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Campus reacts to SCF exclusionary policies

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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.”

What’s next?

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.

A monastery as a model for effective communication

in A Still Small Voice/Columns/Opinions by

At 7 o’clock this morning, seventeen men started their day with Matins — the burning of incense, a reading from the Gospel and a few pages of chanted psalms. These brothers follow the Holy Offices (five daily services that follow the cycle of the day) and devote at least three and a half hour per day to intense prayer. They are Benedictine monks living at the Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York.

Thanks to the leadership of Religious and Spiritual Life Adviser Rev. Joyce Tompkins, I, along with a small group of fellow Swatties, was able to spend a recent weekend in retreat from the hustle and bustle of Swarthmore in order to reflect on and deepen my relationship with God. The retreat was a silent one, and while we all had different goals — centering ourselves, listening to the voice of God or just trying to hit a rhythm — we all believed that intentional silence would facilitate our spiritual growth and reduce distractions.

After leaving Swarthmore in the afternoon, we made it to the monastery after Compline, the final prayer of the day. The monks were silent for the night and already in bed. The ringing of the church bell woke me the next morning five minutes before Matins. I pulled on my shoes and rolled into the chapel still in my pajamas. There was a certain beauty to this program: the first thing I did in the morning was connect with God. These check-ins, which happened every few hours throughout the day, weren’t necessarily poignant religious moments on their own. Each service boiled down to a kind of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Zac” affair. In aggregate, however, I found the steady rhythm of these short rituals to be very powerful. After only one day of regular monastic liturgy, I felt myself tuned in to the Divine in a careful and determined way.

After returning to the wild busyness of Swarthmore, I realized that what I missed most about the monastery was the rhythm and regularity of the liturgy. Selecting any regular spiritual practice — silent meditation or prayer, text study, creating worship music — can serve to center you and provide a necessary anchor in your life. Many campus religious groups offer regularly-scheduled programming, but even in the absence of a larger fellowship, one can create their own sacred spaces by constructing a ritual that suits them. I am not an Anglican or a Benedictine, but found the stillness and chanted psalms very profound. It doesn’t really matter what you believe, or even what you do, but that whatever ritual you build becomes a regular part of your day. For example, taking just a few minutes to close your eyes and count your breaths can pull you back together after the day has started to break you apart. Making a concerted effort to find this sacred time into your everyday life can, over time, tune you in to the Divine.

The second thought is that these monks are thrown together across vast difference. While there may be a certain “kind of person” who would want to be a monk, at the level of personality, age, and even theology, the monks are rather diverse. In a similar way, we Swatties were thrown together by chance. There’s certainly not a “typical Swattie” any more than there is a “typical monk.” While the campus of Swarthmore is more diverse and dynamic than the monastery, we also have much more space to be individuals and do our own thing. Campus groups and social circles are self-selecting and these gatherings provide opportunities for us to commiserate about our day-to-day struggles at both mundane and existential levels. The monks are not so lucky. They’re stuck with each other almost all the time as their ability to leave the monastery is limited. How can they survive in such a pressurized environment? What keeps these men of God from tearing each other’s throats out when conflict inevitably arises?

The answer is deceptively simple: they actually talk to each other. Built into the monks’ schedule are regularly scheduled meetings where dialogue happens in a relatively orderly manner (laid out conveniently, albeit with some room for interpretation, in the Rule of Saint Benedict). Each day after the Eucharist, the monks meet briefly for “Chapter,” so called because they read a chapter from the Rule of Saint Benedict. The monks then have an opportunity to own up if they’ve dropped the ball on something, such as a forgotten task or a broken tool. Once a week, they have a House Meeting, to discuss issues with a bit more gravity and handle to some extent any interpersonal conflicts that have cropped up over the week. Finally, once a month, a counselor comes to the monastery and provides family therapy. The therapist talks with the group about their feelings or worries and helps mediate discontent between the brothers.

What’s most important about these meetings is that they happen whether or not they seem necessary. Conflicts aren’t handled on the fly or only when something dramatic happens, but rather regular, often seemingly uneventful meetings nip discord in the bud. There is an infrastructure of dialogue and mediation that prevents the monastic life from collapsing in on itself under the weight of seventeen egos. Much in the same way that regular acts of spirituality build a more spiritual individual, regular acts of community build a more communal group.

These monks focus their energies on building a family — they’re called ‘brothers’ for a reason. They have a harmonious community because they intend to have one and take the necessary steps to realize it. The application of this lesson to life at Swarthmore is clear and built into now-defunct school traditions. Regular collections for the airing of grievances and the discussion of controversial issues provide a framework for building a community. Collections are a challenge to plan and implement, but only because they aren’t currently part of the regular Swarthmore experience. Collections today happen only for special occasions (usually when something has gone terribly wrong). If a campus-wide collection were held every month it would create a pattern of behavior and conversation that might prevent some injuries, rather than leave us flailing desperately to stop the bleeding after the fact.

Swarthmore Christian Fellowship Allied With Controversial Christian Organization

in Around Campus/Breaking News/News by

When SUNY Buffalo sophomore Steven Jackson was forced to resign as treasurer of his school’s chapter of the Christian organization InterVarsity because of his homosexuality last December, controversy about the organization’s alleged anti-gay stance circulated throughout several universities and colleges. InterVarsity has remained under scrutiny for the past year and several colleges, such as Tufts University and SUNY Buffalo, have ceased funding for their local chapters.InterVarsity has 893 chapters on college campuses nationwide, including the Swarthmore Christian Fellowship (SCF). SCF, which is sponsored by the college, counts on InterVarsity for structure, leadership and resources and has an InterVarsity liaison for consultation and biblical guidance; in return, it is required to adopt and stand by InterVarsity’s policies and beliefs.In spite of this affiliation, current and former members of SCF maintain that the organization is totally inclusive.“We welcome all, regardless of background or belief, at all our activities, and seek to answer to questions that they may have,” SCF Large Groups Coordinator Josh Satre ’13 said.

Many current members are openly gay, as was last year’s SCF president Andrew Cheng ‘11.  Though Cheng said he grappled with the relationship between his Christian and Queer identities, he said that he was able to find a happy medium between the two with the help of SCF.

“There was definitely some internal conflict over my identity as a Christian and my identity as a gay man prior to and during my term as president of SCF,” he said. “In the end, ‘reconciliation’ happened not when all the members of SCF finally found some common ground on which to stand regarding the traditional conflict between homosexuality and Christianity … , but when I figured out that SCF’s role on campus should be to love our neighbors unconditionally. SCF showed me this kind of love and support, and I have no doubt that it will continue to do so for others.”

Trevor Morse, SCF’s liaison to InterVarsity, recognizes that this type of “conflict” can restulf from InterVarsity’s strict Biblical interpretations.

“I don’t deny that the Bible makes challenging suggestions about many aspects of life, including sexuality,” Morse said. “We believe that it’s important to explore what the Bible says and wrestle with it together.”

SCF Small Group Coordinator Maisie Wiltshire-Gordon ’13 noted, however, that SCF’s welcoming atmosphere can help mitigate some of these challenges.  “The global church has done a really bad job of making the queer community feel like they can be a part of churches,”she said. “I think we are very focused on building strong relationships with people, and the fact that some members of SCF are queer helps create a welcoming environment.”

The recent creation Queer+Allies Faith in Action (QFIA) has a similar goal, but it seeks to achieve it outside of SCF.

“Queer+Allies Faith in Action was started in response to the acknowledgment that often faith communities fail to address the intersection of religious identity, sexual orientation and gender identity,” said a QFIA member who wished to remain anonymous. “These various identities were not being discussed together, outside of a couple of events during Coming Out Week. QFIA was created to establish a space for more sustained dialogue about what it means for religious communities to be welcoming and affirming of queer people.”

The anonymous QFIA member noted that SCF has a positive influence on campus and that several students are involved in both student groups.

“I have been working with several SCF members who have expressed interest in QFIA and with some members of SCF leadership who have expressed a desire to deepen the dialogue on what welcoming and affirming Christian community looks like,” the member said.

The fact remains, however, that some students may run into the same trouble  that Jackson did at SUNY Buffalo.  The controversy surrounding Jackson arose when, as part of the process of joining the leadership committee, he was asked to sign a declaration that said he agreed completely with InterVarsity’s doctrinal statement, which endorses “the unique divine inspiration, entire trustworthiness and authority of the Bible.” Jackson refused to sign because of the Bible’s implications about his sexual orientation and was thus unable to join the committee.

Small Groups Coordinator Nathaniel Lo ’13 defended the policy, noting that seeing the Bible as an authoritative document and agreeing with everything the Bible says are two separate ideas.

“There’s a difference between disagreeing with the Bible and not believing that the Bible is an authoritative document,” Lo said. “For our leaders, we want them to say that even though we have these questions, we believe that it is authoritative, regardless of what we believe.”

Lo, Satre and Wiltshire-Gordon all agree that the most important quality in an SCF leader is someone whose primary identity is Christian. While members can have other identities, they should be overshadowed by their Christian faith.

“Christianity is affected by one’s background, but your identity is still in Christ. Other things might influence that, but they don’t supersede that,” Satre said. “It’s because of this identity that we can discuss these issues.”

Hope Brinn, a member of the Swarthmore Queer Union (SQU), still finds SCF’s affiliation with InterVarsity questionable.

“I have a number of friends in SCF, and they are some of the kindest, least judgmental people I know,” Brinn said. “That said, I am troubled to hear about their affiliation with InterVarsity. I find the statement of faith less problematic than some of the stances InterVarsity supports, such as the notion that homosexuality is preventable, which goes against the findings of scientific research. While I understand that no organization is perfect, I have a difficult time understanding why SCF would want to be a part of InterVarsity. What’s the benefit?”

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