Stories from the Road: Activism, Community, and the Human Spirit - Aaron Lauer
So what is it like going to school here?" one of the Riders asked.
"I don't know. It sucks," she replied, hands in her pockets, kicking at the dirt.
It was a beautiful day in Kansas City and we were standing under a shelter in a park, resting in the shade. "Katie" was a student from Mid-America Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas, and the rest of us were members of the 2007 Soulfource Equality Ride. The Ride was a two month long trek across the United States visiting colleges and universities that have discriminatory policies against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. We were speaking with MNU students off campus so they might feel comfortable enough opening up to us.
"Are you out to anyone?" another Rider asked.
"A few people," she said, giving a coy smile to the young man who came to the park with her. "I mean, it kind of comes up when people find out I have a girlfriend."
"Is there anything we can do to make things better?" a Rider said.
"I don't know. I mean, people here are so bigoted and they have no idea how awful it is to be a lesbian on campus," Katie said. "I'm just glad I'm graduating. I don't think I can take this any longer."
"Well, we want to help," I said. "We really do. That's what we came on the Ride to do."
It has only been a week since I received my degree from Hastings College and yet it seems like I've been gone for quite some time. In fact, when people ask me if it was hard to leave after graduation, I have to answer, "No." Leaving was made easier because I "left" Hastings College on March 3, 2007, when I boarded a plane from Omaha to Minneapolis. I went to Minneapolis for a week of training before I embarked on the 2007 Soulforce Equality Ride.1
Fifty-one other Riders and I made a commitment in January to be part of a two-month journey across the United States working toward social justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. We boarded two buses, each visiting one half of the country, to converse with students, stand in vigil, and even risk arrest in order to get our message out. After spending three and a half years of my life at Hastings College without really doing any type of committed service, I knew that the Ride was my calling. I knew that God was calling me to reach out to people at Christian colleges and universities that had discriminatory policies against LGBT people. I knew that I was very privileged to attend a college that accepted me and I needed to work toward making all institutes of higher learning this way.
I got pretty comfortable at Hastings College, I must admit. I was open to everyone
about being gay and knew that if anyone was bothered by it then that was their problem and not mine. I never considered what it must be like for LGBT students who were attending colleges that were not open and affirming. I read about the Equality Ride's "maiden voyage" last spring and thought, "Hey, that's cool. Look at those do-gooders out there making the world a better place. Good for them." It never crossed my mind that I would ever do anything like it. And then one day it hit me. No, I didn't witness a hate crime or have my family all of a sudden disown me. It just hit me. Call it divine intervention. Actually, don't. Call it a human being coming to the realization that he had been really lazy and greedy with his privilege and needed to do something about it. Even more so, call it a human being finally understanding that line by Martin Luther King Jr. that everybody knows but few people truly understand: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
What does this really mean? We hear people say it whenever something unwarranted
happens and we all say "Amen" and get on with our lives. Well, for me in the spring of 2007 it meant something extremely important. It meant that I was a part of a human community, a community that existed beyond Bronco Village Apartments, beyond Hastings College, and even beyond Nebraska (yes, there is more to the world than Nebraska). It meant that I existed within a space, albeit very large, with billions of other human beings who have the same wants, needs, and passions as I do, and that any threat to their well-being was a threat to mine. I slowly but surely began to realize that I exist in a world where the Divine is constantly moving through everything, connecting us all together in its power and purpose. Author Walter Wink calls this the Integral Worldview, a belief that "soul permeates the universe, [that] God is not just within us but within everything. The universe is suffused with the divine."2 Without getting too theological (believe me, I'm still trying to figure this thing out and I'm on my way to seminary), I will simply say that when I truly understand my existence in the human community I must start seeing myself not as "me" but as "we." I am a part of a greater whole; I am part of God's creation and God's creativity. Those of us who were raised in the Western world are often so fixated on individuality that we forget about our brothers, sisters, and siblings who exist right beside us. We forget that we all come from the same "stuff" and that we all came from the same parents all those years ago. It is of dire importance that we see ourselves as a part of the larger body because without all of the parts, the body cannot work.
After trying desperately to understand the importance of my existence in the human
community, I also started to understand that this existence will not be complete unless all people can live in comfort and peace. If there are people in the world who are living in hunger, poverty and silence then I am living in hunger, poverty and silence. I am not fully human unless all others are allowed to reach their full purpose as children of the creator. I witnessed the horrifying effects of silence on human beings while I was on the Equality Ride. I spoke first-hand with students, faculty, and staff who were so afraid of expressing their being — whether it be as LGBT or as an ally — that some even considered suicide. I, along with the 51 other Riders, went to places where the human community was being denied the ability to exist and realize its fullest potential. I looked into the eyes of closeted LGBT students and saw myself.
"So what are you studying?" I asked.
"I'm a theology major with a minor in art," Ty said.
"Theology! That's so cool. I'm a religion major. What are you interested in?"
"Liberation theology, mostly. I have a real heart for the poor," Ty replied.
"I totally dig that, man. I just got done studying liberation theology in one of my classes. That's so cool that you are concerned with an issue like that."
I must say I found myself perplexed. I was sitting at a table in the student union of George Fox University in Newburg, Oregon. I was talking with my student host for the day, Ty, and he was telling me things I never expected to hear.
"I think I've been born into a lot of privilege and I need to work to help out others," Ty said.
"I totally agree," I replied. "I think it is easy for us in America to get caught up in our comfortable lives and forget about people who really need help."
Before we visited George Fox, I was confronted by people who had a completely different understanding of Christianity and human purpose. This caused me to shut myself off from ever really connecting with them on a theological level. For many of them, their faith was about personal salvation and piety. For Ty, the concern was about helping the poor and marginalized. I was sitting across the table from someone who was my age, about my size and looks, who had the same passions and desires that I did.
"I can definitely see parallels between what I want to do with my life and the Equality Ride," Ty said. "I'm really glad you came here."
I never thought I would meet anyone at these colleges to whom I could relate as a sibling in the fight for social justice of any kind. How wrong was I?
When most people ask me about my experiences on the Equality Ride I often simply
want to reply, "Frustrating." Though I never do (I try to give the sunny side to every story), it does hover in the back of my mind how difficult it was to be part of the Ride. Yes, there was the waking up at 6:30 a.m. only to get on a bus for an eight-hour ride into the middle of nowhere, but more importantly it was difficult to relate to the people whom I was trying to reach. I went on the Equality Ride to talk with students, faculty, and administrators about the need for their colleges to be open and affirming places for LGBT students and instead I often found myself debating what seemed like meaningless questions that had no bearing on the issue at hand. We discussed where we were from, our home churches, and stories from our childhood. All of these things seemed like they were so far away from the urgent topic of safety and affirmation for LGBT students. In the weeks since the Ride, after much processing, I cannot help but begin to sort out the extreme importance of these seemingly purposeless conversations. I can now see how they were the foundation for the much larger dialogue.
Whenever we were introduced to our student hosts at our different stops, the first hour or so of conversation was always concerned with personal questions. The number of times I explained that I was from Ainsworth, Neb., was a religion/history major at Hastings
College, and was attending seminary in the fall seems countless. But now I am starting to
grasp how very important this was. By listening to my hosts' stories, and they to mine, we established a connection, a connection that existed beyond political agendas and theological rhetoric. To hear my host at George Fox University tell me that he studied theology was something more powerful than any discussion about LGBT issues. To meet a woman at the bookstore at Mid-America Nazarene and learn that she grew up in my hometown sent our relationship in a whole new direction (she later told me via e-mail that her son came out to her a few years ago and she had finally come to accept him fully, something that she probably never would have told me if it were not for our initial connection). To listen to the story of an administrator at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn., and the deep-seeded love that he felt for his wife allowed me to understand the romantic aspects of life in a whole new way.
It is impossible for me to say that I never wanted to speak with people on these campuses about LGBT issues right away instead of establishing common ground. What I can say, with much blessed! assurance, is that by establishing these primary connections I gave them the opportunity to see me as human, as a wonderfully made child of God. I presented to them a part of me that was many times personal. I shared with them my coming out story. I explained my theological understanding of Christ and his resurrection. I even revealed some of my musical guilty pleasures with my student host at Northwest Nazarene in Nampa, Idaho (Duran Duran, anyone?). What I'm trying to say through this whole mess is that sometimes we just need to look at each other as people, as siblings in humanity, who all have similar wants, needs and experiences. I know that I viewed many of my hosts in a totally different light after I learned that one had a gay cousin, another was also going to seminary, and another shared a fierce passion for Puma shoes. It's pretty difficult to condemn a person if we see how we are all so alike. This includes making judgments about someone's sexual orientation or gender identity. When my student hosts saw that I fall in love and express my romantic self in the same way that they do, and that I am searching for a relationship built in love, monogamy, and integrity, just like they are, many of them couldn't condemn that either.
"So how are you even a Christian?" she asked.
This was the first thing my fellow Rider Emily heard when she sat down with me for supper at Fresno Pacific University. I had been fielding difficult questions from this table for about the past 15 minutes and was happy that another Rider joined me.
"Well, I don't think God is concerned with who I fall in love with as long as I love that person in truth and authenticity," I said.
"But in Genesis God clearly marks out for us what a relationship should be like, between a man and a woman," the woman replied. "Where do you see yourself in that?"
"Well, I actually see my relationship with my partner in Genesis," Emily chimed in. " I see the relationship between Adam and Eve as one of true, God-centered love and of two people finding the perfect match for themselves."
"But your kind of relationship isn't found in the Scriptures at all!" another woman yelled. "You are using things other than the Bible to legitimize your relationship. Where do you find yourself in the Scriptures?"
"I think there is more to the Christian experience than the Bible," I replied. By this time things were getting much more heated than when Emily first sat down. We both found ourselves on the extreme defensive. "For example, I can look to other loving, committed same-sex couples for guidance in how I will live with my future husband," I said.
"But that's not in the Scripture!" the first woman replied. She was almost screaming by this point, making me and Emily extremely uncomfortable. "I want to know where you find justification for your relationship with your partner," she said as she pointed at Emily. "And please, use the Bible for your examples!"
"Don't tell her what she can or cannot use," I said. "Let her speak for herself."
Emily shot me a glance before she started speaking. In that glance I saw fear, anger, confusion and frustration. But most of all, oddly enough, I saw Emily saying, "Thank you."
There is definitely something to be said about living on a bus with 25 other people for
two months. I'm not sure exactly what that "something" is but I will provide some parting
thoughts anyway. When we live in community with other people we are forced to relate to them and rely on them in ways that we might never imagine. At our final Common Grounds meeting before graduation, Mary Stoops asked me to compare my friendships on the Ride to my friendships at Hastings College. I had to admit that there was no comparison, and this was in no way a bad thing. My friendships at Hastings College were discovered over four years of searching for similarities and understanding our common experiences. On the Ride we were in many ways forced to become friends. We slept in the same beds, shared the same bathrooms, ate at the same tables, and participated in the same Equality Ride events. We conversed with students together, stood in vigil together, and got arrested together. Many times we were forced to come together as a dynamic force because it was often sink or swim at these colleges. I definitely learned that when I stood alone as an individual Equality Rider it often meant that I lacked all of things the other Riders brought to the mission. I missed out on Emily's theological
insight, Alexey's wit and wisdom, and Jess' quick humor. It was only when I saw myself
not as an Equality Rider but the group as the Equality Ride that I truly tapped into the synergy that we had. I am beginning to understand that I am not alone in this world.
I have family members, friends, acquaintances, and even adversaries who inhabit the
same space I do, and whether they know it or not, are extremely influential in who I am and who I will become. It is pointless to deny the impact of the integral world in which we live. If anything, the Ride taught me that I am only human when I understand and connect with the other humans around me, when I immerse myself into the community of which I am a part. I am only human when I see the humanity of "Katie" in the park, Ty sitting across the table from me, and Emily's beautiful eyes telling me, "Thank you."