The following response is written by Andrew Howe. Andrew travelled across the country from the San Francisco Bay Area to attend Eastern in 2003. He graduated with a B.A. in Sociology in 2007. After serving a year in New Orleans with Mission Year, Andrew returned home to complete his MA in International Development at Eastern in 2009.
What hurts me the most about hearing about your choice to sign this letter is how Eastern is now taking part in the polarization of Christianity around issues of gender equality. As Eastern now appears to be polarizing on this issue, there may not be a single safe space for people of different faith traditions within Christianity to be a part of one body of Christ, to safely and openly encounter Christ in their formative years, and go where Christ leads. In order for Eastern to make a safe place for authentic diversity in Christian faith, it needs to guarantee that no one is going to be thrown out of the community because of their gender identity, or their beliefs about gender identity.
I came to Eastern because I needed a place where I could go and be a part of a diversity of other believers and to be safe in my own identity. I grew up feeling near-persecution (but not actual persecution) from atheist peers who thought anything to do with Christ was about oppressing people (see also: Bob Jones University vs. United States). I also felt unwelcomed by much of the church — hearing messages from the loudest sections of our church made me feel unwelcome for wanting to vote for Democrats, or for caring about the environment, or for questioning the high-pressure sales tactics that are used to try and convert people to our faith. I applied to Eastern, a school on the complete opposite side of the country, because it was clearly a place where people of faith– from charismatic pentecostal, to stiff-and-on-time presbyterian, to middle-of-the-road American Baptist, to not-quite-sure-I-believe-anything– could honestly talk to each other in safety. What a rare and special place where we could lay down political faction and experience the body of Christ together.
For me, this perception of safety at Eastern was important only because of somewhat transient parts of my identity — my reliance on faith was non-normative for political liberals, and my politics non-normative to the most public faces of Christianity. While these aspects of my identity are important to me, I felt like these could change. I must imagine — how much harder would this be if the parts of my identity that I felt didn’t fit with societal norms were about my sexuality or gender, things that are (or seem, depending on your faith tradition) totally unchangeable?
I don’t believe that this openness to diversity that I experienced at Eastern was an accidental occurrence. I think that our previous leadership has been extremely careful in how it has used the public voice of the University to support or denounce large issues publicly. While some parts of the internal student handbooks get a little more specific, from the outside, Eastern has avoided being known for being a part of the war of words between liberal and conservative faith or politics. In fact, its loudest voice, Tony Campolo, has been an embodiment of that middle ground- caring about issues that were outside of the conservative agenda, daring to blend relatively conservative faith with relatively liberal public identity.
I have to wonder, if I ended up in a different community of faith, would I have been able to get beyond the political labels and see how Christ is moving in so many people? Would I have been able to hold onto my belief in a God that I didn’t make up just to comfort myself, who calls me to be a fuller and better person? If I hadn’t gone to Eastern, would I ever have stopped defending myself from atheists or Christians who were different from me long enough to hear Christ speaking to me? Or would I have felt the rejection of the most vocal factions of Christians, accepted my own tendency towards pure rationalism as the only way– and rejected the faith outright?
I condemn your choice to sign that letter to the President of the United States because it will have lasting implications in who chooses to come to the University. Your choice to make a stand in the public arena before allowing the Eastern community to choose whether or not this is a debate to be a part of is extremely shortsighted. It could destroy one of the last safe spaces where believers are really listening to people who are different from themselves — where there really is an opportunity for one diverse body of Christ to exist. Now, the open minded Christian kids with conservative parents won’t be able to go to Eastern because it’s clear Eastern is making a public stand to not discriminate based on gender identity — it’s now, much more than ever, certifiably too liberal for the conservatives. Now, the kids who may have grown up in the church and identify more with gender labels like Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender may not feel safe choosing to go to Eastern– and instead may find themselves in places with little to no faith community at all. Eastern is now, much more than ever, known as a place that puts taking a political stance on Gender identity above the concerns of making its student body a safe place. The conversation could have evolved internally, without this public statement, much more fruitfully. Getting into the national war of words at this time on this issue is only a lose-lose situation for the University.
Where should our priority be? Making sure the government still gives conservative Christian organizations money to perform services on behalf of or for the government? Or protecting the faith community at this one little Christian school? What seems to matter most to Christ on the cross is reconciling all individual lives to an authentic relationship with him, one deep enough to cause transformation. In that moment, recognition by the political establishment doesn’t seem high on Christ’s priority list. Why is it so high on yours?