Students pray during an InterVarsity gathering at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.

The spiritual abuse in InterVarsity’s treatment of LGBT people

(RNS) In late January 2015, I found myself sitting across the table from a couple of my supervisors on the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

The meeting was perhaps one of the most difficult and shame-filled meetings of my career. I had called it to inform my supervisors that I had just been raped by a man in a gym locker room a few days prior.

One of them tried her best to handle a situation that was foreign to her. The other asked if I had gone looking for it. He wanted to know if, in my “struggle” with my homosexuality, I was looking to express my inherent sin, my distorted self.

I was used to this kind of rhetoric.

From being told I had an idolatry issue when I confessed having a crush on a man in our leadership team to being encouraged to watch heterosexual pornography as an attempt to change my sexual orientation, InterVarsity staff viewed me as sexually suspect and in constant need for repair.

In 2014, the California State University system put InterVarsity on probation for a year for violating its nondiscrimination policies. This was a critical juncture for the campus ministry.

For many within the movement it was considered a season of persecution and trial. Emails flooded the inboxes of InterVarsity donors with calls for prayer and financial support. The probation was seen as a battle for the integrity of the Bible and certain key passages surrounding human sexuality.

The ministry refused, and continues to refuse, to allow a student on its leadership team to be in a dating relationship with someone of the same gender. This practice is tied directly to the ministry’s theological paper on human sexuality, which forbids same-sex relations.

The theological paper, the outcome of a four-year internal review of what the Bible teaches about human sexuality,  states: “… Scripture is very clear that God’s intention for sexual expression is to be between a husband and wife in marriage. Every other sexual practice is outside of God’s plan and therefore is a distortion of God’s loving design for humanity.”

"Distortion" is the word the straight white men who authored the paper used to describe LGBT individuals who pursue relationships with someone of the same gender.

Imagine a college freshman struggling with reconciling his faith with his sexuality, hearing that he is inherently a distortion.

Imagine a college senior passionate about her faith and eager to pursue a career in ministry but also hoping to marry someone of the same gender, being told that she is barred from ministry because she is a distortion.

The impact of this position paper on campuses across the country is momentous.

Although the theological paper states that “all are created in God’s image” (referencing Genesis 1:26), it dehumanizes and further marginalizes LGBT students and staff by not only using terms like "distortion" but by also listing same-sex relationships next to sexual abuse as another example of a deformed human sexuality.

During my tenure on staff with InterVarsity, I came to a critical juncture where I recognized that I, as a gay Christian, had nothing legitimate to offer LGBT students on campus.

I could not honestly share with them the love of God and the good news of Jesus, while refusing to ascribe to them the inherent dignity with which God had created them -- a dignity I myself was wrestling to acknowledge. Interactions with LGBT students caused a painful and visceral feeling in me. I could only serve and love them so much.

Ultimately, to great personal shame, I refused to invite LGBT students to InterVarsity out of a desire to protect them. The sanctuary was not safe for them.

This is the new reality for ministry on campus.

In light of InterVarsity’s theological statement, students now have fewer spaces on campus that will dignify them on their journey to encounter the risen Christ. LGBT students and staff have already experienced spiritual abuse and trauma. Many have reported significant mental health issues as a result of their time in the ministry; some have contemplated suicide.

Colleges and universities across the country will likely see this as a sign of further discrimination, reaching far beyond the limits of student leadership teams. Meanwhile, countless evangelicals will likely cry out and point to renewed persecution of the church.

Universities denying campus access to ministries with explicit statements against LGBT individuals, particularly those who chose to marry, will be perceived by much of the evangelical world with contempt and condemnation.  This is not persecution. This is not an orthodoxy issue. This is not a campus access issue.

This is a spiritual abuse issue. This is an issue about the inherent dignity of God’s beloved children.

Months after that conversation with my supervisors, and after forming a coalition to push InterVarsity to changing its stance on sexuality, I resigned my position. I could not conduct ministry in a way that was both liberating to me and the LGBT students I sought to serve. Nothing came from reporting the rape to my supervisors. But in the midst of all of this chaos I found the freedom to embrace both God and his Word affirmed in my identity as a gay Christian.

(Michael Vazquez is a former staff worker with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA at the University of Utah and is now studying for his Master of Divinity at Western Theological Seminary/Newbigin House of Studies in San Francisco)

Editor's note: InterVarsity responded to Vazquez's commentary with the following statement:

First, rape is a sin against God and a person. We are grieved that Michael was raped in a gym locker room, and we continue to pray for his recovery from this experience.

Second, we dispute Michael’s accounts of how InterVarsity staff responded to him. His concerns were previously submitted and thoroughly investigated over the course of several months, by line supervisors, regional and national leaders, and the human resources team. InterVarsity colleagues, especially Rocky Mountain staff, provided support in many concrete ways to Michael during this period and even after his employment.

To be clear, if a staff member ever recommended pornography to a student or staff member (or otherwise encouraged violations of our Sexual Misconduct Policy), InterVarsity would immediately investigate and if verified, take disciplinary action.

InterVarsity remains committed to seeing all staff members, students, and faculty flourish.