Swarthmore Christian Fellowship Allied With Controversial Christian Organization

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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