Soulforce hopes to open minds one college at a time
She wasn’t pleased. The administrators at the Moody Bible Institute were hearing her, but she saw they weren’t listening, nor did they seem to care.
“As we asked questions, they refused to answer, but smiled the whole time,” Crystal Cheatham said. “The whole idea of the Bible is to be authentic, and they were completely inauthentic.”
Cheatham is a community developer with Soulforce’s 2012 Equality Ride, whose purpose is laid out simply enough on the national event’s site.
“We aim to visit the hundreds of schools in the United States that openly discriminate against [the LGBTQA community] through their policies and practices,” the site reads. “On these campuses, LGBTQA students and faculty are forced to suffer in silence.”
As community developer, Cheatham helps add cities to the route between those that the “riders” choose, among other duties. Each of the 18 riders on this year’s journey get to pick a school, which the group tries to visit several times in a two or three day stop. Over the span of two months, Equality Ride will hit 12 cities and visit between 15 and 20 schools.
The idea is to have a conversation with administrators and students, and to find out what resources the school does or does not offer to LGBT students on campus. All of the schools that Equality Ride hits are religious. Those schools, Cheatham explained, are the only ones who still have policies against homosexuality.
“Most of the problems come from religious concepts. Part of what we do is have deep theological conversation with administrators about why we feel that we, as LGBTQA people, have God’s love,” Cheatham said. ”[Jesus’s] love is given to each of us. No stipulations.”
Cheatham said the Equality Ride is an effort to revise the schools’ policies or even add new ones. The organization has succeeded in doing so in 8 of the more than 80 schools it’s visited to date. Cheatham believes it’s an important struggle for the LGBT community.
“It hurts the LGBT community because religion is the final frontier when it comes to achieving equal rights. People intrinsically believe that being gay is wrong,” she said. “It’s important to have this discussion because there are students who don’t have safety. There’s no policy that will protect them.”
Religious schools’ oppression of LGBT students breaks both religious and nationalistic ideals, said Jason Conner, Soulforce’s director of programs and co-director of the 2012 Equality Ride.
“They were called by Christ to accept everyone,” he said. “And while it’s legal to discriminate, it’s not right. It’s about human life and it’s about human dignity.”
To be part of the Equality Ride, hopeful riders had to be apply by September of last year and whoever was chosen began training in January. The training involves Soulforce’s motto and overall mission. That is, to make change through “relentless nonviolent resistance,” according to their site. The first week of training was in Miami, but the Ride won’t be stopping in South Florida this year.
Conner explained that before taking off, the group contacts a long list of schools. Of those who bite and accept the riders to come visit and talk, a map is made to create the most efficient round trip. That’s where people like Cheatham come in.
This year’s cities include Philadelphia; Atlanta; Nashville, Tenn.; Chicago; Minneapolis; Oklahoma City; New Orleans; Dallas; Denver; Salt Lake City; Portland, Ore.; and San Francisco.
Of those schools that do not wish to have a conversation, the riders will sometimes stage non-violent protests. This year, with the schools that complied, a stop in South Florida was a bit unrealistic, Conner said, but emphasized that Soulforce will be holding a few educational symposiums in the region later in the year.
But they have visited South Florida in the past. Most notably in 2008 when they traveled to Palm Beach Atlantic University (PBA), a religious school in West Palm Beach, with more than 3,200 students. Administrators at PBA first refused to meet with the riders, but later agreed under staunch conditions. The Equality Ride did not accept the restrictions that would have been placed on them, so they refused and attempted to attend a worship service. Officials at PBA warned them that if they came onto the property they would call the police. Six of them did so anyway and were arrested.
Before ever joining Soulforce, Cheatham was raised in church, and was groomed to one day become a church leader, on the basis of her singing talent. But when she came out, her grooming was put on hold and told her progress would be halted because of her sexual orientation. She would quickly find herself working on independent projects for the sake of the LGBT community and eventually founded Soulforce.
Conner, who joined the organization in 2006 (after a pact to come out to his family if his application was accepted, which it was), sees the work that they do as a way to keep similar stories from happening. It all boils down to the schooling, he said.
These students are the future of this country, and one day they will be anything from political leaders to church leaders. By getting through to them now, Conner hopes, Soulforce is getting the country to a brighter future.
For more information and a schedule of Equality Ride’s upcoming stops, go to www.soulforce.org.