Open & Affirming Teaches us to Open Our Hearts to All

I grew up in one of our denominations earliest Open & Affirming congregations, Southside Christian Church in South Bend, Indiana. My mother took me to this “other” Disciples congregation in South Bend after my parents divorced while my father stayed at First Christian. As a high schooler in the ‘80s, I hadn’t figured out what “Open & Affirming” or even “gay and lesbian” meant — I just thought we had a lot of women in our church. What I did know was that Southside couldn’t always pay its light bill, but we were always doing mission: gathering food, working with the homeless, collecting Depends for the AIDS shelter. I also knew that we had a lot of controversy over hymns and a chasm between those who like to sing the old favorites and those who liked the new hymnal. It seemed like a really normal church to me.

In college, I knew that Southside hosted a workshop for other churches who wanted to be “Open & Affirming” and that the church had to hire security to keep the busses of protesters away and I knew that this struggling congregation sent me $200 a semester to help with books. By the time my ordination was held there I understood what a witness Southside was to the church as a whole and I was thrilled when I was told that the ladies chose Sherbet colors for the reception. I wrote on my first Search and Call papers that I understood my call as nurturing the same sense of community in Christ and ministry together that I had experienced at Southside. I still seemed like a really normal church.

In my current experience as Chaplain and Director of Church Relations at Lynchburg College I work with a full diversity of students. LC has a breath of faith traditions represented. We have a DOC (Disciples on Campus) group, but also Campus Outreach (Evangelical Presbyterian), [lcf] (Baptist), Catholic Community, reJOYce in Jesus, and a Methodist Student Fellowship. We have a Hillel Director on staff part time and have just added a Buddhist fellowship on campus. The Baha’i group has faded, but an active Interfaith Dialogue group surfaced and did great programming this year. We have students who are conservative and students who are liberal, students who do not believe in evolution and student who do not believe in God. We have students from so many ethnic backgrounds, students from very different economic backgrounds, and a large number of our students are first generation (meaning at the highest need of academic and cultural support) and/or Pell eligible (meaning at the highest level of financial need).

Many students find their way to Spiritual Life, but others are fearful of the judgment we represent. There is no normal sense of church on a college campus. There is no normal sense of faith journey. One of the groups of students that I struggle to convince that we are a safe place are our GLBTQ students. We may have safe space stickers and a rainbow stained glass triangle (that has a cross on it that the Jewish group tolerates), but “Spiritual Life” or the “Chaplain’s Office” as we are so often named, cannot quite overcome our stereotype. There are exceptions to be sure—some GLBTQ students who need us find us— but we have a long way to go and not everyone in our building comes from a tradition that is accepting. How do I earn that trust?

So this is what being a Chaplain to a diverse campus means? My call now is to nurture community for all—on whatever spiritual path they are on. Just this afternoon I have had the Evangelical Presbyterians and the Buddhists in my office…is this the true lesson of “Open & Affirming”?

Blessings, Stephanie