What an alum to do when their alma mater is wrong?: Thoughts on Columbia Theological Seminary’s housing policy

What’s an alum to do when the alma mater they love does the wrong thing?

I’ve been asking myself that for the last few days, because I wholeheartedly believe that my seminary, a school I love and treasure, has sided against justice and God’s love, and for fear and inequality.

I am a two-time alum of Columbia Theological Seminary, one of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s ten seminaries which is located just outside of Atlanta. When I graduated from seminary eleven years ago the Presbyterian Church was still debating the role of gay and lesbian ministers. It hasn’t been until the last year that the door has been opened in some places (though not all) to openly gay and lesbian, non-celibate, clergy. The church is still debating the legitimacy of same-sex marriages, even as partnered clergy are now serving openly. The inclusion of LGBT people is far from full or perfect, but the Presbyterian Church has come a long way in the past decade.

As a student I remember our LGBT group being denied the use of the chapel for a National Coming Out Day Service. We were told that people just weren’t ready for it, and that there were fears that donations would be withheld. I was incredibly saddened by the administration’s decision. But when the service did take place, at a professor’s house instead, the room was packed with supportive students and faculty. (Eventually the annual service was allowed in the chapel.) That night, and with each passing year, we sensed that things were changing, and that justice would not be denied.

Which is why I was surprised to find that my seminary has just reaffirmed its denial of equal housing for same-sex couples. In a letter dated April 20th, Columbia’s president wrote that at the present time committed same-sex couples will not be allowed to live in “married housing” on campus.

The timing left me particularly dumbstruck. Earlier in the day I had received my latest issue of Columbia Seminary’s alumni magazine. I was pleasantly surprised to find an announcement of my engagement to my fiancee, Heidi. I then came home to this letter, posted by a classmate. I was struck by the irony of the fact that my engagement was recognized by alma mater, but that my marriage would not be deemed suitable enough to warrant my partner and I on-campus housing were I still a student.

It’s a bit of a mixed message, especially coming from a school whose faculty always taught me to err on the side of justice, compassion, and love. My professors at Columbia spoke out on behalf of their LGBT students, often at risk to themselves professionally. They taught that God’s love trumped human fear. They exhorted us to learn to read the Scripture with every tool available to us, and to understand the contexts of passages written two thousand years ago. They challenged us to stand up for what was right in the face of the easier wrong. They were, and they remain, among my strongest role models for ministry.

But the administration of Columbia has acted in a way that belies all I was taught by my professors. They have literally cast LGBT families off campus, and forced seminarians to make a choice between living with their classmates or their families. They have created an unequal community. They have reiterated, even in the face of a changing denomination, a policy that is reactionary and anything but visionary.

A little over ten years ago now I knelt on the floor of the chapel at Columbia. My friends and classmates put their hands on my head and blessed me as I was ordained as a minister. I chose that chapel for a reason. I wanted to carry what I had learned at Columbia with me all the days of my ministry. I wanted to remember what it was to live in a community that might not always agree, but that at least tried to make space for the other. And I wanted to remember what is was to live in a community that didn’t shy away from the hard discussions, and that admitted when it was wrong.

I’d like to think that place still exists. I think it does. But I know that right now I and my family could not live there. I think that there are a lot of other families like mine out there. And I think that Columbia is the less for excluding us. But more than that, I think we are the less for losing a place like Columbia. I hope this separation doesn’t last much longer, because God’s got real work for us to do and we need each other.

2 comments

  1. RollieB · · Reply

    Discrimination is always disappointing. Discrimination by religious folk is exceptionally sad.

    My read for the day gives me hope!
    http://kwokpuilan.blogspot.com/2011/03/raical-love-by-patrick-s-cheng.html

    Keep on speaking from the top of the steeple, Emily.

  2. Christians who condemn gay people now are like Christians who owned slaves in 1850, a group whose time has gone. You know it is getting better.

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