Goodbye, InterVarsity

This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics.

I arrived at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2000 as a naïve, eager 17-year-old. I spent my first week on campus doing the standard litany of Welcome Week activities: getting as much free food as possible from all the student organizations hosting events, traveling everywhere in a pack of te, going to see if fraternity parties lived up to the hype. College was the best.

And then classes started, and I quickly learned that college was not the best. College was a lot of work. More importantly, college could be incredibly lonely, especially for a new freshman. I had plenty of friends on campus from high school and my home church, but they were all busy doing their own thing, taking their own classes, starting their own lives. I was meeting tons of new people, but you could only go so deep in a few weeks. I’ve never enjoyed drinking, which ruled out a significant amount of weekend activity. I remember climbing into my lofted bed on a Saturday night in September and listening to the sounds of people walking and laughing outside my window, heading south on State Street toward Sigma Chi; I pulled the covers to my chin, folded my hands on my chest, and blinked into the dark. I had never felt more alone.

The first six weeks of college were hard. But then a remarkable thing happened: I went to a dinner hosted by Chinese Christian Fellowship (now Asian InterVarsity), one of the three InterVarsity chapters on campus. I’d been attending their weekly events, trying to figure out how I fit into this mass of people with whom I had at least two things in common, but nothing had really clicked. On this particular evening, though, a junior named Kelly invited me to sit with her and a handful of other freshmen I had never seen before. We clicked. These girls became my small group and my closest friends on campus. They were the ones who turned college around for me.

CCF became my spiritual home on campus. Though I would eventually roll in a lot of different circles, CCF was the hub, the center to which I always returned. My CCF friends were the ones who consoled me after breakups and with whom I had deep conversations about meaning and purpose; the ones with whom I went karaoking, drove to Canada to get dim sum, went up north at the end of every school year; the ones with whom I sat in dazed silence in Couzens Hall on the afternoon of 9/11. And not only did I love my CCF friends, I loved what InterVarsity stood for. A week-long training on racial reconciliation opened my eyes to the reality of systemic inequality and completely transformed my understanding of race and justice. There were campus fellowships you could join if you just wanted to have a lot of fun, and others if you wanted intense emotional experiences, but IV prided itself on being the one that encouraged you to intellectually engage with the campus and the world around you. IV wanted you to think, and for someone who was just starting to see how interesting and complicated and beautiful and terrible the world is, it was a great place to be.

InterVarsity’s impact on me didn’t end after college: My old staff worker helped me get me my first job after grad school. When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, I befriended a number of IV staff, some of whom contacted me out of the blue, because of what we had in common: Our commitment to racial and social justice was deeply rooted in our Christian convictions. I had never seen Christians so deeply committed to advocacy and activism, nor have I met any since. And though I had diverged theologically from IV on a number of issues since college, I was proud that it was one of very few evangelical organizations to affirm Black Lives Matter and that many of the people at the forefront of the BLM movement in the Bay Area were IV staff. These folks were the real deal.

And then it all came to a screeching halt.

***

Last week, Time reported that InterVarsity is asking all of its employees that do not accept a traditional view of human sexuality, as outlined in a position paper, to resign. Staff members who express disagreement and do not voluntarily resign will be terminated.

I first caught wind of this news last year from a friend on staff, Susan*, who told me how IV was circling the wagons on the issue of sexuality and her days with the organization were probably numbered as a result. Around the same time, the child of another IV friend, Ginny, began the process of coming out as transgender. On top of all of the personal ramifications of this transition, Ginny had to worry about whether her willingness to accept it would cost her her job, especially in light of these circling wagons. She ended up keeping her job, at least for the time being; her higher-ups told her that they would treat her child’s transition as though it were a behavioral issue and not penalize her for it. The reprieve was short-lived, though. In July of this year, IV’s interim president and president-elect emailed supervisors to notify them about the implementation of the new policy:

intervarsity-staff-directors-email

intervarsity-staff-directors-email-2intervarsity-staff-directors-email-3

Ginny was fired in September, one of three staff workers from UC Berkeley that have resigned or been terminated since the start of the school year as the result of IV’s ultimatum. Susan, who is still with the organization, tells me that more resignation letters from Bay Area staff are coming, and her own is likely among them.

***

The shocking part of this story is not InterVarsity’s view of sexuality. Progressive as it may be in some respects, at the end of the day, IV is still an evangelical organization. The shocking part is their decision to expel all employees who disagree. Jonathan Merritt, in an excellent piece for The Atlantic, aptly summarized the situation: “It is not extreme to hold the conservative Christian position on marriage and sexuality. But it is extreme to think that those who don’t, but are otherwise committed to your mission, should be fired.”

IV’s move is especially surprising to me for several reasons. First of all, InterVarsity views itself as a missions organization with the aim of reaching students for Jesus. The decision to force out supporters of a marginalized group is completely counterproductive to that mission. Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus choosing to hang with prostitutes, tax collectors — people ostracized and viewed as sinful by the religious establishment. If Jesus were around today, I am 99% sure that he would be kicking it with LGBT folks. But instead of choosing Jesus’s MO, InterVarsity has chosen to side with the Pharisee and condemn those who fully embrace the marginalized. Not a good look for an organization trying to encourage discipleship and Christlikeness.

Second, as I alluded to earlier, InterVarsity has always prided itself on being the thinking Christian’s fellowship. Multiple perspectives are welcomed and valued (at least aspirationally, if not always in practice); this is especially evident in the organization’s emphasis on racial reconciliation. So the fact that IV would choose to fire all of its employees who do not hold a particular belief — one that is well outside the bounds of its doctrinal statement, and one that is widely contested — is astounding to me. It’s a surprisingly totalitarian move from an organization that claims to celebrate a diversity of opinion.

And then there’s the selective application of the stances in their position paper. The document also says that divorce is sinful, but divorced people are not being asked to voluntarily resign. And if they’re asking anyone who supports LGBT relationships to leave, then anyone who’s attended the wedding of a previously divorced person should also be asked the same. But no, apparently that’s all fine; it’s only disagreement on this specific part of the paper that merits termination. (The paper itself is also confounding at several points. For example, in the discussion on sexual identity, it claims that “sex is not the ‘big deal’ that our society has made it to be” — yet sexuality is the only issue that has ever warranted a staff-wide purge in IV’s 75-year history.)

And then there are all the practical debacles. InterVarsity didn’t have to reaffirm its stance on this issue, and even if they did, they didn’t need to fire everyone who disagreed. They could have required affirmation of their position from new hires while keeping their existing employees who are doing good and fruitful work. But they chose to take these steps anyway, and they’ve invited a ton of terrible PR in the process. Divestment campaigns are underway. Conversations have started about beginning a new campus organization that welcomes students of all sexual orientations. And in this day and age, what 18-year-old wants to be a part of an organization that is so hostile not just to LGBT folks — i.e., their hallmates, their friends, their siblings — but also those who affirm them? I wouldn’t. So in one swift move, IV has successfully terminated good employees, alienated donors, opened the door for competition, and put off the very students that they exist to reach. From an organizational standpoint, this decision is baffling.

***

After posting the Time article on Facebook, several of my staff friends from other parts of the country were quick to reach out. One told me that she has people on her team who disagree with IV’s stance, but none of them are being terminated or resigning. The process seems to be playing out differently in the Bay Area than elsewhere, several said. But these reassurances are empty; it does not make me feel better to know that some stealthy LGBT-affirming staff are staying on elsewhere because they or their supervisors are keeping their mouths shut. It doesn’t change the fact that the organization has chosen to take these actions, and it does nothing to help LGBT students, because these staff workers need to keep their positions quiet in order to keep their jobs. I don’t understand how this don’t-ask-don’t-tell situation is supposed to be satisfying to anyone — least of all the higher-ups, who, in their email, sound pretty keen on smoking out dissenting voices.

I’d like to think that so many more staff people in the Bay Area are leaving because they have more integrity. That may or may not be true, but a more likely reason is that the issue is just more salient here than it is elsewhere. Bay Area staff workers work daily with queer students and queer leaders. It’s easy to keep your mouth shut on this issue when you lead a chapter in the Midwest or the South, where social stigma is more likely to keep students closeted. It’s much harder to do that when you work with out students every day. The dissonance between the organization’s stance and your reality is simply too great.

One thing that my staff friends from other regions did assure me, though: No one they know is happy with the policy, even those who hold traditional stances, and no one thinks the process has been executed well. All of them lamented the wreckage and pain that this disaster has caused and will continue to cause. It’s a small consolation. And the apparent disconnect between the people on the ground and the people at the top seems to point to yet another organizational failure.

***

I was surprised by how heavy I felt in the wake of the Time story, given that I already knew about the policy and had seen some of the fallout up close. Part of it was seeing the reaction, particularly from Christians who identify as LGBT and their allies; part of it was also InterVarsity’s response, which was convoluted at best. Shortly after the article’s release, they responded by saying that the piece was wrong; they have no official policy on how their employees feel about civil marriage. Their rebuttal was almost comical, given that this was a semantic error and no one was upset about the organization’s stance on civil marriage equality. The outrage was about the organization’s actual stance — that all same-sex relationships are immoral, and anyone who disagrees needs to leave — which the article accurately described and is far more concerning. IV went on to say that they are taking their stance in an effort to uphold the dignity of all people, which was also hilarious, because their position is a clear affront to the dignity of LGBT people, and this seems apparent to everyone but them.

Things didn’t get really galling, though, until the end of the response: “Within InterVarsity and elsewhere, there are LGBTQI people who agree with this theology, at great personal cost.” I’m still shocked by how tone-deaf this line is, because the great personal cost borne by these LGBTQI people is the result of the message that InterVarsity is trumpeting. These folks have given up the hope of ever having the kind of intimate companionship to which their heterosexual peers are entitled — because organizations like IV demand this as a condition of acceptance. And that’s just the beginning: Some are filled with anxiety that someone might find out about their sexuality, that they will be rejected by their loved ones, or that God will condemn them to hell. Some are depressed because they think they have to be alone forever. Some have been subjected to the abuse of so-called “reparative” therapy, which is opposed by every major medical and mental health association in the country. Some contemplate suicide because they believe that they’re defective — and far too many have followed through. So much of the suffering that LGBT people endure is caused by Christians — even well-meaning ones — who tell them that something is wrong with them, that they are less than, that they are not entitled to the full range of human experiences. So by invoking this suffering in their response, it felt like IV was attempting to garner sympathy for itself by pointing to the pain of the people whom they are oppressing. And that was appalling.

And then, perhaps limited by the bounds of Twitter or perhaps seeing that they had nowhere to go with this line of thinking, the response ended with “We are learning together.” This line feels especially rich in light of the aforementioned email sent to staff, in which IV leadership states, in no uncertain terms, that they will not budge on this issue. Also, it’s hard to believe that you’re interested in learning when you’ve forced all dissent either out of the organization or underground. As Merritt notes, “You cannot engage a conversation when you’re frightening or even firing your partners in that conversation.” So much for learning, then.

The following day, in a longer response, InterVarsity reiterated that LGBT people are welcome in the fellowship — but I have a hard time imagining why an LGBT person would want to be a part of it. Judging from its position paper, IV seems to recognize that sexual orientation isn’t a choice, which is what science and the experiences of the overwhelming majority of LGBT people tell us. So essentially, IV maintains that God would create you a certain way and then deny you the right to the most intimate and meaningful relationship a human being can have. That is completely at odds with my understanding of God as 1. entirely good and entirely loving and 2. an inherently relational God (three-in-one, heyo) who created people in God’s image as relational beings who are fully human only in the context of relationships. The God that IV implicitly describes is not a God that I would be interested in if I were an 18-year-old gay college student, nor one that interests me as a 33-year-old heterosexual adult.

***

Thus, my relationship with InterVarsity is coming to a sad end. I doubt the organization will feel my absence, but for me, this means saying goodbye to a place that’s influenced so many aspects of my life. I find it astounding and heartbreaking that IV is choosing not only to send such a hostile message to a group of people who are already at the receiving end of so much hostility, but also to cut off those who embrace them fully. And I’m just an ally; I can only imagine what this might feel like if I identified as LGBT.

Goodbye, InterVarsity. You were a wonderful home to a lonely freshman 16 years ago. I’m sorry that you’re choosing not to be for so many others.

Are you an InterVarsity alum who’s unhappy about the purge?  You can sign a petition here.

* Name has been changed to protect their identity.

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