Fifteen years ago, I sat in my dorm room on Samford University’s campus and considered killing myself. I’d recently come to terms with the fact that I was in love with a woman, but because I felt I had no one I could safely turn to, I began drowning in a deep and seemingly endless sorrow. Thankfully, I made it to graduation day, found an affirming therapist and began to celebrate all the beautiful facets of my identity.
Later, I decided I never wanted another Samford student to experience the anguish and isolation I’d known on campus. So for more than a decade, I’ve been leading the charge for LGBTQ equality at Samford.
Over the course of this long and arduous journey, there’s one phrase I continue to hear in numerous variations, and it’s the one that sits at the center of the university’s latest exclusionary move, too:
We love LGBTQ students, but we won’t approve their student group.
We love LGBTQ students, but we need to uphold orthodox Christian teachings.
We love LGBTQ students, but we have to partner with ministries that share our beliefs.
And on and on they go.
For decades, Samford has been an ecumenically diverse and welcoming campus, but that long-standing practice is coming to a swift and surprising end for one reason and one reason alone: to exclude LGBTQ people and those who affirm them.
On Aug. 31, two campus ministry groups (Episcopal and Presbyterian USA) were barred from attending a ministry fair they had regularly attended in the past. When the campus pastor called to tell them they couldn’t participate, he cited their denominations’ affirming stances towards LGBTQ people.
And yet, both denominations have held those positions for several years. The Episcopal Church acknowledged and affirmed same-sex couples in 2009, and the PC USA folks did the same in 2015.
So why start excluding them now? I could throw out some guesses, but the truth is, it doesn’t matter why.
This new interpretation of their Guest Ministry policy immediately harms LGBTQ students regardless of why it exists. It places an unnecessary hurdle between them and their affirming faith communities. It is one more “but” in a very long line of buts from Samford’s leadership, who claim to be standing up for orthodox teachings. But I say, “Whose orthodox teachings?”
When I look to the gospels, I find accounts of a man who came to turn orthodoxy on its head. I see a teacher who went toe to toe with the religious leaders of his time — men who clung to their orthodoxy to the detriment of those around them.
I cannot help but think of Jesus’ long condemnation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. He speaks at length about how these self-righteous individuals have missed the point entirely. He denounces the way they overburden others without doing anything to help them carry the load. He chides them for shutting the door to heaven in the faces of those who need God most. And perhaps most shockingly, he proclaims that rather than following the rules of their rigid orthodoxy, they should have devoted themselves to mercy, justice and faithfulness.
Simultaneously, Jesus was setting an example of the kind of love he called on his followers to share with their neighbors: an abiding love that looks past differences. In the scriptures, we see him purposefully seeking out the outcasts of society then sitting among them, healing them and holding them in his arms. He saw past gender, malady, ethnicity, marital status, social class — every barrier to social interaction at that time — so that he could meaningfully connect with and show love to those individuals.
For as much hemming and hawing as folks have done over various passages in the Bible, time and again the message of Jesus is a simple one: love. Love in both word and deed. Not make it harder for your brother to worship, not tell those people they aren’t following the rules correctly, not stand in the doorway of heaven and tell folks who’s in or who’s out.
As long as Samford’s leadership is thumping their Bibles while excluding people on the basis of flimsily interpreted “orthodoxy,” they’re missing the point of Jesus’ ministry entirely. If they’re willing to course correct (and I hope they are), then it’s time they stop saying “we love, but” and start taking action to reflect Jesus’ sacrificial love.
It’s time to show mercy to LGBTQ students who are already four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. It’s time to pursue justice by giving them the same rights and conveniences as other students. And it’s time for Samford administrators to be faithful to the second greatest commandment by loving LGBTQ students as they would love themselves — I mean really loving them.
A community organizer and activist based in Birmingham, Alabama, she is the founder of SAFE Samford (Students, Alumni and Faculty for Equality) as well as co-founder of The Bevy, a networking and social belonging group for queer women, trans and non-binary people, with chapters in Birmingham, New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville and Mobile.