By Kayla Williamson
A worn green armchair sits in the corner surrounded by shelves of encyclopedias, devotionals and Biblical commentaries. Papers, reading glasses, three used mugs and a ping pong ball are scattered on a desk across from it.
Some consider it a safe space to talk about their sexual identity.
“I don’t know how, but some [students] have chosen to come talk to me about it,” University Chaplain Brian Kono said. “As they sit in that chair and talk, I try to never make my opinion or my belief stand above the person or my relationship with them.”
The bulk of their conversation is not about what the Bible says about sexuality, but how they are processing this with their family, what shapes their identity, why they think God made them this way.
It is a conversation full of questions and listening.
It is a conversation an estimated 9.5 million Americans have had, according to a study by the Williams Institute in 2014.
It is conversation the Spring Arbor University (SAU) administration is trying to cultivate.
Living on a school campus that prohibits homosexual behavior creates a student perceived barrier to cultivating an environment of welcome conversation and loving support. Bridging that gap while maintaining student handbook rules is a challenge administrators like Kono are trying to overcome.
[It] was very revealing to me that a student didn’t think they could come out to me or an administrator without there being some sort of response from us. – Kim Hayworth, VP for Student Success and Calling
Whether the attempts land successfully or not depends on the level of trust at an individual level.
“I hope that it’s because they trust me,” Kono said. “They know my heart. It’s not unique to me. You know those that you trust because of the good conversations you have with them.”
The role of community standards
In a meeting with students, a girl asked Vice President for Student Success and Calling Kim Hayworth if someone has ever come out to her.
Her answer: absolutely.
“She was shocked, and her shock shocked me,” Hayworth said. “That was very revealing to me that a student didn’t think they could come out to me or an administrator without there being some sort of response from us.”
For Hayworth, the challenge was realizing student perception of administration—that if someone came out to an administrator, unknown concequences await. She realized the effort she and other administrators will have to do to overcome urban legends or the label of “administration.”
Both she and Associate Vice President for Student Development and Learning Dan Vanderhill emphasize the difference between identifying as LGBTQ+ and participating in LGBTQ+ behavior.
The Student Handbook states, “All students, regardless of age, residency or status, are required to abstain from cohabitation, any involvement in premarital or extramarital sexual activity, or homosexual activity (including same-sex dating behaviors). This includes the promotion, advocacy, and defense of the aforementioned activities.”
“I hope people understand that it’s not against the rules to be LGBTQ any more than it be against the rules for someone to want to have sex outside of marriage,” Vanderhill said. “It’s against behaviors which are clearly stated in the handbook. I think they’re fair expectations even if there’s room for disagreement on them.”
I don’t believe we should interact with, like this calculus in my mind of how I should interact or approach you. To me that is very unhealthy. It’s like a false reality that we create when we affiliate with each other in that manner. – Kim Hayworth, VP for Student Success and Calling
How will we engage with the other?
A group of administrators and faculty started meeting at the beginning of fall to brainstorm how to be intentional with conversations.
It is both the school and an individual’s responsibility to create safe spaces where students can feel comfortable approaching someone, Hayworth said.
“I don’t believe we should interact with, like this calculus in my mind of how I should interact or approach you,” Hayworth said. “To me that is very unhealthy. It’s like a false reality that we create when we affiliate with each other in that manner.”
This “thinktank” as they call themselves, has met with students to tell their own stories and the stories of others. By listening to these students, they hope to create more events and opportunities to cultivate community engagement with each other. Next Monday’s chapel speaker, Adam Mearse, and the following dorm talks that night are efforts to “elevate” the conversation.
Yet there is a barrier between the LGBTQ+ community and the non-affirming. SAU is built on the Free Methodist heritage, which does not affirm the LGBTQ+ lifestyle. So how can the SAU community engage with each other without forgetting that heritage?
I see both students and staff faculty just get into this comfortable rut. When we’re in stressful day-to-day things, we just want to sit with people we know at the DC instead of meeting someone new and taking time to listen. – Anna Tabone, Career Advisor
“I don’t have a good answer because I think it can be interpreted as a very painful thing to be non-affirming, but I do believe there’s ways to be so loving and non-affirming,” Tabone said.
Kono is still wrestling with how to best advocate for the other on campus.
“This is a difficult conversation to have,” Kono said. “The weight of the tension that comes is something that I feel very greatly. It becomes a weight. Yes, it can become a negative thing, but I feel it because of the weight of importance that we, as a community called Christian, try to engage these conversations well.”
Strangers Like Me – Anna Tabone’s Story
In high school in 2002, Anna Tabone had a crush.
She and her friend Joe had agreed to go to prom together. A week before the dance, he told her he was gay.
That was the first time Tabone was challenged by what her conservative upbringing had taught her about the lifestyle of the LGBTQ+ community.
“But we went to prom together [with] one of our gay friends and one of my best friends, and it was a blast,” Tabone said. “In that sense, Joe is not an ‘other’ to me. [He’s] someone I really knew and really cared about.”
As a former Resident Director (RD), Community of Learners (COL) leader and now Career Advisor, Tabone has taught and mentored several students in the LGBTQ+ community. She has had students who came out to her as an RD, as someone who will walk with them before they are ready to come out to anyone else.
“That, I feel was maybe one of the most treasured gifts, to have a student trust you with their real self,” Tabone said. “[It] still really chokes me up.”
Engaging with the LGBTQ+ community, or anyone considered “other,” is a fundamental Christian action, not just a principle, Tabone said. They become less of a stranger if their story is told and they are in an environment where they can be themselves.
Engagement starts in small ways, Tabone said.
“I see both students and staff faculty just get into this comfortable rut,” Tabone said. “When we’re in stressful day-to-day things, we just want to sit with people we know at the DC instead of meeting someone new and taking time to listen.”