In 2005, an organization called Soulforce contacted Calvin, saying it wanted to bring a busload of young people to campus as part of a nationwide Equality Ride, a project intended to challenge Christian colleges and their beliefs about homosexuality and religion.
Calvin Vice President for student life Shirley Hoogstra was the initial contact person and she said the college preferred that the group wait a year before requesting a campus visit again.
The organization agreed, and again asked if they could come to Calvin this spring as part of a nationwide tour of 32 Christian colleges, including Notre Dame, Pepperdine, Baylor, Brigham Young, Messiah, Gordon and Dordt.
Colleges are presented with the option of either structuring an educational event or prohibiting the Riders from entering their campuses, with the guarantee of acts of civil disobedience on behalf of the Equality Ride.
Structuring an educational event seemed the best alternative for several reasons. Two Synodical reports (1973, 2002) challenged agencies within the church to do a better job of creating dialogue and understanding about homosexuality, as well as a way to provide more education and conversation on campus about Christianity and human sexuality.
“We have conversations about human sexuality on campus,” Hoogstra said, “and the Equality Ride would fit into that series of conversations. Also a hallmark of a Calvin education is that we are willing to listen to other points of view, even those with which we are in disagreement, and we also appreciate opportunities to share our points of view.”
Vice President for enrollment and external relations Tom McWhertor said he believes Calvin has been working hard at following the church’s advice, including educational activities leading up to the April 24 Equality Ride visit.
“We didn’t want it [the visit by the Riders] to take place in a vacuum,” he said, “so the student life division planned many excellent events that helped our community think about these issues prior to the ride.”
Those events included everything from a talk by Calvin graduate Mark Yarhouse on “How Christians Make Meaning of Same-Sex Attractions” to a trio of “Uncommon Conversations at Commons” where students heard presentations such as the traditional Christian viewpoint about homosexuality and from a panel by Calvin students and parents on what it is like to be Christian, a Calvin student and gay.
Hoogstra said the work involved in preparing for the visit was substantial and worthwhile. She worked on the specifics with Soulforce member Bram Wispelway, a “straight ally” of the Riders and son of a Calvin alumni couple.
“There were many good things that came out of this visit,” she said. “We emphasized over and over that our identity is in Jesus Christ, a very counter cultural message. Indeed the message of the Sunday-evening LOFT service attended by the riders emphasized that we must find our home in Jesus Christ. We asked people to pray for us, and they did. We provided meditations, time for prayer, worship and time for learning prior to and during the visit.”
But, said Hoogstra, what took place before the Equality Ride visit must continue after the bus’s departure from campus.
“Our own educational efforts were invaluable,” she said, “but they are just the beginning. Equality Ride reminded us that silence on issues of injustice cannot be tolerated. We stand with them on that issue. But there were also significant places where we had vigorous debate.”
Calvin chaplain Dale Cooper agreed.
“This was a very complex and difficult thing for which to prepare,” he said. “To give right Christian welcome to and to carry on right conversation with those whose message we, at least in part, disagree with is no small thing. Hence our plea for focused and ardent prayer, our careful planning and our attempts to prepare ourselves spiritually.”
The Riders themselves seemed to appreciate the fact that Calvin could greet them with hospitality, while also challenging some of their assumptions.
One Rider wrote in his Web blog: “Of course, there are many disagreements among Christians. There always has been and there always will be … Folks at Calvin get this. They understand this ... People can disagree and still live in peaceful accord and with love.”
For Hoogstra that sentiment was encouraging.
“We wanted to convey an unambiguous Christian witness. I believe we did this,” she said. While there are things I might change, overall I would say that the preparation and the events of the day met my expectations. However, there is more work to be done.”
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