January 13, 2013

Annual 'Equality Rides’Promote Gay Rights at Christian Colleges

Photographs courtesy of Soulforce

A group of Soulforce volunteers and allies unwind on the Equality Ride bus after a visit to North Central University, in Minneapolis.

Soulforce, a social-justice charity in Abilene, Tex., takes the message of gay acceptance into places that are unlikely to want to hear it: the campuses of Christian colleges and universities, where students who come out of the closet can lose their scholarships, be expelled, or even be forced into controversial “reparative” therapies designed to end same-sex desires.

The charity’s annual Equality Rides, now in their seventh year, feature a brightly painted bus and up to 35 young gay-rights activists—each extensively trained in the techniques of nonviolent confrontation—who spend around eight weeks calling on Christian colleges across the country.

“We come to their campuses to enter into a dialogue about discriminatory policies and to engage in actual Bible study with them around these issues,” says Soulforce’s executive director, the Rev. Cindi Love.

Well before the bus rolls, the nonprofit sends letters to the leaders of each college asking permission to visit. About half the time its requests are granted. And even when they are not, the Equality Riders go anyway. Early on, they were often confronted at campus entrances by as many as 100 police officers, who would arrest the volunteers if they set foot on college grounds. Such hostile encounters are lessening, Ms. Love says, as college leaders seek to avoid the media attention such arrests can bring.

Soulforce’s annual budget is $500,000. The Equality Rides account for roughly $300,000 of that total and are paid for mostly by grants from the Arcus, David Bohnett, and Collingwood foundations, along with other philanthropies. Donations from individuals provide the rest of the group’s income.

Over the years, Equality Rides volunteers have visited more than 100 institutions and spoken with more than 10,000 students. In that time, 14 Christian colleges have dropped some of their discriminatory polices toward gays and helped spur the creation of about 40 “safe haven” groups—on- or off-campus organizations for gay students who feel intimidated.

“People may never agree on whether they think someone’s sexual orientation is a choice or whether people of the same sex should marry or not marry,” Ms. Love says. “But what can happen is that we are able to all live together.”