Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Beginning the Conversation

"Courage is fear that has said its prayers."

Those were the words imprinted on the side of a tractor trailer truck that I passed on the way to Greenville, South Carolina on April 4, 2007 to witness the Soulforce Equality Ride stop at Bob Jones University. It seemed an appropriate description of the riders, 50 young adults who are traveling on two separate buses to 32 colleges that have policies against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.

As I stood in the sun, hair hopelessly whipped by a constantly blowing cool wind, I witnessed many acts of courage - many fears that had said fervent prayers and were prepared to face whatever came their way. The first act was my own. As I rounded the corner after parking my car I came upon a group of anti-gay protesters - a bunch of Southern Baptist skinheads really - young men with closely cropped hair and eyes that had already gone dead with blind bigotry. Jordan Phillips from Faith Baptist Church in Primrose, Georgia, offered me a pamphlet with a coffin on the front of it that informed me that I was fated for death and without Jesus I would be cast into the lake of fire.

He told me all about the sodomites across the street who wanted to be allowed to go into Bob Jones and teach the students how to be homosexuals. I wanted to laugh at his ignorance about what he was protesting, but instead, I gathered my courage and fell into a habit I had honed for some two decades - I morphed into the journalist. I held the microphone and let him spew - careful to keep a poker face as his words formed the rhetorical rope that finally hung him. Only he didn't have a clue how horrible he sounded - to him his words were loving and kind. To me, they were fists and kicks, blows to be avoided at all costs.

I thanked him for his time and crossed the street, only to find yet another protester, a Baptist preacher named Stan Craig orating loudly about how much he loved homosexuals. He was literally screaming about his love!

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Pastor Craig seems to have missed this part of 1 Corinthians 13 - as did all the other sign wielding protesters and blaring street preachers.

When I made it to the Soulforce Equality Riders, who were lined up on the sidewalk outside of Bob Jones in silent vigil, I finally encountered love. The riders stood as members of yet another anti-gay group approached them and talked with them about their beliefs. The Soulforce riders answered their questions, gave their testimonies and deflected criticisms with patience, grace and gentleness. No one shouted, no one pointed fingers or called names - they simply talked. Were minds changed? Probably not right away, but seeds were planted, probably on both sides.

When GLBT people are faced with protesters we're used to the sign carrying, bullhorn blasting bullies who show up at prides and other events. What we're not used to are opponents who will simply dialogue with us. That takes courage - on their side and on our side.

This is the courage I witnessed at Bob Jones - not just the courage of those who walked on campus and offered themselves freely to the arresting officers - but those who stayed behind and talked to anyone who came up to them. This is Soulforce's real goal with this Equality Ride. No one expects that Bob Jones or any of the other schools they visit will see the light because of the riders and instantly change their anti-GLBT policies. What Soulforce is seeking is what I saw on the street that day - open dialogue - a chance to witness to the opposition and to give the opposition a chance to witness to us.

Until we begin to see each other as people with feelings and lives, strengths and vulnerabilities, and not caricatures carrying signs and bullhorns, there will be no resolution to this seemingly intractable problem. It's true that each person in that conversation had an ulterior motive - to ultimately change the thoughts and behaviors of the person they were talking with - but the fact that they were brave enough to start the conversation means that God can use it to create real change. That change may not be what we want - the conversion of a bigot to our way of thinking - but it creates an opening for grace. It plants seeds that only God can grow into what it needs to become. Our job is to pray through our fears and like the Soulforce Equality riders find the courage to begin that conversation.