Following campus-wide reaction to a Swarthmore Voices article detailing the Swarthmore Christian Fellowship’s (SCF) policy that members who do not view homosexuality as a sin and who affirm queer relationships cannot become leaders of the club, SCF leaders plan to continue to support and uphold the policy. However, Christian students on campus as well as other members of the Swarthmore community are calling for change and alternatives.
The Campus Reacts
Immediate reactions to the article, entitled “Swarthmore Christian Fellowship Has a Sexuality Problem,” written by Eduard Saakashvili ’17, included the writing of queer-affirming chalk messages in front of Parrish Hall such as “God made me gay,” “Love is never a sin” and “Gay love is holy.” The Interfaith Center issued a statement on their Facebook page, writing, “The Interfaith team would like to extend compassion to all those who have been hurt. The Interfaith Center is a queer-affirming space that condemns bigotry of any kind and aspires to offer religious traditions as an avenue for healing and liberation.” Joyce Tompkins, Director of Religious and Spiritual Life at the college, feels that the policy is problematic for all members of the campus community, including alumni she has spoken with since the article’s publication.
“I’m concerned about having a group on campus that discriminates, I’m concerned about the hurt that’s been caused to many, many students, both those who identify as queer and those who are allies, and also students who’ve been part of SCF and found a Christian home there,” Tompkins said.
In addition, multiple memes and contentious comment threads were posted in the Facebook group “Swarthmore Memes for Quaker teens.” Katherine Ham ’18 posted a meme along with a link to an Intervarsity web page listing literature about homosexuality, such as Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation. September Sky Porras ’20 posted two memes.
According to SCF co-president Michael Broughton ’19, who was quoted in the Voices article, students have not directly approached him to discuss their views on the policy.
“It’s a bit frustrating to only hear secondhand about a controversy that I’m supposedly at the center of,” he said. “I’d really like to engage honestly with people about the issue, but at the moment it’s hard to tell who’s ready for those kinds of conversations. The chalkings made it clear that the issue is on a lot of people’s minds, but again since I haven’t had any direct encounters about it, it’s hard to gauge how the campus is truly feeling.”
Broughton emphasized that the policy has been in effect since before any current SCF leaders were students at Swarthmore.
“To my knowledge, it was first enacted by members of SCF leadership toward the end the 2014-2015 school year, and was in full effect by the following school year,” he said. “It should be noted that everyone involved in making the policy has since graduated; subsequent leadership teams have maintained it.”
Broughton is one leader who chose to maintain the policy for the 2017-2018 school year along with fellow co-president Emily Audet ’18, as they explained in the Voices article.
Effects of the Policy
Though the campus community knew little about the policy until the publication of the Voices article, the policy has affected Christian life for a long time, according to Kyra Harvey ’19, an active member of SCF during her freshman year who chose to leave the club.
“I think part of what’s so difficult about this situation is that it hasn’t just been an issue because of this article and now people are like, ‘OMG, SCF is very conservative,’ but I think the Christian community has been split because of this issue before this even happened, since my freshman year, and that’s been really sad and difficult. I don’t think it was a good policy to begin with because it was so divisive.”
Jasmine Betancourt ’20, who was also an active member of SCF as a freshman, said that the policy influenced her decision to participate less because she supports queer pride.
“It did make me feel excluded,” she said. “It’s why I dropped my involvement this year.”
SCF leaders typically hold a meeting during which they disclosed the details of the policy in the spring of each year, during the interview process for students interested in leadership positions. For Harvey, the policy was part of the reason she chose to end her involvement with SCF, after being an active member during her freshman year.
“They have a lot of good events and things, but ever since my freshman year when they told me about that leadership policy, it hasn’t been the same,” Harvey said. “And the way that it was done too–they gave me a book that supported that idea about homosexuality and I think it looked a little too much like, ‘Oh you’re wrong and here’s the reason why,’ and that just doesn’t feel good when you’re part of a community.”
According to Betancourt, the policy has directly affected SCF membership.
“I’ve been told from upperclassmen and alumni that SCF used to be a very vibrant club, but since this new policy was put in place, active involvement has dwindled,” Betancourt said. “Most of the Christians on campus that I know are frustrated with SCF leadership policies and their conservative interpretation of the Bible. It is clear that their position on homosexuality has brought a lot of pain to the LGBTQ+ community and has made several members who celebrate queerness feel excluded from the group.”
Tara Cannon ’20, who identifies as Christian and hoped to participate in Christian life at the college when she arrived, stated that the group’s interpretation of the Bible discouraged her from joining the group.
“Overall I just didn’t feel that…I just didn’t feel welcome,” she said. “I just heard that they were a lot more conservative than the majority of the campus.”
SCF and the Voices article
Though many students have expressed feelings of hurt after learning of SCF views from the Voices article, some hope that it will positively impact the college’s religious community.
“This isn’t a new issue, and each time we try to have a conversation about it, it kind of goes back under the rug,” Tompkins said. “And what I’m hoping is this time, it won’t go back under the rug and we’ll actually all talk about this and especially address some of the hurt that’s been caused over the years.”
Betancourt expressed a similar desire for dialogue surrounding the club’s position on homosexuality and their implementation of the policy.
“The Voices article made me really happy,” Betancourt said. “In the time I was there, there was very limited conversation. I hope that it pushes the leadership to be more open and engaged.”
During the week following the article’s publication, SCF leadership set aside time during the weekly Bible study to take questions and inform students and about the leadership policy, similarly to the meeting that typically takes place in the spring.
“After the article was written, SCF had an opportunity to discuss leadership policies earlier in the year with students who wish to apply or fill out a form for leadership,” Sawyer Lake ’20, part of SCF as a leader of Tuesday night Bible study, as well as an officer of Swatties in Service, said.
The purpose of the meeting was to make sure students within the group were clear about the policy. According to Broughton, the article has prompted internal discussion about the function of the SCF at the college as well as its leadership.
“We will also continue to strive to be a community that serves God, studies his word, and expresses biblical love in every way possible – that has always been our mission, which we have no plans to ever change,” Broughton said.
However, Lake indicated that these discussions may not be related to possible changes in the leadership policy or SCF’s affiliation with Intervarsity. Intervarsity is a national Christian college group that shares the group’s views on homosexuality and that provides resources such as connection with their area coordinator, retreats with other schools, and conferences.
“I have not heard anything where SCF is planning to change leadership policies or change relationships with Intervarsity,” Lake said. “As far as I know, everything related to Intervarsity with SCF and leadership policies will remain the same.”
The varied and emotional responses to the policy and the history of the club include varied opinions from students like Betancourt and Harvey on how best to move forward towards their ideal Christian community.
“We should have a very interconnected faith community across religions,” Harvey said.
“I really hope that this can be a catalyst for growth in the Christian community and the greater community in terms of dialogue…I hope that it’ll make the faith community stronger in terms of diversity.”
According to Betancourt, the allocation of resources and funds (outlined further in the Voices article) complicates possible changes in the relationship between Intervarsity and SCF.
“I think that being associated with the organization that opposes the celebration of queerness is definitely very bad and it’s problematic and people shouldn’t have to be associated with that organization but at the same time…they have a lot of resources and people who come in and staff from Intervarsity that you can talk to,” Betancourt said.
However, Harvey feels that given the theological positions of SCF leadership and the timing, redacting the policy is not the best course of action at the moment.
“I don’t actually think that right now, in this environment, that changing anything would be good for SCF,” Harvey said. “I think the policy probably should have never been implemented in the first place, but as a leader I don’t know what I would do. I think that it’s a really difficult place that these people are in, trying to make these decisions.”
Harvey also feels that the damage done by the policy cannot be easily reversed.
“I don’t know what changing the policy would do, I don’t know if it would bring those people back,” she said. “There’s already something broken and I don’t think pretending it didn’t happen would fix anything.”
In contrast, Betancourt feels strongly that SCF can and should revisit the leadership policy.
“Because SCF has genuine, loving, compassionate people in their fellowship, I think the group has a lot of potential for becoming a truly welcoming, safe space for all students,” she said. “But in order to do so, they must change their leadership policies to be reflective of the essential Christian values that encourage fostering love, peace, and respect in the community.”
Another option on the table for Christians at Swarthmore is revitalizing the Progressive Christians group, which recently merged into the Swatties in Service group. Tompkins supports student-led change in this respect, asserting that neither administration nor the Interfaith Center can rectify the damage she feels that the policy has caused to the community.
“So the Progressive Christian group has kind of ebbed and flowed over the years,” Tompkins said. “Right now it’s mostly a service group, but I would love to see it revived with student interest. [We need] a more neutral space for students to talk about these challenging issues and look at how we can move forward and have a space for students who want to be more theologically progressive, but I do think the impetus has to come from students.”
The role of administration has been minimal with the Christian Fellowship because there is no hired Christian advisor, though Tompkins helps organize some events, especially with Swatties in Service. The Muslim Student Advisor and Jewish Student Advisor positions are new to the Interfaith Center this year.
“The administration is aware of the stir that the article caused, and we have been in regular contact with them since its publication,” Broughton said in an email.
Swarthmore Christian Fellowship is funded in part by the college. As of publication, it remains uncertain what action the college will take in response to the content of the Voices article; the Phoenix will publish a follow-up article in the spring.
***This article was edited at 9:12 a.m. on Dec. 7 to include the link to the Voices article.