protestor having trouble with someone, get between them and the other person and take the verbal abuse. Preparing for anything, riders were also reminded that, if physically attacked, they're to lie on the ground, protect their necks, and remain unresponsive.

They didn't face physical violence in Greenville, but the gamut of opposition was taxing on the riders.

"You stand there trying to love them as Christ loves them, without malice and without judgment," said Dean Genth, who coordinates logistics for the Equality Ride. "It takes a tremendous amount of strength to do that."

Prior to starting the tour last month, the riders had a training session where they split into two groups, with one group spouting homophobic slurs at the others. The experience remained an unused lesson until Greenville.

"It was hard practicing it," Genth said, his chin shaking as he held back tears. "It was just as hard experiencing it today."

Soulforce

In 1999, Mel White, ghost writer for the Rev. Jerry Falwell and other conservative leaders, wrote several open letters to Falwell in the Lynchburg newspaper that served Falwell's own religious college, Liberty University. White was tired of the dangerous, homophobic comments from Falwell and his supporters regarding gays and lesbians.

Falwell wouldn't change his beliefs on gays, but he agreed to a dinner where each man would bring 200 supporters. Come time for the dinner, White brought his 200, but Falwell couldn't even muster half the 200 he had promised, said Rob Gentry, an Anderson man who attended what would be the first coordinated action by White and Soulforce.

"There were more press there then a presidential news conference," Gentry says.

The offer for dinner was reduced to water, he says. During the event, a Soulforce representative would speak and then a Liberty representative would speak, going back and forth. It was a strangely formal discussion, but it was a discussion.

"It was a wonderful time," Gentry says. "This was not an action where there were arrests or anything."

Civil Disobedience

Arrests were what the throng of journalists were waiting for in Greenville. It's why the paddy wagon had been parked just inside the school's entrance. At each stop where Equality Riders were not invited on campus, a handful of riders would defy the school. With the police already present to keep the peace, this often meant arrest. Bob Jones was no different.

With an acclaimed art museum, which happens to receive some public money, riders brought two pieces of art — one was a closet door with a bound heart on it and the other was a toy Jeep with two gagged Ken dolls. They attempted to bring the pieces through the gates and literally took one step on the campus before being led to the police van. Higgins tried to walk on the campus with 57 theses regarding the school's abuse of gay students — in the spirit of Martin Luther's own theses — and was taken along with the rest.

The three were held for about 10 minutes, given a ticket, and then, ridiculously, the van rolled through the entrance and let them out at the curb. These civil actions haven't gone so smoothly at other stops.

"It's interesting walking into civil disobedience, because you don't know what's coming," Higgins said.

In Waco, Texas, riders were held overnight and had to rent a car the next day to catch up. In Mississippi, Higgins and two others were sentenced to four days of community service (because of past arrests for trespassing), forcing them to stay behind for six days and miss two stops before they caught back up with the other riders.

For Higgins, the risk was even greater in Greenville after the Mississippi arrest. Another trespassing charge could mean 20 days in jail.

"I have been doing this activism for a year now, and if this is a consequence for my actions against injustice, then that is something that I have to be prepared to follow through on," she said.

Her activism has been a growing experience for her parents as well.

"Last year, they said, 'Don't get arrested,'" she said. "But, over the past few months, they've changed in the way they talk about what I do. They have begun to truly understand the reality of LGBT oppression."

One critic of the riders called the scene "cheap theatrics," but it was an attempt to show the lengths the school would take to keep gays off the campus.

"When we come to a school and say God loves and affirms gay and transgendered people, that is a message they don't want to hear," said Lucas, who'd been arrested just days earlier in Georgia. "They want to censor it, reject it, and keep it off campus. And when I'm arrested, the school has chosen to have me arrested."

Response, Sort Of

The Equality Riders don't show up on a lark. Soulforce contacted Bob Jones late last year to let the school know they were coming, hoping for a welcoming response. Not so much. The school sent back a reply that the group wouldn't be welcome on campus.

Short of arresting the three riders last week, the school tried to stay out of the fray. Students and faculty had been praying for the riders by name, and chapel services that week had focused on sexual expression and the hope for change for gays and lesbians, said school spokesman Jonathan Pait. The hope was that the school could address the riders visit with love and compassion, while taking a stand for Bob Jones' biblical principles against homosexuality, he said.

At noon, a school van delivered boxed lunches with a letter for each of the riders from the school's president, Stephen Jones, reiterating the school's stance. The letter also tried to distance the school from the hate-filled message pelted on the riders outside.

"Please understand that the counter-protesters in front of the campus do not represent BJU and we did not encourage them to be present today," the letter stated. "Any hateful name-calling does not represent BJU's spiritual response."

The riders turned down the lunches and sent them off to a local shelter. At a previous stop, students had hand-delivered lunches offered by the school, then sat and talked with the riders on the curb outside. Presenting lunch without an opportunity to speak with students or school leaders seemed like a hollow gesture.

"They had a chance to be truly hospitable and they said no," Lucas said.

Faith in Question

At the center of the whole day was faith. Faith is what brought the Equality Riders to the school. It's what led Bob Jones to reject them. And it's what brought out the variety of counter-protesters. In their silence, the riders said they spoke God's message — and their silence was louder than the hate from the bullhorns across the street.

Opponents often tell them there's no such thing as gay Christians.

"They say being gay is a lifestyle," Lucas said. "Christianity is a lifestyle. Christianity isn't just a belief system that says, 'I acknowledge God and I acknowledge Jesus.' It translates to action. The Gospel says you will know Christ's disciples by the love that they show, not by the words that they say."

Later in the day, riders broke their silence with song. Songs of faith and perseverance, like "Jesus Loves Me." Throughout the day, riders opened their Bibles and read passages quietly to themselves.

"I've been reading through the Gospels again," said Amanda Matthias. "John is my favorite. John talks about the love of God and the way that we're supposed to apply that to our lives."

Like Lucas, Matthias said she's a lesbian and a Christian, and the two aren't mutually exclusive.

"I look at the Scriptures and I look at the teachings of Christ and I see a radical message of inclusion, not exclusion."

After a disheartening experience as a teenager at a Southern Baptist church in Goose Creek, Higgins' search for her own faith shows the difference between the riders and these schools' biblical party line. It's the difference between a Christian who looks for answers in the Scripture and those who blindly take the answers they're given.

"I can't say I'm a Christian, but I'm a big, big fan of Jesus. I'm trying to just do good with my life and see where that leads me. It's when you have to struggle with it, when you have to sit down and reconsider things, that you can come upon your own understanding of Scripture. That's where truth lies."

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