By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 11, 2006; B09
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.
"It's a touchy topic, and we don't want to be viewed as homophobic. We know every church is struggling with it, so if our students are going to be prepared to be leaders in this society, they need to experience the real world," Andringa said.
At Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., the first stop and the one closest to the Washington area, officials made it clear that the Equality Ride was not welcome.
"The parents of our students have entrusted their sons and daughters to our care," Chancellor Jerry Falwell said in a statement. "Liberty has an obligation to these parents not to expose their children to a 'media circus' that might present immorality in a positive light."
Fifteen of the activists and 10 of their supporters were arrested yesterday morning when they tried to walk onto the Liberty campus and deliver a speech.
Soulforce, a Lynchburg-based group, helped raise $250,000 for the ride. The group advocates for religious acceptance of gays and is led by the Rev. Mel White, who lived closeted for decades as an evangelical seminary professor and ghostwriter for Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham before coming out.
Even at schools that have organized events for the riders, there have been questions about officials' openness. Several students at Biola University, a nondenominational school in Los Angeles that is hosting the activists, said the school's Internet screener this week did not allow them to open the Equality Ride Web site or Soulforce's site. Biola spokeswoman Irene Neller denied that officials were intentionally preventing access to the sites.
The visitors and their hosts said they are hoping for the same thing: to supplant stereotypes.
"Scripture would say Christians will be known by the way they love. Christians have dropped the ball. They are known by hate," said Andrew Mollenbeck, 21, an editor at the student-run Chimes newspaper at Biola. "I'd like to see an interaction of love."
Dawn Davridge, one of the riders, isn't sure what to expect. The 23-year-old said she was expelled from Union University in Jackson, Tenn., in 2004 after school officials found out she was in love with her roommate. Raised as a conservative Christian, she had come to the Baptist school in hopes of quashing her lesbianism but later found books in the county library and on the Internet that led her to conclude that homosexuality is not a sin. "I can't believe I sat there and blindly listened to these people," Davridge said. "I want to teach students to think for themselves and to let them come to beliefs on their own."
Several of the riders said they also intend to read desperate letters they have received from gay students at Christian colleges.
To White, the sight of Andringa and other council officials handing out candy bags to the gay activists Tuesday was amazing. The officials gave a two-hour presentation about the schools on the route. "This is a historic moment," he said as the meeting began at Luther Place Memorial Church on Thomas Circle. "They know it's time."
Yet neither side expected minds to be changed.
"You aren't going to stop for a day as young people who haven't studied in seminary and take it on, on a theological basis," Andringa said. "I'd advise them to stick to telling their [personal] stories and don't get in over your head.
"We agree with them that our campuses, to be consistent with our Christian worldview, should not be a place where any student feels unsafe or condemned or rejected," he said. "But we disagree about what the Bible says about sexuality."
At Abilene Christian University, which is affiliated with the Churches of Christ and will host the Equality Riders in Texas on March 27, school spokeswoman Michelle Morris said she didn't think the visit would change the atmosphere on campus. "I'm not sure if on our campus, or in Texas, or in the South . . . [gay] students would be comfortable being open, to be honest," she said.
White said of the colleges: "We're not asking them to change their policies. We just want to expose to the country the spiritual violence that is being done" to gay, conservative Christian youths. "We want academic freedom and personal safety."
Standing before the 35 Equality Riders, Andringa tried to find common ground with this question: "Would you mind if we opened with a word of prayer?"