Tragedies are a time to come together. The shock that comes with senseless loss of life demands that we speak – that we console one another and affirm the lives of those around us as we mourn those which have so suddenly ended. On November 5, posters handwritten in Sharpie appeared on doors around Houghton’s campus:
“In Memory of those lost Today in Sutherland Springs, Texas, may you all Rest in Peace.”
Students are shaken after a tragedy – afraid for their friends and family near to acts of brutality, and heartbroken that someone would bring such hatred to a place where people celebrated their deeply held identity. The simple message written out on printer paper was a comfort to students going through their day in a haze, and students organized a prayer meeting in the campus center, pulling one another close in solidarity amid confusing and violent circumstances. This is the power of the Church, one body which feels in unison and comforts in unison.
Some people, however, have found themselves on the outside of this embrace. Even students who have dedicated their youth to the church, who have committed their college years to Christian institutions, and have given themselves in trust to the communities which promise them the love of God may feel that this love is conditional.
Secular students, religious minorities, and queer Christian students here have been met with a question when they ask for acceptance: “Why did you even come here if you’re like that? You knew what you were getting into.”
As though they should expect marginalization as a matter of course at a place built on Christ.
Our college years are times of upheaval and change. Many young people are free for the first time to examine their faith and identity without pressures from their families. It’s a time to finally explore truth beyond the force of tradition or the threat of punishment. Why would students who don’t fit the evangelical template come to Houghton College?
Maybe it’s because they were never given a chance to realize their differences until now. Maybe it’s because they gave all they had to the Church, and had nowhere else to go. Maybe it’s because they expected a welcome at a place advertising God’s love.
A loud sector of students make it clear who is welcome here: “I’m uncomfortable on a campus that tolerates the presence of sin,” one of several loud students proclaimed during an SGA forum last fall, describing the way he saw the presence of the LGBTQ+ community as a dark cloud of evil. Anonymous messages left on campus have seconded such sentiments: a declaration on a whiteboard that being gay is “heresy;” an ominous statement on the sidewalk in Hebrew, translating “your days are numbered;” and, a classic, the succinct but expressive “fag.”
Worship is an integral part of Houghton culture, a major bonding force among students and a chance to serve and bless one another. Queer students have been stripped of their positions in prayer and music ministries after coming out, solely because they would not renounce their identity. The college apparently sanctions this discrimination, and has added RA to the list of service positions which gay students in relationships are unfit to hold here.
This is the world queer students live in. This is their harsh reality – one where their place here at Houghton, and among their churches and communities, is constantly on trial.
The way that we respond to tragedy is one of the ways our values show most clearly. And on the heels of the most recent in a seemingly endless procession of painful episodes, I can’t help but think of the stories of these students and their questions.
We responded in the right way, the only Christian way, to the tragedy in Sutherland Springs. We came together in love and we prayed, we mourned, and we comforted one another as a family.
When will we do anything but debate the worth of the students who are, truly, the most vulnerable students in the world of American Christianity? Will we stand up and affirm that these lives matter just as much as those of straight theology majors and the rest who fit the evangelical mold?
It’s time, don’t you think, to take to heart the words Houghton carved in stone on her walls: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you.”
Let’s embrace all of those among us who are hurt. We can do it. There’s room at the table, there’s room in our prayers, and there’s room in the heart of Christ.
It’s time to make room, now, in our own hearts – and to live the compassion of the God we love.
Eli is a sophomore majoring in communication with a concentration in media arts and visual communication.