Justice: On Petitions and Building Healthy Community

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This post continues in our series this month on the spiritual practices of activism
that are rooted in and enhance our faith lives.

Below are some of my thoughts and reflections about the recent events at Gordon College. Gordon is a small Christian liberal arts school on the north shore of Boston.  Last week, President D. Michael Lindsay co-signed a letter to the President of the United States requesting exemption from an anti-discrimination executive order.  Over 3000 members and friends of the Gordon College community promptly signed a petition requesting President Lindsay rescind his request.  Many other forms of response took place as well. This weekend, the Board of Trustees sent out a letter addressing the turbulence that the greater Gordon community is experiencing as a whole.

I realize that I haven’t written here in ages.  If you’d like to learn more about what has been keeping me busy, please visit www.ictg.org.  It is a gift to write here again – thank you Mihee! – and thank you readers for considering what I have to say. 

To begin, it was intriguing to observe comments in the petition that referred to Gordon as a “progressive” school. Apparently some people perceived President Lindsay’s act of co-signing the exemption-request letter as a threat to what seemed to them the progressive course of the institution.

I, however, have never thought of Gordon as progressive.  That word and its political and sociological connotations do not fully encompass the unique school environment that Gordon has been developing in all its years.  For me, Gordon was a place of theological conservatism that consistently stretched itself to live out that faithfulness amid real life challenges.  I perceived that stretching to be messy, awkward, and even offensive at times.  Still, I was encouraged that those life-giving dialogues were happening.

I am grateful to see that the Trustees also acknowledge how they are “deeply saddened by the hurt that has been revealed through social media.”  There is a great deal of hurt as a result of President Lindsay signing the exemption-request letter, for widely ranging reasons.  Even though my concern was not whether Gordon was faltering in a progressive track, when President Lindsay co-signed the exemption request letter I too found the things I value most about Gordon deeply threatened.

One of my values was learning in an environment where the tagline was “Freedom within a Framework of Faith.”  This delicate balance of scholarly exploration within the hallmarks of Christian practice among a small undergraduate community is rare and I have found it to be a tremendous asset in being a young adult in the world today.  One of the reasons that this value is so important to me is because it taught me how to practice not being worried or fearful in exploration – two core Christian emphases.  Being less anxious and less fearful, of course, does not remove the risks in life. In fact, just the opposite. This kind of faithfulness requires courage to be vulnerable.

According to the Trustees, President Lindsay’s core concern in signing the exemption-request letter is “Gordon’s ability to hire for mission… and in that we support him 100%.”  They go on to explain, “Gordon has not and will not bar categories of individuals who want to work or study at Gordon, provided they can support and live by our statements of faith and of life and conduct.”  The Chair of the Trustees, Kurt Keilhacker, says he’s proud of the way Gordon commits as Christ-followers to love one another, even across strong differences of opinion, and that “it’s part of what makes Gordon “Gordon.”  I very much agree.

In my years at Gordon I experienced our community together fostering an environment in which it was possible to explore and learn about all aspects of life without worry or fear.  We believed that when we went into any area of exploration we did so with the light that darkness cannot comprehend. That is not to say that we did it without fear and trepidation.  We learned, together, that this seeking out truthfulness was an arduous adventure of faith – one that called us into “being here now,” “praying while we hike,” and “showing up.”  We were well aware that this treasure of exploration was not perfect and it could uncover experiences that we were not wholly comfortable in facing or ready to respond to well.

Sexuality, certainly, was one of those experiences.  And, of course, the challenges of facing sexuality were not limited to issues of LGBTQI+.  For example, in my sophomore year as a Resident Assistant, I encountered radically divergent expressions, including: A 16 year-old freshman from rural New England, who ended up dropping out of school to get married and live on a farm; another freshman who was pursued romantically by a faculty member and also ended up leaving school that year to continue the relationship outside the bounds of official oversight; and a sophomore who invited a decades-older male stranger onto our floor to spend the night after meeting him online.

That same year and the year that followed I had several peers who were student leaders on campus.  After graduation, I later learned that during the time we were students together some of them struggled deeply with their senses of identity and how to practice healthy sexuality. I was privileged to thrive among the evangelical communities that raised me, including Gordon.  As an adult I came to more fully realize how harmful an environment it was for some. I have learned from my peers that in many ways Gordon was not perceived to be a safe place for better understanding and care of those challenging experiences of late adolescence.

One last example came just after my husband proposed to me in the spring of my junior year.  In the weeks of engagement that followed, we sought out education on fertility and potential future use of birth control.  We talked with each other a lot about what we envisioned for our married life together.  We participated in a small group for engaged couples that we co-created with another couple.  Our group invited faculty members and other pastoral mentors to meet with us to share about their marriages and guide us in preparing well.  In those weeks, my husband and I also spoke with both sets of our parents, read articles online, and I sought out the advice of an assistant working in the biology department at Gordon.

At the time, she was the only woman in the department’s leadership.  When we spoke, she became overwhelmingly flustered.  She explained that I was the first student to ask her questions about fertility and birth control and insisted that I speak with my parents. When I explained that I had, and that I was interested in learning more about the science and biology of fertility and birth control, she insisted that it was not her place to discuss those topics with me.  Nothing I said changed her mind.  Thankfully, not all the adults at Gordon were so unhelpful.  Along with the faculty guests for our small group, we are indebted to a loving Resident Director’s wife, a wife of a seminary student who was a nurse, and also an administrator in one of our study programs, all who caringly listened to our questions and responded graciously.

I find this recent exemption-request letter boldly dismissive of the number of people, and their life experiences, on whose shoulders current Gordon College leaders stand. As I watch the headlines this week, and I read about John-Manuel Andriote being student-body president in 1980 and some of his experiences at Gordon, I recall my grandfather, a former Gordon College professor, acknowledging that students sometimes found him to be a safe pastoral presence to confess their struggles with sexuality. I think of other Gordon staff and faculty who have sought to host constructive dialogues in varying forms on campus.  I am reminded of the presenting heterosexual Gordon employees or former employees who we at times suspected may be gay or lesbian.  And I remember my peers who were leaders and worked at Gordon who eventually came out in years after graduation.

I have known so many leaders and staff members whose sexual practices were less than ideal.  I have also known those who possessed greater integrity and faithfulness than a vast majority of people but were not free to fully express themselves honestly. In this way, I do not view Gordon as practicing discrimination in employment practices as much as deeply struggling with its own integrity.

My offense at President Lindsay signing the exemption-request letter is due to the fact that this action is a tremendous distraction from practical and challenging work of cultivating healthy community.  It is an act that removes the community further from addressing its own concerns. By drawing such a stark polarizing line in the sand to boundary off the community, it strongly inhibits the development of truthfulness, trust, and bearing the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit, after all, is the “sword” that Paul says we are to be yielding – none other.  Yet, the outcry from alums and current staff, faculty, and students in response to the exemption-request letter, is a hopeful sign that in this present tension new life and health may be possible.  Also, the pathway that the Trustees appear to opening up with their invitation to more communication and their intention to dedicate a portion of this year to exploring further how best to address the “complexities of surrounding the intersection of individual rights and community expectations.”

I still stand by the value that was instilled in me while I attended Gordon: Practice “Freedom within a Framework of Faith.” In so doing, I strive toward building relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors that display the fruit of the Spirit. Living to bear the fruit of the Spirit takes daily, disciplined practice. It is about discipleship with integrity, something that I always thought was being fostered among the Gordon College community.  It is my sincerest hope and prayer that it can continue to be fostered there.

kate 1Dr. Kate Kohler Wiebe is Executive Director of the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth (ICTG) BA ’01, MDiv, PhD. She was an AJ Gordon Scholar, Campus Events Counsel Assistant Director, Resident Assistant, Director of the Day of Prayer for 3 years, and did an Oxford University Year Abroad.

6 thoughts on “Justice: On Petitions and Building Healthy Community

  • July 14, 2014 at 3:48 pm
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    Thanks so much for this, Kate. I (mostly) agree wholeheartedly. My one hesitation or point to add is in regards to this: “In my years at Gordon I experienced our community together fostering an environment in which it was possible to explore and learn about all aspects of life without worry or fear.” My personal experience was mostly in lines with this, but I did receive some unfortunate push-back against some of my explorations of feminism and egalitarianism. One particularly painful incident was having a NT prof (who, fortunately, did leave Gordon soon after!) tear up a poster in front of his entire 200-student NT class for a discussion our group “Gender and Justice” was hosting exploring various ways to interpret the early chapters of Genesis in regards to egalitarianism/complementarianism in marriage. That he would find the mere discussion of that topic so dangerous to the “young minds” in his care was deeply disturbing to me. And another close friend who tried to start an informal discussion group exploring LGBTQ themes was simply forbidden to do so. So there were topics that seemed to be out of bounds. But certainly the majority of my formal and informal interactions at Gordon, with faculty, fellow students, and even the administration, encouraged dialogue, critical thinking, and engagement with tough questions. I am grateful for the robust education I received there, and for the life-long friendships I made!

  • July 14, 2014 at 6:15 pm
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    Thank you, Caren! Yes, I tried to write in a way that suggested we were regularly encouraging one another to move toward that goal, even as there were many times when we were not doing that well (like in some of the examples I mentioned). I, too, had an experience in a 200-student NT class (maybe with that same prof!) when he referenced a NY Times article that suggested there were hundreds of erotic sensory points on the human body. He scoffed at it, calling it out as imaginary and making it clear that sex is much simpler. All I could think inside was, you poor man, and I really feel for your wife. And yet, I appreciated that we were a place that housed all of that. Because his experience was just as real as the feminists’ experience. I found so much value in encountering the world within those walls that Gordon provided – especially in those times of friction – that we all went back to our dorms after an NT course like that or after a feminism discussion and kept the conversation going about how we were impacted by those events. Still, as so many are sharing throughout social media now, there clearly were many people who did not feel that the spaces outside of classrooms were safe either.

    • July 15, 2014 at 1:12 am
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      Haha! Yes, feeling bad for his wife indeed! And I totally agree, the way those conversations would spill out of the classroom into Lane or the dorms… So much of that time was pure gift.

  • July 14, 2014 at 6:38 pm
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    Kate, I really appreciate and admire your blog and your commitments to the work you do. The thing that struck me personally in your discussion in this blog was your statement about being able to explore so many of our questions about our faith in a community “without worry or fear”. At my age this has become more and more of a reality with many hard questions and doubts I have had about my faith. It is very freeing to be able to do that and know that God is always there, unchanging.

  • July 14, 2014 at 6:51 pm
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    Kate, an addendum to the above. There is a similar issue as at Gordon College happening at George Fox University here in Oregon in Newberg. I don’t know if you are acquainted with that case, but thought you might find it worth looking at. It is about a transgender student and what he is not being allowed to do with housing. It may not be in the national news as Gordon College was concerning signing a letter to the President, but represents an evangelical institution struggling with what we as many know to be true regarding LGBTQ and full acceptance, love, and support of all of our human community and our sexuality. So sad that he is not being allowed housing on the campus.

  • July 14, 2014 at 8:29 pm
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    Thank you, Ruth. And, yes, I have definitely seen some of the coverage on the conversation at George Fox. What is presently going on is particularly intriguing there, given their background practices that are rooted in the tradition of Friends.

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