Inside InterVarsity’s Purge: Trauma and Termination at the Premier Evangelical Student Org

Photo credit: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA.

When InterVarsity staff worker Michael Vasquez told two of his supervisors that a man had raped him in a gym locker room, one wondered aloud if he had asked for it. Did Vasquez, a gay Christian, secretly hope for this encounter? The question came out nonchalantly, recalled Vasquez in an interview, “like this was a discipleship conversation about my promiscuity as opposed to a pastoral conversation about how I was just raped.”

Since Vasquez first began working at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, one of the nation’s largest campus ministries, he had been open about his sexual orientation. He started his staff position at the University of Utah in the fall of 2013; soon after, a male supervisor requested that they meet weekly in the supervisor’s bedroom to practice prayer rituals aimed at changing Vasquez’s sexual orientation. When that didn’t work, the supervisor encouraged Vasquez to date women and, eventually, to watch heterosexual pornography.

Vasquez reported these incidents multiple times in detail to supervisors and, after years passed with no response he went directly to human resources, according to interviews and documents obtained by Religion Dispatches. In an interview, InterVarsity spokesman Greg Jao said the organization “disputes Vasquez’s account of these stories,” but Jao did not specify which details it objected to, nor did he substantiate these objections, citing confidentiality rules.

Vasquez chose to stay with InterVarsity because he believed in the organization’s mission of ministering to college students. He disagreed with InterVarsity’s theological opposition to gay marriage and same-sex relationships, Vasquez says, but “I decided as long as I was on staff I wouldn’t date and I wouldn’t teach an affirming position,” even though he privately believed that God affirms same-sex relationships. “I thought what I was doing on campus was so critical, I was ok with this.”

The “purge”

It’s a balance that many staff workers have struck, but one that’s no longer tenable now that InterVarsity has rolled out a policy that calls for staff who disagree with its theological position to come forward and quit by November 11. If staff members disagree, the national campus ministry stated in a letter to staff, “we trust that they will alert their supervisors and conclude their work [within two weeks].” (The policy does not apply to students, though students who disagree cannot be leaders, and it includes dictates against divorce, pornography and pre-marital sex.)

Supporters of InterVarsity’s decision see the policy as a commitment to “orthodox” theology, while critics call it a “purge.” The news, first reported by TIME on October 6, has unleashed protests from droves of InterVarsity students, alumni, influential InterVarsity Press authors and Christian leaders, many of whom have released petitions calling for the organization to revoke the policy. Within InterVarsity, a number of LGBTQ and ally staff, including Vasquez, have formed “the Queer Collective,” which for months has been pressing executive leaders for unity amid theological differences. They have elevated stories of LGBTQ-affirming people in the organization and documented the mental health impact of LGBTQ exclusion.

Despite their advocacy, InterVarsity announced its policy in a manner that Queer Collective leaders see as severe and punitive. For example, InterVarsity created a “helpline” for staff who felt unsure about the organization’s theological position, but the “helpline” only offered “limited confidentiality,” according to a July email sent to staff workers by then-interim president Jim Lundgren and president-elect Tom Lin. If a staff worker announced their disagreement with InterVarsity’s position and did not declare this to their supervisor, “[the helpline] resource person [would] inform the supervisor.” This, and reports by other staff workers who say they have been questioned about their beliefs, seems to contradict InterVarsity’s claim that it is relying solely on the self-declaration of LGBTQ-affirming staff.

Despite the ministry’s disclosure of the helpline process, “to call something a ‘helpline’ as a place of support and also make it a place of whistleblowing—that’s not just harmful, but also unethical,” said Teresa Pasquale Mateus, LCSW, author of Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma. Mateus sees patterns of spiritual abuse in some of InterVarsity’s treatment of LGBTQ-affirming staff and students and warns of serious emotional “collateral damage” in the aftermath of “the purge.” Already, members of the Queer Collective and other InterVarsity insiders say that every day raises new concerns about emotional trauma, unemployment, resignations, disaffiliations, and the future of InterVarsity.

This fracture reflects the larger rupture over sexuality taking place across the evangelical movement. On Christian campuses that prohibit “homosexual behavior,” LGBTQ groups have emerged to support students and to pressure administrators to adopt welcoming policies. Meanwhile, many of the same institutions have filed for Title IX exemptions, which would permit them to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and still receive federal funds, a move that has prompted a public backlash from some evangelicals.

We saw a similar clash in 2014, when the Christian charity World Vision announced it would employ people in same-sex marriages. Though some prominent evangelical leaders praised World Vision’s move, donors protested by canceling “several thousand” sponsorships of Third World children, according to World Vision president Richard Stearns. Within days he reinstated the old policy of prohibiting gays and lesbians from employment. In 2015, when Seattle’s EastLake Community Church became one of the first megachurches to fully affirm and include LGBTQ people, it lost more than half of its members and was forced shut down its satellite sites.

This trend of aggressively severing ties with proponents of LGBTQ inclusion has escalated as acceptance of gay marriage and the queer community has increased within evangelicalism in recent years, leaping from 26 percent to 36 percent between 2007 and 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. Additionally, the majority of millennial evangelicals say homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared to a third and a fifth of their baby boomer and silent generation counterparts, respectively.

The air I breathed

Amid all of these changes, it might be difficult to understand why LGBTQ-affirming Christians like Michael Vasquez fight to stay in institutions that push them out. Gay marriage is the law of the land. Rainbow flags fly high. Why not venture out and find your people?

Leaving isn’t so simple. To many like Vasquez, evangelicals are their people. As Alexis Garretson, a George Mason University senior who identifies as queer and LGBTQ-affirming explained, InterVarsity is actually the friendliest of the campus fellowship options. If students left InterVarsity for greener pastures, they’d have to leave Christian community altogether. “LGBTQ Christians fiercely believe in the faith we have,” explained Garretson. “Asking us to leave goes against our identity.”

To staff workers who have worked for InterVarsity for years and sometimes decades, leaving the ministry means losing both their livelihood and the entire community they’ve built for themselves over the years, sometimes since their own college days. After all, InterVarsity isn’t just a student club, it’s a family. “People here just loved me from the first moment I got here,” Scripps College junior and LGBTQ-affirming InterVarsity member Rachel Geller told me. InterVarsity goes the extra mile to welcome new students, surrounding freshmen with an immediate posse of friends at the start of college, following up with relentless evangelical zeal.

It’s also a lifestyle. Much like the Greek system, the activities are all-consuming: Bible studies, fellowship, dance parties, retreats, prayer meetings, dorm gatherings, group lunches, study dates and so much more. To feel this sense of love and belonging so fiercely every day is intoxicating, students and staff say. It’s what leads so many students to graduate college, join the 1,300 member staff, and build their lives around the organization’s mission. For Vasquez, “InterVarsity was the air I breathed.”

Perhaps the most consequential reason LGBTQ-affirming staff workers want to remain in the fold emerges from their concern that once they leave, LGBTQ newcomers will be isolated in a community that publicly welcomes them but privately misunderstands their most fundamental needs.

Currently, there’s no consistent training for staff on how to care for LGBTQ students. Drawing from student and staff interviews and statements, the handling of LBGTQ students coming out ranges widely across staff workers. Some offer full affirmation and inclusion while others reject their LGBTQ identity as sin. Some give students space to process their sexuality while others try to change the person’s sexual orientation through prayer or readings, a la reparative therapy. Some staff recognize that sexual orientation cannot be changed while others actively attempt to “convert” gay, lesbian and bisexual students to heterosexuality. Staff workers have, as Vasquez’s report makes clear, even encouraged gay students to date members of the opposite sex and watch heterosexual pornography.

“InterVarsity’s training on this issue has been insufficient and we are inconsistent in our communication,” admitted InterVarsity executive team member and spokesman Greg Jao, who pointed out that leadership is working with a handful of queer staff – but only those who agree with the institution’s theology – to develop a more consistent training curriculum.

After the purge

In the interest of full disclosure I should note that over a decade ago I was an InterVarsity student leader and Jao (pronounced “How”) was an occasional mentor of mine. When I was a student leader at InterVarsity in the early 2000s I faced tremendous resistance from a mostly conservative white fellowship to the racial justice and gender equality initiatives I presented. As an Asian American, I turned to the handful of Asian-American staff workers like Jao for pep talks, and he always made himself available, offering encouragement and some damn good advice. A former lawyer, Jao was nimble with words in a way that impressed and entertained his students. I saw him as someone who could relate to anyone; evangelicalism’s answer to Ira Glass, crackly voiced and bespectacled, always ready with a story. Though it’s been years since we’ve spoken, I still see him as a brother.

Nonetheless, I recognize both the good and the bad that comes from InterVarsity. I’ve spoken to gay friends who were deeply hurt by InterVarsity’s teachings about sexuality. One told me that after he came out he felt intense pressure to change his sexual orientation. Bible study friends prayed for his “conversion,” while others recommended ex-gay literature. A Christian psychologist at a local church recommended that he fantasize about women. The pressure led him to depression and suicidal thoughts. Additionally, in my experience with InterVarsity, I saw homophobic comments go unchecked and heard people say that queer people led “promiscuous lifestyles” and that homosexuality was a disease.

I shouldn’t be stunned by the manner of InterVarsity’s policy roll-out or its inconsistent treatment of LGBTQ students. I witnessed this first hand as a student leader, but on an emotional level I wanted to believe that InterVarsity had since properly educated itself about the LGBTQ community, and that Jao and my many friends who have dedicated their lives to InterVarsity are not capable of backing such harmful measures. Yet, not only does the policy roll-out leave me stunned, but through my reporting I discovered that InterVarsity’s neglect of its LGBTQ staff and membership was worse than I’d imagined.

In my call with Jao, I asked whether InterVarsity endorses the various examples of how staff members advised LGBTQ students. While he made clear that recommending pornography is “a violation of our beliefs,” when asked whether the organization supports reparative therapy, Jao said, “We don’t have any official position on that.” When asked whether they approve of advice given to gay people to date members of the opposite sex, he said, “We don’t have a standard care or practice. We are trying to change that.” But to what, he would not say.

How does one of the largest and most influential campus ministries in the country, with over 1,000 chapters across 667 campuses that reach over 40,000 students, not have a chiseled-in-stone, definitive position against reparative therapy? Particularly one that just concluded a “four-year process in which we reiterated our beliefs on human sexuality,” which included a “nine-part curricula,” according to Jao in a recent email to religion journalists.

State lawmakers, human rights groups, and the most prominent mental health organizations such as the American Psychological Association have discredited reparative therapy as ineffective at best and psychologically traumatizing at worst. Five states prohibit mental health professionals from using this practice, also known as conversion therapy, on minors. Russell Moore, an influential conservative evangelical and Southern Baptist leader, denounced conversion therapy as “severely counterproductive.” Even the former champion of reparative therapy, Alan Chambers, conceded that “sexual orientation doesn’t change” when he permanently shuttered his ex-gay empire Exodus International.

For several years I reported on the intersection of evangelicalism and the LGBTQ movement for my book Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism. I interviewed grieving parents who forced their twelve-year-old son into six years of reparative therapy. The process was so damaging he turned to drugs and soon after died from an overdose. I interviewed college students whose inability to change their sexual orientation made them depressed, anxious and suicidal. I thought of their stories as I listened to Vasquez talk about how InterVarsity’s conversion techniques prompted depression, insomnia and the feeling that “nothing that was life-giving before was life-giving anymore.”

My research has put me in touch with psychologists and a battery of studies that point to a common culprit in places where sexual and gender minorities face higher mental health risks: non-affirming policies. So it strikes me as alarming that an organization like InterVarsity, which publicly laments the church’s historic mistreatment of the LGBTQ community, resolved to push out all LGBTQ-affirming staff instead of resolving to unequivocally reject reparative therapy and craft policies that could undo that historic harm.

Predictably, this new policy has unleashed a new wave of anguish. Queer staff and students report feelings of “trauma,” “hurt,” “heartbreak” and “betrayal.” Since this spring, Oneida Chi, a former InterVarsity student leader in the 1990s has counseled close to 40 InterVarsity staff and students who feel traumatized by the new policy. Chi, a longtime advocate for LGBTQ visibility in the church and organizer for the Network on Religion and Justice for the Asian Pacific Islander community, told me that the trauma runs deep. In her meetings, she has seen higher levels of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, especially among students. Chi has heard them say things like, “I’m so confused right now. It’s making me hate myself. I don’t know if I can continue going on. I have a friend who is thinking of taking his life because he feels God hates him. I can’t sleep at night. I’m feeling paranoid and anxious all the time. I’m worried people might find out (that I’m LGBTQ).”

When I shared these statements with Jao, he apologized and added, “Tell me, and to the extent that it’s humanly possible, I will take responsibility and recognize my agency in that.”

The problem with Jao’s apology: the Queer Collective did tell him how he could take responsibility. In several dozen written testimonies, in emails, in face-to-face meetings they spelled out for Jao and other leaders steps the organization could take to rectify the harm done. And InterVarsity responded by rolling out this policy. To staff workers like Vasquez, InterVarsity’s apologies are not sufficient. “You keep saying you’re lamenting our pain, but you won’t repent and acknowledge that you’re the one causing this pain.” Or, as one anonymous student put it, “They want to be able to discriminate but they don’t want to feel bad about it. It’s discrimination. It’s wrong.”

No longer “fighting a ghost”

With less than three weeks left before the November 11 deadline, many LGBTQ-affirming staff and students remain uncertain about the future. Some are still in shock. One student, who asked to remain anonymous, identifies as a pansexual Afro-Latinx woman and has only experienced InterVarsity through a campus chapter that celebrates her and has promoted her to leadership. When she read the TIME article, she cried angrily, feeling disconnected from the InterVarsity represented in the story. The ministry’s language felt “very dystopian” and she wondered how an organization that promotes, as core values, multiethnicity and women in leadership could not support her Afro-Latinx female leadership because she is pansexual. “InterVarsity headquarters does not represent us,” she said, echoing the hashtags this new policy has inspired, such as #notmyiv and #intervarsitydobetter.

Behind the scenes some students are organizing prayer and fasting strikes, calling for the policy to be revoked. Organizers tell me that they aren’t asking InterVarsity to change its theological position; they just don’t want staff to be fired for privately disagreeing with it. They argue that InterVarsity is an interdenominational organization that has always made space for many differing theologies. As Sojourners reported, InterVarsity backs a theological position that supports women in leadership, but does not require all staff workers to agree with this belief. “InterVarsity’s statement on Women in Ministry does not require belief—only that staff submit to InterVarsity’s egalitarian position by their behavior,” writes Lisa Sharon Harper. “Requiring a need to “believe” in addition to behavioral submission in the case of LGBTQ issues was a break from InterVarsity’s norm.”

There is upside to the new policy, some organizers say. “This is making it really explicit,” says George Mason University senior, Alexis Garretson. “It gives us something to focus on. Before it was like fighting a ghost.” For students like Garretson, as the most LGBTQ-friendly choice of Christian fellowships, InterVarsity is worth fighting for—for now.

Already, work is underway to carve out a larger space for LGBTQ-inclusive campus ministries, such as Incarnation Ministries, which was co-founded by a former InterVarsity staff worker and launched just last week. Co-presidents Max Kuecker and Jane Liu, a husband and wife team, felt called to form this organization when Kuecker heard rumblings of InterVarsity’s internal upheaval. Kuecker, who previously worked on InterVarsity staff for six years, worried that by forming an organization that would essentially absorb departing staff, he would be betraying InterVarsity. “It took me a year to accept that call because of how much I love InterVarsity,” he said.

Vasquez left InterVarsity soon after the new policy became official, but he’s found that his personal ministry has not gone away. Today he finds himself surrounded by a collection of multiethnic students, some of whom identify as queer, at the University of Utah. Together they share “intense and beautiful and crazy stories,” he said. “None of them come from a Christian background, but all of them are asking questions about Jesus.” Students and alumni tell him of the impact he’s had on their lives and that, especially for multiethnic queer people, apart from the space Vasquez has created, “There is no ministry that will honor us.”

Vasquez plans to sustain his ministry at the University of Utah. He’s also in talks with Kuecker about bringing it under the Incarnation umbrella. He doesn’t need to be a part of a formal organization. “Just doing life with college students is enough to bring change to campus,” he told me. “Just to acknowledge the inherent dignity in LGBT students on campus will transform their lives and their experience of the Kingdom. So whether it’s through a formal ministry or not, my desire is simply to see students encounter Jesus, no different as it was when I was on InterVarsity staff.”