April 12 2018

This weekend, Brave Commons — a Christian organization that ministers to LGBTQ+ students on college campuses — hosted a “community conversation on faith, gender and sexuality.” In total, the event lasted around 10 hours between two sessions on Saturday, April 7 and Sunday, April 8, and was hosted at St. Paul Lutheran Church just a mile from campus. Roughly 100 Wheaton students, staff and faculty attended, along with a group of Hope College students and Wheaton community members.

The first day of talks included Director of Brave Commons Michael Vazquez, who managed the event. Vazquez gave guidelines for the community conversation and also gave a talk on the patriarchy and toxic masculinity. Later in the day, Director of the Center for Inclusivity Alicia Crosby spoke on the intersection of gender, faith and sexuality and led a discussion on spiritual abuse in the Church. The Saturday session ended with a panel of Wheaton students, as well as Vazquez, sharing their personal experiences and answering questions from the audience.

One student participant, who wished to remain anonymous, appreciated that “Brave Commons allows for [student experiences] to be said out loud and for people who may not know someone who is LGBTQ+ personally to still hear those stories.”

The second session on Sunday night was led by Matthew Vines, author of “God and the Gay Christian” and director of The Reformation Project — a Christian grassroots organization that works toward inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the church by reforming church teaching. Vines gave a presentation on Side A theology, the view that Scripture affirms same-sex relationships, and provided “10 tips to move the conversation forward,” including points on gender complementarity, ancient near-eastern cultural ideas of same-sex relationships, Christian scholarly tradition and interpretations of passages in Romans.

The event was not officially sponsored by Wheaton, as Brave Commons and the speakers invited to the event hold to this Side A theology.

Senior Emily Paddon, who helped organize the event, said there were both benefits and drawbacks of having the event off campus. On one hand, “we’re not censored at all and we can make the rules, we can set the speakers, we can choose the topics, whatever we want to talk about … we don’t have to jump through all the hoops.” On the other hand it may have decreased attendance and limited exposure of the conversation to a broader range of Wheaton students.

In response to a need that he saw at Christian colleges to have these kinds of conversations, Vazquez, who had experience as a campus minister, reached out to students at local colleges and offered himself as a mentor to LGBTQ+ students and students of color.

“In November, I was approached by students both at Hope and at Calvin who were seeking to expand the conversation and to advocate for policy change on their campuses,” he explained. Vazquez assisted students at Hope and Calvin in organizing Bible studies, Christmas parties, public protests and a day-long Bible study sit-in. Brave Commons also held a February weekend retreat involving six colleges and universities — Grand Valley State, Spring Arbor State, Hope, Calvin, Wheaton and Moody Bible.

In December 2017, Vazquez connected with Wheaton students and formed an off-campus Bible study where they went through the first chapter of Mark. “I asked them, ‘what would you like to see happen?’ … and they said they would like to have a mini-conference just where we can have the conversation and invite more students to come. Our Bible studies were exclusive …  for queer identifying students, but they wanted to expand the conversation to where non-queer students and non-affirming folk could come and engage in dialogue. That’s how this community conversation was birthed.”

Senior Connor Jenkins explained that Brave Commons is different than groups currently on campus like Refuge. “You’re not allowed to talk about Refuge outside of Refuge … I don’t feel safe in that environment … so this is an incredible outward facing resource to the college and to other colleges as well,” he told the Record.

According to Rebecca Meyer, ministry associate for care and counseling and leader of Refuge, “[Wheaton has] five groups for LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ students to discuss faith and sexuality in the Chaplain’s Office. Each of these groups are designed to meet different goals students might have as they approach understanding faith and sexuality. We welcome students regardless of their theological positions or whatever labels they use to describe themselves. Two of the groups are open to any students.”

This meeting was the first public event Brave Commons hosted for the Wheaton community. Students in attendance had varied reactions to the theology presented and hold different hopes about what impact the event could have on the Wheaton community.

“I’m really looking forward to students hearing that holding an affirming theology doesn’t mean you have to commit spiritual suicide in a sense … that’s the narrative that’s been held so long,” explained a Wheaton freshman in attendance.

Senior Luke Nelessen said he attended the event because “instead of loving gay people and bearing one another’s burdens well, American evangelicalism has historically been hostile; we are still struggling to be hospitable,” but he was “discouraged by the heterodox theology and disordered rhetoric of Brave Commons. Although they promoted their event as a conversation, the three presenters were provocative and narrow in scope.”

Sophomore Ellie Garringer noticed that “straight cisgender people at Wheaton are also very [interested in knowing] more about this community, to not be held in the dark. I hope that people will come here and see how affirming of a safe space this is and to go back to Wheaton and feel at least some semblance of the toxicity and suppression that we feel every day.”

“Even though I personally hold a traditional sexual ethic, I disagree with Wheaton’s decision to silence these voices. The way Vazquez didn’t hold to the inerrancy of Scripture made me really sad because I know Vazquez has a lot of direct influence on people I care about. If Wheaton were to provide LGBT students with resources about how to come to a more Scripture-based affirming theology, they wouldn’t feel like they have to go to people like Vazquez,” expressed senior AJ DeGraff.

According to Wheaton’s community covenant, “Scripture condemns the following: … sexual immorality, such as the use of pornography (Matt. 5:27-28), pre-marital sex, adultery, homosexual behavior and all other sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage between a man and woman (Rom. 1:21-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gen. 2:24; Eph. 5:31).” For this reason, Wheaton does not allow speakers that will speak in oppositions to the standards of the community covenant.

“It was actually almost overwhelming how much you ache to hear any acknowledgement at Wheaton from chapel speakers, from just speakers who come to campus, from profs, from anyone. [This weekend] it was just all about being queer and loving God,” one student, who wished to remain anonymous, shared.

Jenkins found the significance of the event in “that two schools are here and we get to meet one another and … [connect] with others who share the same experience as you. It means so much in ways that I don’t even fully understand right now, just because … I am certain that this event is not the last we will have … it’s a group of people that I’ll never be detached from.”