A Drive for Understanding

A group of
A group of "Freedom Riders" gets non-violence training. (Linda Davidson/twp - The Washington Post)
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 11, 2006

The meeting was a bit awkward. One side brought the other chocolates. People wore big name tags and fussed over one another, saying "Hi" effusively and smiling broadly. Clumsy jokes were made -- but everyone laughed. There were long silences.

The discomfort was understandable. Eight officials from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which represents 133 "Christ-centered" schools that forbid homosexual behavior, were mingling with 35 young gay men and lesbians in the sunny conference room of a Northwest Washington church -- to plan, of all things, a road trip.

Two days after the meeting, the gay activists embarked Thursday on their journey, a cross-country bus tour of 19 colleges with policies against homosexuality. They are calling the seven-week trip the Equality Ride, saying it is modeled after the anti-segregation Freedom Rides of 1961.

As they visit the schools, most of which are Christian, the "riders" will talk about their experiences in facing hate and explain why they believe the Bible is accepting of homosexuality. All the riders are younger than 26, and about half are Christian, including two who were expelled from colleges on the route.

But the ride is turning out to be much more than organizers expected. At least eight of the 19 schools -- with the council's encouragement -- not only have agreed to let the activists on campus but have planned open forums for them, including talks in classrooms, visits with student leaders and the school president, panel discussions and, in one case, a coffee klatch titled "The Message of Brokeback Mountain."

Other colleges are allowing the group to speak on campus but are not cooperating with it, and a few have threatened to arrest the riders.

At many of the schools, the only public talks about homosexuality up to now have featured Christians discussing how they gave up being gay. But officials at the schools hosting the Equality Riders said the national debate over gay rights has become so prominent in the past couple of years that an educated young Christian needs to be well-versed in the arguments used by gay rights activists -- even if only to rebut them.

They also said they saw an opportunity to replace the stereotype of the intolerant conservative Christian with a more compassionate "Christ-centered" response -- albeit a response that still views homosexuality as a sin.

"The conversation is coming into the open. We don't need to go into a holy huddle," said Terry A. Franson, dean of students at Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical Christian school in California that is hosting the gay activists April 5 with a welcome breakfast, chapel service and panel discussion.

Robert Andringa, president of the Christian colleges council, contacted organizers of the Equality Ride last summer when he first heard about the event, offering to help arrange visits on the tour.

Andringa said the colleges in his organization, which cover 27 denominations, are united in believing that the Bible forbids sex between people of the same gender -- as well as premarital sex between men and women. Typically, the schools require a student who acknowledges being gay or lesbian to seek counseling, and in some circumstances the student can face expulsion.

But the schools disagree over how to engage with the broader culture on homosexuality, Andringa said.

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