Laura (Walker) Mitchell
I didn't want to do it -- go back to Cedarville, that is. I gave myself plenty of excuses to avoid going, but none of them held up to the underlying issue. I had to be there when Soulforce visited Cedarville's campus, because maybe, just maybe my being there would make a difference. Little did I know at that decision making time, the greatest difference would be, in me. Thanks to my partner Kim's patience, and my daughter knowing me all too well, I finally made the right decision. I was going back to Cedarville as an openly gay woman. Arriving on campus was slightly unnerving, not to mention confusing. Everything had changed since I was there last. The entire campus had re-oriented to the north and huge structures had been built to accommodate the university sized population. I was amazed, a bit lost, and feeling quite jealous...all the girls were wearing pants! Oh how things had changed.
Kim and I arrived in time to attend chapel and did so with over 3,000 students and faculty. My nerves weren't quite ready to untangle yet, so I sat there, rigidly listening to the uplifting voices singing and the testimonial of the guest speaker. I needed to get grounded and the best way was to get out and walk the campus a bit. Memories swept over me like the winds which always blew across Cedarville. Our first stop was to Printy Hall were I had dormed my sophomore and senior years. It's amazing how so much has changed, yet so little. Unit doors propped open, I entered into my old units and simultaneously stepped back in time. Maybe the girls living there had changed, but it felt as if I could've been there myself: Furniture seemingly the same, the doors adorned as we had those many years ago, and one of the residents sleeping in and cutting chapel like some other people I knew. The place even smelled the same.
I had one other place I had to go before meeting up with some of the Soulforce Equality Riders for lunch. The H&R Dairy Bar. Despite its being renamed "Mom and Dad's", it felt exactly the same. I swear the same creaky spring door was at its entrance. Ordering one of my basic food groups from back in the day, a chocolate milk shake, I shared the delightful sweet with my partner Kim. Sometimes it's the ridiculously small things that are most profound. There I was in my old haunt, since there was absolutely no other place to go unless you had a car, and I didn't. I sat with my partner -- you know, of the same gender -- and enjoyed a favorite from the past.
Lunch at Chuck's Cafeteria was a grand spread, and the Cedarville staff generously treated us. The facility was different, dining no longer in the renovated gymnasium of the AC, yet customs remained the same. Students scanned their way in and dashed to save a seat by tipping the chairs, a ritual all of us had used at one time or another. Kim and I had the good fortune of dining with Brandy Daniels, the Soulforce Cedarville organizer, Luke, the student government president, and Debbie Stephens, a member of the CU board of trustees. Our conversations were curtailed only because of the voluminous chatter of the setting. Kim and I spent most of our lunch talking with Debbie about Soulforce's founder, Mel White, and on into my Cedarville experience.
I'll be honest, I initially told those asking that I did not "struggle" with being gay while at Cedarville. I even told Dr. Dolph, my professor of Abnormal Psychology then, who still teaches the class today, I didn't remember the topic of being gay ever being talked about. I then confessed I cut his class a lot since it was in the Spring quarter...sunning in the Maddox courtyard could be considered a requirement of attendance of sorts. It wasn't until later that night, reflecting on the day and reviewing my memories that I realized I had been struggling. My emotions, thoughts, feelings all conflicting with my wanting to live a good Christian life. I suppressed that conflict, not easily mind you. I remember the flashes of anger, jealousy, and confusion within me, and turned my energies, as best I could, into doing what I thought was right and expected of me.
The conversation over lunch about acceptance, the need to stop the spiritual violence so often perpetuated in the name of Christ towards the LGBT was an open and honest one. I knew the Spirit was with us as Debbie, Kim and I shared our personal stories. I felt my own heart begin to open, putting away my anxiety and fears of returning to Cedarville. Healing began, and I think, understanding was built by all involved.
Kim and I attended other presentations by Soulforce and the scheduled forums with Cedarville professors. I listened, really listened to what everyone was saying. It was not a debate or argument over the Bible, rather both sides used the Bible to identify the need for Christ's grace, love, tolerant acceptance, and no one is to judge the spiritual path of another. My healing continued. Oh sure, I could dwell on the things said that I didn't agree with, we all know where we stand differently, but I choose not to. I listened to David Olsen speak during the Q&A following the forum and to the others making statements or asking questions. I was moved and given the strength to address those present. I will be very honest, I was afraid, had nothing prepared, and unfortunately I cannot recall most of what I said thanks to nerves causing my body to tremble. I do know that I was deeply touched and proud. I was proud of Cedarville's administration, faculty, and students to step beyond their comfort level, engage openly in discussion, the hospitality given, and the willingness to be most Christ-like by demonstrating love without conditions. This day with Soulforce and a few gay alumni being on campus was risky for our hosts, and not wanted by some, yet it happened.
I barely remember being at the microphone and walking back to my seat. My thoughts then were, "Please don't pass out," because I was shaking so badly. The first forum ended with my statements and I was amazed and became even prouder by those who made a point to speak with me further. Students and professors alike. It gave me such hope and continues to do so.
The day I attempted to avoid and not be a part, became one I'll never forget. I didn't know what to expect going in, only minimally admitting my own fears riddled with anxiety. Being on campus that beautiful Thursday in April was redemptive. I know it was for me, and I think it was for others. I believe Jesus was proud of us all that day.