Union College addresses peacemaking and sexual orientation

In recent weeks, a group called Soulforce announced plans to stop at Union College on April 21 as part of their Equality Ride 2010 tour. This group of college-aged individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT), embarks on an annual spring bus tour across the country to raise awareness for issues related to sexual orientation and Christianity. Union was the fourteenth stop of fifteen Christian college campuses where riders feel the schools’ policies are discriminatory toward LGBT students.

“Union College did not invite Soulforce to campus or agree to be a stop on the Equality Ride tour,” explained Dave Smith, president of Union College. “Since they still chose to come to our campus, we offered them Christian hospitality and took an opportunity to build a better understanding on our campus of our own beliefs and the issues surrounding sexual orientation.”

Founded in Lincoln nearly 120 years ago by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Union College offers broad educational opportunities set in the context of an Adventist worldview. “Union does not deny enrollment or employment to anyone based on sexual orientation,” said Smith. “We also uphold our understanding of the biblical principle that marriage is between a man and a woman. School policy calls students and employees to abide by church teachings that provide for sexual intimacy only within the marriage relationship.”

The church also teaches a commitment to peace, something that Union College has endeavored to make part of the campus culture in a variety of ways including community service, the Peace and Social Justice Club, a Conflict and Peacemaking class and the third annual Peace Week, April 5-9, full of activities teaching the four steps of peacemaking promoted by the Adventist Church. “We as a campus community believe that God loves every person—regardless of sexual orientation, ethnicity, physical ability, racial background, gender, or theological persuasion,” said Smith. “Union College demonstrates this unconditional love through the four ingredients of lasting peace: dialogue, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation.”

To that end, the college offered an opportunity for conversation with the 25 Equality Riders who arrived on Union’s Campus on Wednesday morning. The riders stayed in Woods Auditorium during their time on campus, allowing students the freedom to join the sessions if they wished, but not interrupting a busy school day on the rest of campus. After worship led by Union’s Campus Ministries, a presentation about Union’s tradition of service and a meal, the riders met with administrators. “I believe the meeting gave school administration a better understanding of students on our campus who face challenging questions about their sexual orientation,” said Smith.

In an afternoon session, students and employees divided into small groups for moderator-led discussion with Equality Riders. “I am proud of the way Union College students asked probing questions with respect and compassion,” said Roscoe Howard III, chair of the Union College Board of Trustees, who participated in one of the groups. “The discussions created a learning atmosphere that did not nullify their biblical worldview of Adventism. This was the desired outcome of the whole experience.”

Smith says he believes the college accomplished the two primary goals for the day. “We wanted to create a greater awareness on our campus of the issues related to sexual orientation,” he said, “and we hope our students gained a better understanding of their own beliefs and how to dialogue peacefully with people who may not share the same beliefs.”

“At first I wasn’t planning to go to the meeting because this isn’t a big issue for me,” said Shelina Berglund, a Union College senior who attended the discussion session with friends. “We talked about creating safe spaces for LGBT students. I feel that’s important, but there are many even larger issues facing our campus. We need to make sure that we have safe places or safe people who can listen to students struggling with many issues, not only sexual orientation. As a student leader next school year, I hope to help all of us be more intentional about providing safe spaces for students facing difficult issues.”

A series of special worships and other activities over the month leading up to the Equality Ride visit helped educate students and employees on the biblical basis for Seventh-day Adventist teachings about sexuality, Union College policies, and challenges faced by Christians who struggle with gender identity and sexual orientation. During the third annual Peace Week in early April, activities and lectures focused on learning the four ingredients of peacemaking as taught by the Adventist Church.

“For most of our students, Wednesday was a normal school day,” said Smith. “But I trust the 160 or so students who chose to dialogue with the Equality Riders came away with an example of how to truly live in peace as Christ did—learning to listen and love those who don’t share the same beliefs without compromising one’s own.”