How to Set a Fire & Build with the Ashes: My Story of InterVarsity, Queerness, and the Danger of “Dialogue”

Zora

In Coming Out on Campus, I alluded to an upset between my alma mater’s Christian fellowship, its parent organization InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IV), and me – a queer Christian student leader.

Conversations with classmates, pastors, and fellowship staff, and then work within fellowship leadership, culminated in a Constitution that prohibited discrimination toward LGBTQ Christians in all levels of our student group: from first-time visitor to seasoned campus leader.

For readers unfamiliar with the subculture of campus ministry, InterVarsity is a 75 year-old evangelical Christian campus ministry that has over 1,000 chapters in over 650 college campuses across the nation. It does well what it does, and its influence and reach are vast. If this is new to you, I still encourage you to read along. This post is about my relationship with IV, how a light became a fire, and how the ashes became something new.

GATHERING

When I fully embraced my bisexuality and started dating Ada, I knew my lived reality was at odds with the beliefs of InterVarsity, the parent organization of my Christian fellowship and spiritual home. This fellowship is where I grew in my faith and where I met some of my dearest friends. It’s also where Ada became a Christian. I didn’t want my identity and my Christian leadership role to be at odds, but IV policy and practice insisted that they were. I longed to stay in the nurturing community of our fellowship – to be seen and loved – and even more, I wanted to ensure that queer Christian students who came after me could do the same.

I’m a fixer. It’s natural for me to discern and implement improvement: whether I’m streamlining data collection at work or advocating for more inclusive language in my church’s Welcoming Statement. So when I sensed that our fellowship was pushing people away, I felt compelled to action.

Along with a couple of trusty friends – Thom, Kira, and Molly – I started to gather information about how InterVarsity had interacted in the past with campus fellowships regarding sexuality. We read about colleges that booted IV from campus and colleges that found a middle ground. We had countless dinner and email conversations with Jason, our InterVarsity area director, to establish clarity about IV’s internal and external policies. (Turns out many of these policies were hidden from not just the public, but from participating students as well.) We did some deep digging, because we needed to establish a firm foundation before we broke ground for change.

KINDLING

As our understanding of the facts grew, we maintained our commitment to regular, honest discussions with InterVarsity staff. I’m grateful for how InterVarsity itself had prepared us for these very conversations – through retreats and Bible studies and role models. One conversation went like this:

ME: “Is InterVarsity’s support for strictly heterosexual marriage written anywhere officially on the website?”

JASON: “No, there’s nothing like that on the website.”

ME: “So how are students supposed to know about the rule that prevents LGBTQ-affirming Christians from serving in positions of leadership?”

JASON: “Good question. I guess I’d just say, in conversations and relationships, and if anyone has questions, they get an honest answer. I think as you’ve had questions, I’ve done my very best to be as transparent as possible and to have a well-rounded and encompassing conversation and two-way dialogue.”

Jason is humble, thoughtful, and a good listener. He managed these tough conversations with our determined and sharp-witted crew with Christ-like compassion.

But his answer about  “conversations and relationships” is reflective of more than just his gentleness. It’s also reflective of how InterVarsity – whether inadvertently or intentionally – stonewalled our efforts for a more inclusive fellowship.

BLAZE

After gathering information and kindling relationships with InterVarsity staff, we were ready to work. We established a committee of mature, invested fellowship members to write a Constitution that would allow us to maintain affiliation with InterVarsity while overruling their discriminatory practices. (There were major benefits to staying affiliated, like having a paid staff person, being invited to retreats, and connecting with students from other schools.)

No meeting was easy – each of us cared too deeply for it to be effortless – but creating the Constitution was as rewarding as it was challenging. In listening to one another, we practiced Christ’s humility. In caring for the next generation, we practiced Christ’s compassion. In fighting for inclusion, we sought his justice.

Beginning in February, we grew in the midst of the heat. Throughout the four-month writing and discerning process, we constructed a document that seemed amenable to all parties and that was certainly more inclusive than IV’s policies. At last, upon the conclusion of our shared labor, the committee was ready for a final vote to send the Constitution to the full fellowship for ratification.

But on the day of the scheduled vote in late May, two vocal committee members (“practicing” heterosexual men) objected to bringing the Constitution forward for a vote.“The fellowship isn’t ready for this,” they said. “We need to talk more.”

We won’t stand for this vision of an inclusive Constitution and fellowship, they implied.

The remainder of the committee pushed a vote forward nonetheless, and we voted 8-2 to send the Constitution to the full fellowship to be ratified.

But it was late May now – the end of the school year – and there wasn’t room in the schedule for a full and informed gathering (at least that was the position of our InterVarsity staff advisor). Reluctantly, we agreed to table the ratification until the next school year.

Thom, Kira, Molly, and I graduated a couple of weeks later.

ASH

The next year’s class of students neglected to ratify the Constitution. Dousing the blaze of LGBTQ exclusion was no longer a priority now that Zora – the “practicing” and affirming queer leader who smelled the smoke – had left the vicinity and left InterVarsity. Although we tugged on remaining connections to the next generation of leaders and pleaded with (InterVarsity-funded) staff,  we were met with opposition and disinterest. Rebirth would have to wait until the time was right.

Dialogue is like labor: a process of love that requires both energizing breath and formidable effort. The dialogue between us, the LGBTQ-affirming Christians in our fellowship, and InterVarsity was necessary to begin the birth of an inclusive Christian group. I had hoped that it would bring forth life, and life abundant, for queer Christian students and staff.

But dialogue is also like labor in that it must end – in birth or in death. Dialogue for dialogue’s sake may produce good feelings on the part of those in power, but it starves new life of oxygen. (#thoughtsandprayers, right?) While InterVarsity sought ever more dialogue and seemed to see this as a worthy end, LGBTQ Christian students were still wrestling with questions about their very identity and worth, wondering if there was a place for their whole selves in the kin-dom of God.

In ushering in the kin-dom of God, we are not here to simply dialogue: we are here to partner with the Spirit in building a home that looks like heaven. Just as stakeholders, architects, and carpenters need to have open dialogue as they build, so must we.

But we have to build. We have to deliver, or new life will never be born. We must push, or we will lose.

REBIRTH

Two years after we wrote the Constitution, Ada and I reached out to Thom, Kira, and Molly. InterVarsity had just unleashed a tide of anti-LGBTQ sentiment in the evangelical world: they now required staff to condemn LGBTQ people or tender their own resignation.*

It was an ultimatum: a narrowing of the gate. Now, the private policies that Jason disclosed to me were public. Now, staff – some of whom were queer and some of whom found IV’s policies unconscionable – had to choose between their livelihood and ministry and their authenticity.

The five of us wrote a letter that was published in our college’s paper. It was co-signed by about twenty fellowship alumni. In the letter, we detailed the Constitution writing process, the actions of the committee, and the consequences for queer Christian students and the fellowship if the Constitution were not ratified now, at this time of heightened vulnerability.

In response to the letter, the 2016 fellowship leaders ratified some of the Constitution – the parts that mattered most, including the essential statement pledging non-discrimination.

The letter re-set a fire that woke the laboring parent. New life was here.

*From TIME:

“InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA says it will start a process for “involuntary terminations” for any staffer who comes forward to disagree with its positions on human sexuality, which hold that any sexual activity outside of a husband and wife is immoral.

Staffers are not being required to sign a document agreeing with the group’s position, and supervisors are not proactively asking employees to verbally affirm it. Instead, staffers are being asked to come forward voluntarily if they disagree with the theological position. When they inform their supervisor of their disagreement, a two-week period is triggered, concluding in their last day.”

Photo from PalaceOfFineArts.com

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