Reformation of Swarthmore Progressive Christians

On Jan. 23, the Swarthmore Progressive Christians assembled for the first time in many months to provide an inclusive space where individuals of all sexualities and Christian denominations could talk about Christianity and meet together.

According to Joyce Tompkins, director of religious and spiritual life, the renewed interest in SPC came after Swarthmore Voices published the article “Swarthmore Christian Fellowship Has a Sexuality Problem” which detailed the group’s policies prohibiting openly queer people from being in leadership positions.

SCF’s leadership policies apply to behavior and beliefs, rather than identity itself,” the Voices article stated. “In SCF’s eyes, that means you must resist your same-sex attractions, rather than celebrate them, because these desires are tempting you towards sin.”

After the Voices exposé, many vocalized discontent for the lack of progressive Christian groups on campus.

“I think it’s because of the [Swarthmore Voices] article coming out that there was a sudden interest in reviving the group, “ Tompkins said. “After the article, a bunch of people came to me [about the reformation of SPC].”

While SPC was founded in 1982, it recently morphed into what is now known as Swatties and Service, a faith-based service group.

Jeremy Seitz-Brown ’18, a past and current member of SPC, believes that the renewed interest will help sustain the club.

“SPC has historically ebbed and flowed according to students’ needs,” Seitz-Brown said. “Now, I think that we’ll have new energy and that we can exist as a more diverse group that is more queer- and trans-affirming.”

At SPC’s first meeting on Jan. 23, many people shared their own past experiences with Christianity and why they felt the need for an inclusive space. Seitz-Brown described his own story about growing up in a progressive Lutheran household in a conservative area.

“The congregation was always conservative, so I always felt that I could not be open about what I cared about, like social justice,” Seitz-Brown. “I’m excited to have a space where people can talk about the challenges they’re feeling.”

Isaku Shao ’19 told of her experience growing up as the child of an Evangelical Lutheran pastor.

“Religion has been a pretty regular part of my life but when I came to Swarthmore, I abandoned church,” Shao said. “During sophomore year, I was trying to figure out my faith. I started looking into Christian groups.”

After discovering SCF, Shao was hesitant to attend because of its exclusionary policies.

“I looked into SCF and heard rumors that they were more conservative and were not really gay or queer friendly.” Shao said, “I’m a trans, bisexual girl, and that’s not somewhere I really want to go if I’m not welcome.”

While SPC’s first meeting focused on future goals and plans for the group, some discussed the potential for engaging in a conversation with SCF.

“I’m open to conversation with SCF, but I don’t think that’s the purpose of the group and the purpose is providing a safe space for everyone,” Seitz-Brown said.

Shao, however, was not interested in SPC maintaining communication with SCF.

“I don’t think SCF’s policies are ethical,” Shao said. “I read the Voices article and was honestly furious. I have very strong convictions about what Christianity is. I think that Christianity at its heart is an accepting and liberating movement.”

T. J. Thomas ’21, another an attendant of the meeting, who was raised Christian and attended a Jesuit Catholic all-male high school, shared that his church echoed similar sentiments — that Christianity is a religion that prioritizes the idea of love for one another.

“At my church, we were always taught that above all we should love one another. That’s been the message of my faith,” Thomas said.

Thomas also sees the renewal of the club as a way to change perceptions of Christianity on Swarthmore’s campus.

“I think that there are a lot of people who struggle with their faith or see it being portrayed in the media as radical and right-wing conservative, but people should know that there are true progressive liberal Christians,” Thomas said.

Shao shared similar views on how conservative views of Christianity have been portrayed as mainstream.

“When you go into the ministry, they give you a canonized interpretation of the [Bible], and it’s what the institutions have said is the right way to interpret the [Bible] even though that may not be true given historical context,” Shao said. “I think throughout Christianity’s history, which is a history haunted by violence and oppression, it’s also a history punctuated by intense commitment to liberation, to uplifting the poor and the marginalized, and to equality and viewing all those under God as equal.”

Attendants of the meeting discussed various ideas on what the group would become and what it would do. Some played with ideas that the group would provide group worship while others discussed the need for a conversation, and later, more faith-based service.

Though no consensus was reached, Tompkins is hopeful that with the resources she can provide — SPC still has funding allocated to it by the College — the group will come to an agreement on how the club will progress.

“I feel like what I can do is provide a space, budget support, my own background in Scripture, and ideas so I can help lead the group,” Tompkins said. “But I want the group to be what [the students] want it to be.”

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