The town of Athens, Georgia—my hometown—is home to the University of Georgia, the oldest state-chartered institution in the country. It is also a town of inescapable cultural collisions. Athens is fundamentally a small Southern town, and many of the locals (especially those of older generations) are conservative and traditional in all of the ways one associates with the South: football and Mama and church on Sunday. But at the same time, the university brings a liberalizing influence. There is a thriving music scene (Think R.E.M.!), a large number of local artists, and a vibrant LGBT community. These groups intersect with the more conservative parts of Athens in interesting ways. One of the most interesting of these is within the world of Christian churches, a world widely associated (at least in the South) with conservatives. This piece examines the intersection of the local Christian community with the LGBT community, an intersection that is of particular interest following the SCOTUS decision this summer.
A drive down Lumpkin Street is dotted with campus ministries serving University of Georgia students. But students identifying as LGBT may struggle to find a place to fit in.
One ministry widely regarded as a safe space is the Presbyterian Student Center. But even at the PSC, acceptance came gradually, both amongst individuals and at an organizational level. Director of ministry Andy Cooke attributes his evolution in views to a friendship with a gay seminarian
“I could not dismiss him as an abstract,” Cooke says. “People can be nasty about abstract issues. But when face to face? When you meet this person, made in the image of God, who wants to pray with you and read scripture with you, it makes you reexamine your own prejudices.”
Cooke’s gradual change in perspective reflects that of many of the more liberal campus ministries, such as the UGA Episcopal Center and UGA Hillel. But not all ministries are as accommodating.
The Baptist Collegiate Ministry was widely cited by LGBT students as one of these less accommodating organizations. The ministry refused comment on the subject but cited allegiance to the holdings of the Georgia Baptist Convention. GBC communications director Mark Strange also refused comment, but is cited in a June 2015 document responding to the summer’s SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage saying that “as Christians, our belief is that marriage is ordained by God in the scriptures, and only between a man and a woman.”
But the BCM is not the only ministry maintaining this position. Students describe sermons given at the UGA Wesley Foundation that explicitly condemn homosexuality. Other ministries will permit LGBT students to attend, but deny them leadership positions within the community.
But LGBT Christians argue that those condemning homosexuality must re-evaluate the context in which the Bible was written. Understandings of homosexuality as a consensual relationship choice, they argue, simply did not exist in Biblical times.
The writers of the Bible, says UGA student Alex Stephens,* “did not have an idea of homosexuality in the way we do.”
“They thought of it more as an issue of greed or hedonism rather than a choice of one gender over the other. Paul (author of the book of Romans and a passage famously decrying homosexuality), would not even understand this debate, because he didn’t think about it that way.”
Despite the traction that LGBT Christians frequently meet in campus ministries, spirituality is an important part of life for many. UGA student Roel Salinas discusses his desire to marry within a church of some kind, saying that “religion has become an important part of my life and I want to continue in that in my married life.”
This desire will not be greeted favorably by all Christians. But Salinas captures the arguments of many within the LGBT community when he expresses why it should be.
“It’s upsetting that what began as such a progressive movement is now being used as a way to hold people down,” he says.
“Christianity was always very counter-culture. It was about loving the un-loveable and people who were considered ‘lower.’ It’s sad to see how it’s come to be associated with so much hate.”
*Name changed by request
© 2015 Shelby Jarrett.