Messiah alumni group supports gay students

May 24, 2011

Alumni at evangelical Messiah College have launched an online
petition urging the conservative Christian school to change its policies
toward gay and lesbian students.

The petition has collected
hundreds of alumni signatures, with some indicating that they would
withhold donations as long as the college continued to foster "an unsafe
and noninclusive campus climate."

The group, Inclusive Alumni, is
petitioning Messiah to become "a place of reconciliation, compassion,
and true community." The petitioners call on Messiah, located in
Grantham, Penn­sylvania, to take steps to prevent harassment and provide
sensitivity training to staff.

The move follows a similar
petition at another evangelical flagship institution, Wheaton College,
west of Chi­cago, where gay alumni and gay-­friendly supporters have
launched the group OneWheaton.

Messiah's Community Covenant
prohibits "homosexual behavior," which the petition says dehumanizes and
marginalizes students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender and
creates divisions within the campus community.

The petition comes
in the wake of a story about an openly gay Messiah student who plans to
transfer at the end of the semester after being harassed and threatened
on campus.

"I'm proud of the fact that I went to Messiah," said
Emily Yoder, a 2009 Messiah graduate who spearheaded the petition. "In
my experience most professors and students are very accepting and
tolerant of LGBT people. However, it does make me kind of embarrassed to
be associated with [the school]."

Messiah spokeswoman Beth Lorow
said that administrators recognized the right of alumni to voice their
personal opinions on a variety of issues and that "the issue isn't new
for Messiah." She said that though the initiative could "lead to
conversation and dialogue," it is not likely to lead directly to a
change in the college's codes and policies.

"If Messiah College
were going to make that significant of a change, it would ultimately
require governance action and a decision from the board of trustees,"
Lorow said.

Yoder said the school's current policies have
motivated her not to donate to the college's fund-raising campaign,
adding that other alumni had expressed similar opinions.

Messiah
freshman Isaiah Thomas, who is gay, has said he has received death
threats on Facebook, has had property stolen and has been harassed by a
professor. Thomas said Messiah administrators had followed up on his
claims but had been unwilling to consider changes to the school's
covenant.

Louie Marven, the director of education and youth
services for the LGBT Community Center Coalition in central
Pennsylvania, said the campaign is "not about one person." The 2007
Messiah graduate added: "It's about creating an environment where LGBT
students are safe and included in campus life."

Messiah President
Kim S. Phipps said media reports had not conveyed the school's
thoroughness or speed in investigating Thomas's claims.

"Messiah
is transparent about its faith commitments, religious heritage, core
values and behavioral expectations on a comprehensive range of issues,
not limited to but including sexual behavior (both heterosexual and
homosexual)," Phipps said in a letter to the campus.

"Specifically,
the college's stance on homosexual behavior is rooted in a scriptural
understanding of marriage and a sexual ethic historically affirmed by
the Christian church—including Messiah's founding denomination, the
Brethren in Christ."  —RNS