For the last four years, I’ve worked with LGBT students on Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) campuses across the country. While studying at Andrews University, the flagship school of the SDA Church, I helped create AULL4One -- Andrews University’s unofficial gay-straight alliance. In collaboration with faculty sponsors and fellow students, we’ve made small but positive changes to the campus: creating a network of support, and advocating for productive dialogue about how to make our campus safer for LGBT persons.
But last week, progress was halted. My school won’t let us sell cupcakes to raise funds for LGBT homeless youth.
Why? Because, according to administration, the “perceived advocacy” of the group providing housing for these vulnerable youth “conflicts with the mission of Andrews University.”
Last semester, AULL4One proposed a fundraiser for LGBT homeless youth to the dean of student life -- someone we’ve had a great working relationship with. We researched and selected an amazing organization, Project Fierce in Chicago, about 90 minutes from campus, that is doing invaluable work. We began a collaboration with our campus’ Campus Ministries department for this project.
Many meetings and emails later, we received final word this week of our proposal’s rejection due to perceived conflicts with the organization and the mission of Andrews University. (The administration never reached out to the team at Project Fierce to see if those perceived conflicts actually exist). Steve Yeagley, the dean of student life, emailed me to say that Project Fierce’s “approach to the LGBT issue” doesn't sync with the school.
“If a way can be found to serve LGBT homeless youth through an organization that more fully reflects the University’s mission and the stance of our denomination (which clearly calls for exhibiting compassion toward LGBT persons), let’s explore that.”
We proposed another organization, Center on Halsted, which also works with LGBT homeless youth. That request was also denied.
To the administration’s credit, they suggested another organization to consider, Night Ministry. This alternative was presented to us as an interdenominational faith-based ministry that serves Chicago's homeless population in general. LGBT student leaders perceived the intent was to make the fundraiser broader and not as LGBT specific. Andrews University's LGBT student leaders decided that a group that doesn’t specialize in working with LGBT homeless youth is not a good replacement.
The National Health Care for the Homeless Council provides specific resources for subset groups, like the LGBT youth population so it's important for staff members to be trained to best assist them. Statistics show the LGBT youth population is disproportionality affected by homelessness. Many find themselves on the street precisely because of religious policies and doctrines, applied by parents who often have no resources themselves for how to cope or respond when their child comes out.
In retrospect, we should have vetted the organization provided to us more. We were presented with an option that seemed to take the focus away from our stated mission -- to specifically help LGBT homeless youth. Having looked at the organization more closely, Night Ministry is actually no longer a faith-based group and, in fact, works closely with Project Fierce.
That being said, Andrews University wasn't saying the proposal would be approved with Night Ministry, only that it was an organization that, at face value, appeared to be faith based and a reasonable alternative. Had the administration looked into Night Ministry it would have found out some of the same objectionable stances as Project Fierce.
Meanwhile, the school has not responded to our group's requests for their specific objections to Project Fierce and how those perceived objections conflicts with Andrews mission. But as a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist who's been involved in the LGBT Christian conversation for five years now, I can make some educated guesses.
I think Andrews is looking for an organization that falls in line with the Adventist theological understanding of same-sex relationships. Here is where we get to the root of the issue: I don't know of any organizations that condemn same-sex sex and also intentionally work with LGBT homeless youth in a meaningful way to provide safe long-term housing. It’s a stretch to imagine any organization doing this kind of intentional work that our school would approve of.
I want to make this clear: Andrews has every right to deny any event they feel conflicts with their mission. Legally, they’re in the clear. That is not what is being contested. What we're challenging is the reasoning behind this decision. What specifically about Project Fierce conflicts with Andrews’ mission? We are all still waiting for that answer.
Alicia Battle, one of the original organizers and a recent Andrews graduate, said "it feels like they're putting their own fears and politics over helping people. It especially hurts because a lot of LGBTQ kids get kicked out of their homes because of their family's religious beliefs. A Christian school doing a fundraiser for an LGBTQ youth shelter would've been a beautiful and amazing thing, and they decided they couldn't do it because people might complain.”
One underlying issue — one that transcends this campus — is that faith groups with traditional understandings of Scripture have difficulty finding positive ways to discuss anything related to LGBT. These groups typically have a reductionist viewpoint where all things LGBT get boiled down to an over simplified talking point – same-sex sex. Even a request to raise funds for LGBT homeless youth, inevitably, comes down to the theological stance of the organization in question (even if it’s not a religious organization).
And that’s a problem.
“What bothers me is the placement of policy over actual human lives,” Jonathan Doram, current president of AULL4One, told me. “While scholars will continue to debate over the interpretation of a few texts, lives are at risk and people are in need. This fundraiser was a beautiful opportunity for a Christian university to live out its creed to love in a tangible way. If Andrews University was truly intentional about helping LGBT homeless youth, the fundraiser would have started months ago.”
How are LGBT people supposed to believe they are loved by Christians without tangible acts of love? If theology is going to get in the way of supporting LGBT homeless youth, how will we ever talk about other topics that aren’t as easy to agree on as the fact that LGBT homeless youth deserve care and compassion?
I deeply love my university. We’ve made huge strides forward in the last few years. But this incident illustrates the hard work still ahead. We have to act — not just talk — about being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. He didn’t tell us to vet the “least of these” to see if they support all of our positions. He just told us to feed his sheep.
AULL4ONE has created an online campaign for Project Fierce. Help by sharing and donating to the campaign.