Teaching Love: Soulforce Takes it to the Quad

On a chilly but brilliantly sunlit Friday morning, about two dozen people have gathered along the sidewalk near the main entrance to Central Baptist College in Conway, Arkansas.

The group includes a local lesbian couple who have been together for 35 years, a young African-American trans-man who came out of the closet a week before he graduated from another Southern Baptist college in Missouri, and a 22-year-old aspiring minister from Philadelphia who quotes Proverbs, declares his love for God—and laments the recent breakup of his relationship with a boyfriend.

They are all members or supporters of Soulforce, an organization that aims to change the hearts of those who use religion to justify discrimination against sexual minorities. Most of the 20-somethings in the crowd are participating in Soulforce’s Equality Ride, a semiannual event that shuttles queer young adults and their allies to conservative colleges and seminaries, where they try to engage students and administrators in dialogue around the issue of sexuality.

Terry Kimbrow, president of Central Baptist College, is not in a talkative mood. A few minutes after the riders and their friends have unfurled banners identifying themselves and their cause, Kimbrow strides across a shady stretch of lawn to read a statement declaring that the Soulforce contingent is not welcome and that anyone who ventures off the sidewalk onto the college’s campus will be arrested for trespassing.

“We love you,” one of the riders calls out as Kimbrow gives instructions to a police officer who has followed him to the edge of campus. “I love you too,” Kimbrow replies before he turns and walks away from the strangers at his gate.

“This is just what happens sometimes,” says 26-year-old Katie Higgins, one of the co-directors of this fall’s Equality Ride. “We wait to be rejected.” Higgins grew up in South Carolina and now makes her home in Minneapolis, where she’s one of a handful of fulltime staffers with Soulforce Q, the young-adult division of Soulforce. “There is a sort of redemptive suffering in standing here,” she says as a brisk autumn wind reddens her cheeks. “A lot of times students at the places we go aren’t able to be out as gay, so that’s the idea of these vigil lines—to be out and seen.” The riders always alert administrators that they plan to visit their campuses, Higgins explains, and that initial contact often opens the door for a conversation between Soulforce and campus thought-leaders once the Equality bus arrives. But not always.

“Through e-mail,” Higgins says, “we’ve had students [at other schools] say that they’ve watched us from the library window but they didn’t have the strength to come outside. That’s why sometimes we need to walk on campus even it means being arrested—they need to see how far we will go and how far their school will go.” In fact, Higgins and three other riders were arrested for trespassing at Central Baptist College four days earlier, when they made their first swing through Conway, about 30 miles northwest of Little Rock.

Hiding out in Seattle is not Christian

Soulforce was founded a decade ago by Mel White and his partner Gary Nixon. From the 1960s until the late 1980s, White was an evangelical minister and ghostwriter for the likes of Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell. After he came out as a gay man in the 1990s, White began to integrate nonviolent principles of social change into his efforts to reshape the anti-gay cultural institutions of which he had been a part. Thus both the tactics and the language used by the participants in Soulforce’s Equality Ride, which was first launched in 2006, bear a strong family resemblance to the culture of the American Civil Rights Movement. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” says Lauren Parke, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. She and another rider compose messages that they hope to give to members of the Baptist Missionary Association of Arkansas, which owns Central Baptist College and is holding a meeting on campus while the Soulforce crew keeps its vigil along College Avenue.

Parke, 25, says she studied theology as an undergraduate at Texas Lutheran University before she moved to Seattle, where she now works for an agency that provides services to homeless youth. “Simply hiding out in the safety and comfort of a place like Seattle is not Christian,” she says in reply to a question about why she would leave a gay-friendly city to spend two months visiting places that actively discriminate against queer folks. “Statistically,” she continues, “a third of homeless young people identify as gay, bisexual, or transgender. That’s the result in many cases of this message from some Christians who say that if you are gay or transgender you are not worthy—which families and friends use to justify their rejection of young LGBT people. I encounter them on the streets, and my agency recognizes this as a reality. I’m here to try to change that reality.”

The political tide in Conway, and indeed the rest of Arkansas, is definitely turning against the kind of change that Parke and the other riders hope to see. Faulker County, of which Conway is the seat, is part of a broad swath of the Southeast—from Oklahoma and Arkansas through Tennessee and along the lower ridge of the Appalachians—that has become redder, even as the rest of the country has trended purple and blue in recent elections.

John Kerry won 40 percent of the vote in Faulkner County in 2004, but Barack Obama drew just 35 percent in this year’s presidential contest. On November 4, a statewide measure aimed at preventing same-sex couples from becoming foster or adoptive parents passed by a comfortable margin, just as a ban on gay marriage did four years ago. Conway should be Democratic territory. It’s a well-educated college town—in addition to Central Baptist, there’s the University of Central Arkansas and historically progressive Hendrix College—on the northern fringe of the Little Rock metropolitan area. But the predominantly white population is mostly made up of evangelical Protestants, and the feel of the place is small-town rather than suburban—the kind of community Sarah Palin might have called “the real America.”

In that respect, Central Baptist more closely mirrors the culture of Conway than either UCA or Hendrix, both of which are more demographically diverse and tend to attract students from elsewhere. Most of Central Baptist’s tiny student body (the school has a current enrollment of about 500) commutes to campus, and many students are part of the college’s adult education program, which caters to older locals returning to college or pursuing an undergraduate degree for the first time.

You’re protesting God!

Everyone who registers for classes at Central Baptist is required to sign a document indicating their assent to the college’s doctrinal statement. It declares, among other things, that the Bible is God’s inerrant revelation and that homosexuality is a sin justifying a student’s expulsion from the school. That policy and its enforcement by an institution that reflects Conway’s religious culture—which is itself a reflection of a larger and increasingly obdurate conservative movement in opposition to advancing queer rights—are the core memes of intolerance that the Soulforce contingent has come to Conway to disrupt.

“I’m someone who knows what it feels like to be rejected by his family on the basis of doctrine,” says Jarrett Lucas, the other co-director of this season’s Equality Ride. Lucas, 22, was raised a Jehovah’s Witness by his grandparents, who turned their backs on him when he told them he was gay. Gazing toward Central Baptist with his hands tucked into his jacket pockets, Lucas says, “These are people who reinforce the beliefs that cause LGBT people to suffer. If I’m in a place where I can love myself and teach others to love me and others like me, I have to use that opportunity to the fullest.”

A little before noon, a handful of students from Central Baptist approach within a few dozen yards of the riders and take pictures of the scene with their cell phone cameras. Traffic on College Avenue begins to pick up. “You’re protesting God!” a motorist hollers when he catches sight of one of the Soulforce banners. Finally a slender young man wearing a “CBC Soccer” jacket ventures all the way to the sidewalk. “I just kind of want to show them I care,” says Jonathan Jacobs, a junior at the college. Jacobs, whose family moved to Conway from Memphis when he was in the sixth grade, is reluctant to talk much at first, but warms to conversation after he and Jarrett Lucas trade soccer stories. “I don’t agree with the fact that they can’t come on campus,” Jacobs says. “We say that we love and accept everybody, but that’s not what’s happening here.”

Sexual sins

By mid-afternoon, the student parking lot is nearly empty (classes were cancelled to accommodate the missionary association’s meeting) and the Equality Riders have packed up and moved on. The stern-faced police officer has ended his vigil too. Curt Crook, the director of development at Central Baptist, is welcoming, if a little wary. His office is decorated with devotional art, including an impressive broad-strokes watercolor painting in which Jesus extends a bloody palm toward the viewer. “You hear homosexuals talk about Christians trying to shove their beliefs down their throats,” Crook says in reply to a question about why the riders were kept off campus. “And yet they’re here basically trying to do the same thing to us. They’re wanting us to talk to them and our students to talk to them to try to get us to believe the way they do, but as an institution we have those beliefs in the Bible and we believe that it’s very clear on what it says about homosexual behavior. We didn’t feel it was necessary to allow them on campus to try to push something that was against what we believe.”

Crook says he doesn’t know whether there are gay students at Central Baptist—Jonathan Jacobs said he knows a few—but if there were, they wouldn’t be harassed, though being open about gay sexual relationships would subject queer students to the penalties prescribed for “sexual sins” in the college handbook. Does Crook see a connection between the worldview promoted at Central Baptist and the violence and rejection LGBT people often face? “There’s a lot of talk about religious bigotry,” he says. “About Christians hating other people for the way they act. I don’t think that’s true. We don’t hate them—we love them like we love anybody else. We just happen to disagree with them. That gets turned around into they hate us, and it may be that people who say things like that have experienced something like that. That’s not Christian. We wouldn’t invite them on campus, but we wouldn’t go out and intentionally be hurtful either.”

More power than they knew

As night falls, the Equality Riders have gathered for a potluck dinner at the home of John Schenck and Robert Loyd, one of the few out gay couples in Conway and coordinators of the city’s annual pride parade, which began in 2003. The pink clapboard house—two blocks north of Central Baptist College and across the street from a Church of Christ—is festooned with rainbow flags, and life-size cutouts of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell beckon customers to the hair salon that Schenck and Loyd run on the ground floor.

How have the men fared in the two decades since they moved to Arkansas from New York? “We haven’t been shot at in two, maybe three years,” says Schenck, who was working as a bar-back in the Stonewall Inn on the day of the riots in 1969. “For our first pride parade, we had over 1,800 protesters and over 3,000 people holding a prayer vigil. This past year we had just one rabid protester. We’ve come a long way.” Loyd, a soft-spoken Vietnam vet who grew up in a rural area near Conway, credits the peace that the couple currently enjoys to their willingness to confront their would-be oppressors head on. “The night before our first parade someone dumped six tons of manure in front of the house,” he says. “But we found out who did it and we saw to it that they did time in jail. We’ve made it clear that we would be addressing persecution with prosecution.”

As the riders mingle with friendly locals—including a faculty member from the University of Central Arkansas, a handful of undergraduates from UCA and Hendrix, some pixieish theater kids from Little Rock, and the soccer player from Central Baptist—Katie Higgins is circumspect.

“Kimbrow was tough,” she says. “But I don’t see what we could’ve done differently.” He runs his school on a shoestring budget. (Central Baptist has an endowment of about $970,000. By comparison, Hendrix College, with just three times as many students, has an endowment of $193 million.) And the riders’ visit to the school happened on a day when Kimbrow was playing host to the organization that owns it. Although the cultural forces that Higgins wants to thwart are much bigger than she is, the tiny institution she and the other riders confronted earlier in the day is very fragile. Under the circumstances, they wielded more power than they knew.

Her eyes brim with tears as she examines the day from a fresh perspective. “You know, there was another school that was just as hard to crack,” she says. “Finally one of the administrators told us via e-mail that if we wanted to make headway, we should skip the bus and the vigil lines and just send a couple of people to talk. We ended up having to sign this elaborate contract, but two of us got on campus, and we talked.”

Higgins says there was no press involved in that visit—and even now she declines to name the school—but she knows the seed of change was planted.

Next time.