Next month fifty young adults will board two buses for what promises to be the trip of a lifetime.
The eight-week Soulforce Equality Ride will bring them to 32 Christian colleges with policies that silence or exclude 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,” Haven Herrin, co-director of Soulforce Q, a youth-led movement within the national LGBT social justice group Soulforce, said.
“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 American colleges and universities have explicit policies that discriminate against LGBT students.
In 2006, the inaugural Equality Ride travelled 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 two 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 five straight allies on this year’s ride. There are four 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.
“I’ve had first-hand experience stepping up in a ‘faith-based’ community to authentically and vulnerably share all parts of my life,” Cervantes said.
“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.”
Brigham Young University 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.”
The west bus will begin its route at Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic college where AllianceND, an LGBT student group, has been denied official status as a student organisation for the past two years.
Official student organisations 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.
In contrast, Calvin College, which Princeton Review ranked as one of the worst schools in the nation for gay students, has invited the Equality Riders for dialogue and shared worship services.
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 rider Mandy Matthias, the Equality 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,” Herrin said recently. “Where is it the darkest? We will go there.”
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For more information on Soulforce or the Equality Ride, go to www.soulforce.org or www.equalityride.com.