Refuge ended in favor of new programs

Community program will not return following a fall semester hiatus

02.28.19

By Micah McIntyre

The Chaplain’s Office has decided to develop other programs for LGBTQ students instead of continuing Refuge, a support group that has met since 2013.

The changes in programming, which were instituted last semester, have caused some former Refuge participants confusion and disappointment.

One anonymous senior who joined the group as a freshman described the change as “disappointing.” She said that she and her peers were looking forward to the group’s return in the spring semester. “I was really hurt by the news because Refuge had been such an important space [for] the LGBT community on campus.”

Although Refuge did not meet last semester, because Ministry Associate of Care and Counseling Rebecca Meyer, who leads the group, was on maternity leave, students assumed that it would return at the beginning of this semester.

“To be honest, I never saw the programming changes as taking Refuge away,” Meyer said. “I believed I was improving our groups, ensuring their consistency with our Chaplain’s Office mission, for our learning to lead to loving Christ and His Kingdom. After listening to student feedback I understand the hurt and disappointment associated with the change. I am hurting with the students, the transition has been painful for us.”

Since the change in programming at the beginning of the spring 2019 semester, former members of Refuge have been meeting independently from the school in apartments off campus in addition to participating in the new groups. They hope to secure sponsorship from another organization on campus. Refuge averaged around 25 Wheaton students when it was sponsored by the Chaplain’s Office.

The Chaplain’s Office now sponsors two “Sexual Sanctity” groups open only to students who identify as LGBTQ: Refuge DSG and In Terra Pax (ITP). Refuge DSG meets weekly and aims to be a space for students to “read Scripture, apply the Gospel and listen in love.” In Terra Pax is a monthly dinner gathering to “discuss selected resources, exploring what it means to faithfully follow Christ in light of our non-standard experience of sexual attraction or gender identity,” according to a flier from the Chaplain’s Office.

Former members of Refuge received information about the groups — however, one anonymous freshman said that he did not know any of these groups existed or see any advertisements for the first three weeks on campus. “I learned about ITP about three weeks in and it was because of a [mutual] friend,” he said.

For this student, the Sexual Sanctity groups have provided a space to engage this topic in ways they had not been able to before. “These groups have given me an opportunity to discuss a subject that anywhere else would be incredibly taboo and be able to work through scripture and theological backings about this subject, but also to find comfort in knowing that I’m not alone.”

In addition to these groups closed to the rest of campus, two other groups are open to all students who want to discuss topics of sexuality and sexual identity. The Gathering is a monthly meeting “for any student to explore the convergence of sexuality and desire through questions, biblical inquiry and selected readings,” according to the Chaplain’s Office flier. Another group, Sex and Spirituality (S+S) explores the intersection between faith and sexuality for students who want a more in-depth and curricularly focused group.

“[The Gathering] feels very, very different than Refuge did,” one anonymous junior said. “We had a very specific goal and [the leader] was talking pretty much the whole time except when we split into groups of two to read a verse or two. It felt like a DSG, where we were less connected to each other and it was only once a month as well. It’s nothing like Refuge and really no other space was created to fill that need.”

One anonymous senior agreed and said they feel the new spaces are designed for academic and theological discussions, not for students to freely discuss “personal struggles” with others who have similar experiences.

“It has implications because it’s putting limits on us as far as our ability to have conversations — it puts us in spaces where we are more controlled,” she said. “It also puts us in spaces where it’s not the right place to talk about [our personal struggles].”

Justin Massey (‘15) was one of the founding members of Refuge during his time as a student. He helped draft the group’s first guiding document and worked with Wheaton’s administration to create a space approved by all parties involved. According to Massey, the new groups do not offer the same type of space as Refuge once did.

In a phone interview with the Record, Massey explained that when Refuge was formed in 2013, LGBTQ students were “feeling incredibly isolated,” some to the point of being hospitalized.

“Having an encouraging, neutral zone where students can come together with other students that know their life experience and feel like they can connect and feel supported as they navigate a really complicated journey [is necessary],” he said. “And that’s something that is not going to exist with this group canceled, [so] the school needs to bring it back.”

Former Dean of Student Care and Services Melanie Humphreys also helped draft the guiding document. In 2013, she spoke with the Record in an interview after Refuge became an official Community Group, in which she expressed her concerns about the safety of the LGBTQ community at Wheaton.

“Research indicates that this is one of the most at-risk student groups on campus. And what I mean by ‘at-risk’ is at risk for self-harm or suicide,” she said. “Each of the students I have come to know have experienced significant loneliness and isolation on our campus.”

The founders of Refuge hoped the group would provide a safe space for LGBTQ students. The original guiding document stated that Refuge “exists to be an environment where these students can come together and be supported by others who share a similar life experience.” The group was also meant to be a community that supported students discerning the implications of their sexuality on their faith and encouraged conversation within both the group and the broader campus community.

“The conversation of LGBTQ students well-being can be difficult to sustain as students graduate and new students enter the Wheaton community,” Massey said. “The administrative staff must also advance institutional spaces for campus dialogue and much-needed resources to support marginalized students. Too often the weight of advancing a safer environment for students is placed upon the students themselves.”

While former Refuge students hope the group will be sponsored again, they are also apprehensive about the process. “There is some concern about what exactly the administration wants to do with us or how they listen to us,” the aforementioned anonymous junior said. “It would be a message that Wheaton cares about us enough to have a group [that they sponsor].”

Meyer, who played a significant role in the formation of Refuge while she was a student at Wheaton, has been working on creating a better support system since she came on staff in 2015. As a result, administrators say they have better equipped their staff to care for and support LGBTQ students.

Justin Heth, Dean of Residence Life at Wheaton, hopes that his staff will “meet more needs of a wider range of students” when it comes to LGBTQ residents. “I believe our resources and care for students who are same-sex attracted or who have questions with their gender identity have gotten more focused and personalized over the past few years,” he said. “Understanding that students all have different needs, and no one person can meet the needs of all students, Res Life has attempted to partner with others in this particular care area, pointing to resources like the counseling center, the Chaplain’s office and individual relationships with faculty and staff.”

Chaplain Tim Blackmon told the Record in an email exchange that he understands the agitation surrounding the changes made. “I think we all care and long for a life-giving relationship to nurture and encourage us while we study and work at Wheaton.”

Any group sponsored by the Chaplain’s Office must follow the guidelines of the Community Covenant, which states that “Scripture condemns … homosexual behavior and all other sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage between a man and woman.”

“I do sincerely hope students in Refuge are treated with love at first sight, instead of with a hermeneutic of suspicion, outright ignorance, or — God forbid — malicious bullying,” said Blackmon. “Through engaging meaningful questions about sexuality face to face, and developing real relationships with one another, everyone will feel at home at Wheaton.”

Senior Adrienne Mohline has been a member of Refuge since her junior year and is currently one of the students leading the independent group. Mohline said that “the only spaces that exist for us now are highly curricular spaces that are structured to do very particular things with theology and the Bible [but] queer students on campus have so many more needs as a community than just that.”

For Mohline and other LGBTQ students, the discussion of this topic is not just another theological debate.

“What you are trying to think through theologically [has implications for] our lives,” said Mohline. “It’s really important to remember that we are thinking through these issues [at a humanistic level]. It’s a process … involving individual people’s lives.”

When asked about his experience in the Wheaton community at large, the aforementioned anonymous freshman explained that the love and support he received from his straight peers has been crucial.

“I’ve come out to [almost] my entire floor and I’ve never felt so loved somewhere,” he explained. “I met some really great people there who have definitely changed my life [by showing me] unconditional love.”

While he would love to see more relationships formed and conversations started about LGBTQ topics, he said that “the reality of it is that I don’t see a lot of straight students [engaging in conversation] because, why would they involve themselves with this? … [It’s] a shame.”

As Meyer hopes to move forward with new discussions within Wheaton’s LGBTQ community, she says she also understands the frustrations of students affected by these changes. “When one member of our body hurts, we all hurt,” she said. “I’m thankful for the students at Wheaton who are navigating questions of faith and sexuality. Wheaton and the church need their voices, their presence and their ministry.”

Associate Professor of Christian Formation and Ministry and licensed clinical psychologist Barrett McRay said he has regularly met with Wheaton students who identify as LGBTQ, many of whom were involved in Refuge. He believes that conversation about this topic needs to happen, even if it can be “volatile in such a polarized culture.”

“There needs to be a recognition of the uniqueness of the LGBTQ experience,” he said. “[These conversations] are uncomfortable to have but we need to have them — it’s got to be addressed because of what’s happening all around us.”

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