Archive | August, 2012

Toward a Nuanced End to Campus Religious Groups Harming the LGBTQQIA Community

22 Aug

What is our role as campus ministers in the meantime while society slowly begins to accept that sexual orientation is not a choice, and discrimination against those who identify as same-gender loving people will no longer be a legitimate opinion? This is a question that I encountered over several conversations at the last Global Chaplains Conference this summer in New Haven, Connecticut. I realize the answer to this question may depend on what position you hold on your campus, whether you are employed by the institution, by a congregation, or by a separate ministry that may or may not be affiliated with a campus office. For what it’s worth, I will explore the question from my situation as an ecumenical ministry organization that is affiliated with Dean of Students office through the Religious Workers’ Association at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

We find ourselves in this luminal period of transition where a growing number of religious communities are coming to recognize that someone who identifies as LGBTQQI could not choose to be straight no matter how much prayer or how many exorcisms you choose to perform. Again, <a href=””&gt; psychological and psychiatric associations</a>  with scientific integrity warn that treating sexual orientation as a choice can be emotionally and psychologically harmful. We are nearing a time when educational institutions will have to take this potential harm seriously. Not if, but when institutions in general acknowledge the harm done, they will have to take steps to protect their institutions from potential harm just as they protect students from hazing or even assault. Counseling services and health centers on campuses will need to be there to help sift through designations around what exactly constitutes the kind of harm that might incur action from the institution. There will only be certain actions that a university can take depending on the person(s) involved or the potential entities they represent.

I believe our role as chaplains and campus ministers will be to help the administration relate to the religious groups that are still holding on to what they still believe to be a legitimate religious opinion or interpretation. We will have to balance on a very difficult line and honor the complex dance that will be the reality until more of society rejects the interpretation of homosexuality to be sin as an illegitimate opinion based on the harm this “opinion” causes.

I am especially cognizant of the ongoing situation at Vanderbilt where Rev. Mark Forrester was just hired as  campus chaplain Mark and I engaged in a very insightful conversation over a meal at the Global Chaplains Conference. We both agreed that an institution would do a disservice to religious life if all anti-gay organizations were stripped of their privileges drastically and immediately. On my campus, if our Religious Workers Association were to exclude other organizations for messages harmful to the LGBTQQIA community, we would go from four members to two members and become a pretty worthless association quite unable to influence change in the religious life of UIC (which is much greater than our organization at the moment anyway).

The situation seems to call for a more nuanced approach that includes a challenge to harm, but also a commitment to relationship and conversation. I’ll end this post with some important pieces to include in any attempt at movement in this direction. Some of them I have borrowed from  The Fairness Project and their booklet: When You’re Having a Religious Argument.

–        Sexual orientation is not a choice, and even a “love the sinner hate the sin” approach is emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually harmful.

–        We are dealing with issues that have deep emotional ties that reach into areas like community acceptance, identity as a human being, identity with cultural and ethnic pasts, and perceived eternal consequences.

–        The position of both sides has been restated in debates over and over for many years already.

–        Have full knowledge of the claims religions have made in the past, that religious people cling to, that historians and theologians have found to be inaccurate.

–        You cannot reason someone out of a place they did not reason themselves into.

–        Official status as a campus organization, access to campus meeting spaces, access to campus student organization funds are not a right; they are a PRIVILEGE.

–        Relationships, love, compassion, and the safety of students is more important that having your way absolutely and at this immediate moment. Keep your engagement pastoral.

–        Perhaps to balance the previous point:  “Justice delayed is justice denied.” – Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.


Rev. Kurt Esslinger is Director and Campus Minister of Agape House Christian Ministry on the campus of the University of Illinois in Chicago. He is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., and Agape House was his first call in the fall of 2009. Agape is an ecumenical campus ministry that began in the 60′s when UIC resided at Navy Pier in Chicago. He received his M. Div. at McCormick Theological Seminary and his BA in Classics at Austin College in Sherman, TX. During seminary, he spent one year studying at Hanshin Univeristy in Seoul, Korea. Before seminary, he spent one year as a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer in Burnley, England.