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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

December 15, 2018   |   Ithaca, NY

News

LGBTQ students say IC’s Protestant Community is exclusive

It was the fall of 2014 when then-senior Jarvis Lu walked into Muller Chapel on Ithaca College’s campus one night. He was struggling with his mental health and wanted help from the Protestant Community at Ithaca College, an organization he was once a part of. He walked up to a whiteboard outside of the Protestant chaplain’s office. He wrote, “Is this a safe space?” and walked out of the chapel.

His concern would go unanswered — a few days later, he came back to the chapel to find that the question had been erased. No one in the community addressed it publicly in the following weeks, including the Rev. James Touchton, Protestant chaplain at the college, after it was written on the whiteboard. But to Lu, the silence itself was an answer to his inquiry.

Lu and other students at the college have shared that they have felt excluded or ostracized from the Protestant Community, also known as the PC, for being part of the LGBTQ community. Others have come forward to detail that the religious organization at the college has not been accepting of varying ideologies and is exclusionary.

Touchton acknowledges that problems of exclusion or judgement have persisted in the PC. However, he said the PC is taking steps to change the culture to make space for varying beliefs.

The chaplains at the college and the religious organizations they represent are all independent. This means that while they receive funding from the college, the chaplains are not employed by the college, but by the organization for which they work. This has allowed for a lack of communication and accountability between the religious organizations and the college, which the administration is attempting to address with a newly created interfaith leader position, Rosanna Ferro, vice president of the Division of Student Affairs and Campus Life, said.

Homosexuality has been a contested subject among Christians — both Protestant and Catholic — for decades. There are references in the Bible to same-sex sexual behavior, all of which are negative, which has led to the belief among some Christians that homosexuality is a sin. However, other Christians believe that interpreting homosexuality as a sin is produced by culturally biases rather than scripture. As of June 2017, about 68 percent of white mainline Protestants and 67 percent of Catholics viewed same-sex marriage positively. However, only 35 percent of white evangelicals — a denomination that falls under Protestantism — support same-sex marriage, all according to the Pew Research Center. All of these statistics show a substantial rise in support of gay marriage compared to a decade ago. However, three of the largest Protestant churches — the Southern Baptist Convention, The United Methodist Church, and American Baptist Churches USAview homosexual behavior as sinful.

As views are changing, the Ithaca College Protestant Community, as well as many other religious communities across the country, is left to deal with a difficult question to answer: Can the religious beliefs of Christians who view homosexuality as a sin be respected while also respecting the identities of Christians who are gay?

Lu came out to his friends at the college at the beginning of his senior year. He knew it would be difficult — many of his closest friends were PC members. Lu said he remembered a male student in the PC once talking about his personal struggle with homosexuality and how he was “fighting the sin.” Lu said the idea that you can be gay but remain celibate was viewed positively and talked about openly by many members in the PC. This is a sentiment taught in many Protestant churches across the country.

When he told his PC friends that he was gay, Lu did so by sending them his “comingout letter” over Facebook Messenger. Some responded positively, but many did not respond at all.

“A community of people that I spent the majority of my college career engaging with didn’t want anything to do with me whatsoever,” Lu said.

He said he felt ostracized from the community after his friends had disregarded his sexual identity. One friend of his reacted to the news by comparing Lu’s sexual identity to her father’s previous adulterous transgressions, essentially equating his sexual identity to sin.

Lu said he stopped going to community events and worship services, which is known as Evensong in the PC. He struggled with depression during this time because, on top of his other stresses, he was not accepted by his friends after coming out as gay. Because of this, Lu said he failed most of his classes his senior year and was not able to graduate.

Touchton said he does remember finding the question “Is this a safe space?” written on the whiteboard outside his office in 2014. He said the question confused him since he thought he had placed a safe space sign outside of his office, but he speculated that someone had taken it or it had fallen down. He never addressed the question formally but did make a point to hang up more safe space signs outside his office.

Rev. James Touchton, Protestant chaplain at the college, speaks at a service held in Muller Chapel. Elias Olsen/The Ithacan

Junior Vanessa Zimmerman had an experience similar to Lu’s. During her freshman and sophomore years being involved with the PC, the idea that being gay was a sin was frequently discussed by upperclassmen and other peers. At the end of her sophomore year, Zimmerman was elected to the position of chair for the PC student-led council beginning her junior year. However, she was struggling with the idea because during this time, she realized she was gay. For a while, she said, she tried to suppress her identity to be comfortable with the idea of taking on the job.

“I started coming out to my closest friends,” Zimmerman said. “And so I decided to step down from the chair position right before school started. I really didn’t want to be the face of this organization when I knew deep down that it wasn’t really inclusive.”

Zimmerman said she planned to stay involved with the PC, which meant attending sermons and continuing her position as a student worker in the chapel.

At the beginning of Fall 2017, Zimmerman posted on Facebook that she was dating junior Annalise Haldeman, who was also a member of the PC. She said she received a flood of messages from people connected with the PC, most of them negatively reacting to her relationship.

“They thought … I was acting out of lustfulness and sin and that I was portraying this negative image on the entirety of the community,” she said.

Haldeman said she also felt mistreated by the PC. When discussing certain topics about religion with other PC members, Haldeman said, she wanted to create a dialogue about established Christian beliefs. Once, when having a discussion with another PC member, she brought up the harmful effects global missionaries can sometimes have on communities. This offended the student, and when word spread that Haldeman was challenging Christian ideals, she felt labeled as a heretic.

Zimmerman said she felt judged by some PC members after going public with her relationship. When she would attend Evensong, people would not talk to her. But she knew she was being talked about because she received messages from alumni — whom she has never met — telling her they were concerned with her salvation because she was in a gay relationship.

During this time, Zimmerman was still working at the chapel. She said she always felt anxious showing up for work but needed the money, so she decided to keep the job. When she began distancing herself from the community, Zimmerman said, Touchton suggested that she finish up the semester in her position and not return to the job so someone more involved in the PC could fill the position. Touchton denied Zimmerman’s account. He said Zimmerman was not showing up for work or communicating consistently in her position, which is why he suggested that the chapel Administrative Assistant Melinda Butler, who declined to comment for the story, ask her about what was going on. Zimmerman denies that she did not show up to work or communicate properly.

Zimmerman was still working at the chapel until one night in November, when Chris Wold, who no longer attends the college but is still involved in the PC, confronted her.

“He said things like, ‘Well, at least you aren’t chair of the community because I wouldn’t want you as chair knowing what I know now,’” she said, which came across to her as a clear reference to her being gay.

Wold said he was not criticizing Zimmerman for being in a gay relationship. Wold said he and Zimmerman were friends and that he initiated the conversation out of concern for her well-being, which he said she may have misconstrued.

After the incident, Zimmerman said she left the chapel upset and quit her job. She said she thinks the reason the student decided to verbally attack her is a document of quotes she collected at the beginning of Fall 2017, detailing the issues of exclusion other students had been feeling with the PC. Wold said he did not know Zimmerman was involved in organizing the document when he confronted her.

Zimmerman had met with seniors Alena Chekanov and Claudia Hart to try and address some of the exclusionary behavior they all said they saw being portrayed in the PC. Chekanov said that when they started reaching out to people to contribute, they were overwhelmed with responses. She said around 50 people — composed of current and past PC members and alumni — contributed anonymous feedback. Touchton said there are currently approximately 60 active PC members.

The list of quotes was presented to the PC council in November, a few weeks before the student verbally assaulted Zimmerman, by Chekanov and Hart.

The document included many different student reactions, all anonymous, to issues they saw perpetuated in the PC:

“As a community, it needs to be less judgemental and more accepting of others and their opinions.”

“There is a lot of policing that goes on in the PC. The shame is palpable when you walk into a event or small group. It is not a community that is here to support, but one that is instead here to police what people do.

“Only well-off, conservative Caucasian members of the PC are being represented on the board.”

“I believe James is unfit to be Chaplain of the Protestant Community.”

Other students have brought up concerns that they did not feel culturally represented in the PC. Freshman Giselle Aragon said she was often the only person of color in the room when attending PC services, which made her feel uncomfortable enough that she did not return to the PC. Lu said he also felt uncomfortable as one of the only Asian-American men in the PC. Touchton said there are three people of color represented on the PC Board of Directors out of 15 total members.

The PC leadership is split into two groups. There is the general student council, which is divided into four committees, each governed by a student chair. The student chairs make up the executive council and are elected to their positions by previous chair members. There is also a Board of Directors that is made up of faculty, staff, students and community members who oversee the general workings of the PC. New board members are chosen through a nominating committee made up of the board chair, the chaplain, three other current board members and a student, according to the PC constitution. The board hires the chaplain and is independent of the college.

Chekanov and Hart said they wanted to present the quotes at the council meeting to ensure the council heard the concerns of other PC members. Hart said many of the students approached her after hearing the quotes and thanked her for the feedback. But Chekanov said that when she was presenting the quotes during the meeting, Touchton became frustrated and asked her if this was the best time to talk about these issues. Chekanov asked when would be a better time to discuss the document, and Touchton let her continue.

Touchton said he thought bringing up the document of quotes during that council meeting took away discussion time from other items on the agenda. He said he wanted to take the quotes seriously by addressing them during another meeting, which he said was perceived by some as him dismissing the concerns.

Chekanov and Hart said that they could have brought the document they compiled to Touchton directly but that they thought the broader council also needed to hear about the concerns people in the community had.

“It would have been softened,” Chekanov said. “We needed to take responsibility for how the community hurt people. Why do we get to hear the softened end of it when people have been broken?”

Touchton said he has been grappling with how to unify the PC membership over its conflicting religious ideologies for almost a decade. He said that because Protestants come from all different types of denominations, the PC has always had a diverse membership with both conservative and liberal interpretations of Christianity. He said his goal is to find a way to help students with different ideas coexist with one another.

“We strive to be a welcoming home for all students identifying as Protestant,” Touchton said. “Something I have said often in my role as chaplain is, ‘I care more about how you believe than what you believe.’ And I say that because I don’t think it’s my role to force my particular beliefs on you. I don’t think its my role to get people to change their beliefs.

Other students said the PC has provided positive experiences, and has served as a religious haven, for them. Junior Chris Biehn said he admires that the PC is faithfully diverse and that all members of different denominations are welcomed and can coexist in their faith and love for God.

“If you had asked the hundreds of students who have gone through this community throughout the years, the vast majority would say they have been blessed by the protestant community,” Biehn said. “And the vast majority would say that God is at work here.”

Alisa Babcock ’15, also wrote in a statement she thoroughly enjoyed her time as a member of the PC and that it welcomes difference and encourages growth.

“The ICPC in its mission [is] to be a welcoming, inclusive, and loving community, dedicated to unity, humble discussion, and growth,” Babcock wrote.

The divide which had festered in the PC, and how to resolve it, was discussed frequently among its membership following the presentation of the quotes. Junior Morgan Brunson is a member of the PC but is also on its Board of Directors. She said she was concerned that Zimmerman and Haldeman specifically may have been discriminated against by the PC. She decided to create a witness affidavit, in case legal action was taken, which has been legally notarized and documents some behavior that she found questionable.

During one meeting that occurred in December 2017, Brunson said she witnessed a conversation led by Touchton about the issues Zimmerman was having concerning the PC, and specifically her relationship with Haldeman. At one point, Brunson wrote down the following quote from board member Alison Matusz: “I have met with Vanessa a few times and I believe that she knows the Lord in her heart. I do not know Annalise and do not believe this relationship is a good thing, nor do I like where this relationship is going. I feel that Vanessa was taken to a place she would not have gone on her own.” Brunson said she felt that the sentiment had homophobic undertones and that discussing Zimmerman’s private relationship among the board members was inappropriate.

Touchton said ministry often involves becoming very close with students, and bringing up their relationship in the meeting was a way for the board to discuss the well-being of the students. However, talking about Zimmerman and Haldeman in this way, he said, was a mistake.

“Ministry is inherently relational,” Touchton said. “And so when we’re talking about agendas and the life of the community … because it’s in a context of ministry, that is going to take a very personal form.”

Matusz said her comment about Zimmerman came from a place of love and concern for her well-being and that she was not judging her relationship because it was homosexual.

The phrase “hate the sin, but love the sinner,” is a phrase often used by those with conservative beliefs about homosexuality to still accept other gay Christians who are thought of as “sinning.” Haldeman said she has heard other PC members use this phrase. Touchton said he does not use it because not everyone agrees on what sin is in Christianity.

Mark Johnston is the executive director of the Open and Affirming Ministry Program for the Disciples of LGBTQ+ Alliance, an organization that works to transform Christian churches into welcoming spaces for people of all gender expressions and sexualities. Johnston said the idea among Christians that they can love LGBTQ people and call their identity a sin is still grounded in hate.

“[The phrase] ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ is an impossibility because being who you are is not a sin,” Johnston said.

He said that Christians need to grow beyond this type of thinking, which many are. Johnston said many churches have signed on with his organization to become welcoming spaces for LGBTQ people. A 2014 study conducted by researchers from Duke University and the University of Chicago, found that more churches have become welcoming to openly gay couples.

Monika Juodisius ’17 frequented the PC throughout most of her academic career at the college. She identifies as queer and said she would often hear similar denigratory thoughts being shared about homosexuality. The year before she graduated, she decided to hold two discussion sessions titled “Faith and Sexuality,” where PC members discussed the discrimination and challenges that LGBTQ individuals had experienced within Christian communities and what could be done to reconcile these experiences.

“It was hard because I think the people who were expressing [homophobic] viewpoints … were not at the discussion groups,” Juodisius said. “So they weren’t there to hear their viewpoints challenged.”

Juodisius said Touchton encouraged her to hold the discussion groups. However, she said she has never experienced Touchton defending the identity of LGBTQ students who were being called sinners by their peers, which she said she was hurt by.

Touchton and many board members have said that they want the PC to be an inclusive community. When community board member Kate Hubbs found out about the document of quotes and the way students felt about the PC, she said she was shocked.

“I never realized that people felt like that, and it made me sad,” Hubbs said. “It made me think that we have to work on things.”

Alice Meilman, who is on the PC Board of Directors and is a social worker in the Center for Counseling, Health and Wellness, said that she also felt deeply hurt that students felt marginalized and excluded and that she wants to work to repair these broken relationships. Many members of the board echoed her sentiment and expressed that they wished students had approached leadership sooner to address the problems.

However, Haldeman said she went to Touchton over a year ago and recommended ideas to promote more inclusivity in the PC, like holding panel discussions on contested topics among Christians to promote better understanding. She says she questions why action is being taken now, and Touchton said that change takes time.

Junior Amanda Quach, senior Hannah Blanchette and senior Esther Witherell, who are all chairs on the PC council, did not wish to comment on these issues. Many other PC members also did not wish to comment. Senior Annabelle Hinkel, chair of the worship committee on the PC council, described the grievances expressed in the document of quotes as “heartbreaking” and said that the council is currently discussing how to better its mission statement and come up with new ways to become more inclusive.

Touchton said there are ways in which the PC is actively addressing the concerns, starting with reevaluating its mission statement. As of right now, it starts with the statement, “We are a diverse community.” Touchton said he hopes to amend it to say, “We strive to always be a diverse community,” given that it may not always be a reality, but he hopes it will express a commitment to diversity and inclusion.

In an effort to promote change, an evensong was held to tackle how to have respectful and constructive dialogues when discussing differences in opinion. A reading group has been created to discuss a book about the history of racism in America. A panel discussion was held to debate the legalization of marijuana, all within the last two months, Touchton confirmed.

Ferro and Associate Provost Roger Richardson have also been working on developing an interfaith leader position for the college. The position would oversee the workings of the chapel, hopefully to address problems like those that occurred in the PC, and serve as a resource for students.

Ferro said because the PC is independent of the college, there can be a loss of communication and accountability between the college and the chaplains. She said she thinks the interfaith position, and a formally endorsed working agreement between the chaplains and the college that is currently being drafted, can help bridge this divide. She said she also hopes that the new position and agreement will help students with different beliefs learn to coexist and respect each other in a religious environment.

However, she said, these policies do not heal the pain that has been felt by students who were hurt through their experiences in the PC.

“It’s really unfortunate that students have been impacted in the ways that they’ve been sharing with us,” Ferro said. “My commitment is moving forward and to make sure that we address anything that comes to us, to take it seriously and that we don’t sit on it.”

Zimmerman and Haldeman said they are hesitant to trust that the administration’s promised actions will create change. Both want the removal of Touchton as chaplain. 

“I think I’m disappointed in the sense that I think I know that if I don’t push them, they’re going to do just enough, what is sufficient and not what is maybe necessary to truly grow,” Haldeman said. “Because they don’t want to shake the boat too much. They want to do it just enough.”

Grace Elletson can be reached at gelletson@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @graceelletson