Early on Sunday, March 4, before the sun came up, I was outside a hotel in Philadelphia to say bon voyage to a bus full of young adult volunteers on the 2012 Soulforce Equality Ride. It was dark and cold outside, but the hope-filled energy and love of these young people lit up the block.
Their first stop is Atlanta where they will spend five days. One of those days will be devoted to Carver College whose administrators have rejected the Riders' invitation to dialogue about their policies and practices involving young people who identify as sexual or gender minorities. The Riders will gather outside the gated cloister of Carver and ask to attend chapel services with the Carver community, seek an audience with their President and give students entering the campus a chance to see the Bus and the Riders. The Bus is wrapped in a beautiful design by Jess Kalup, a 2010 Rider. You can't see it and miss the message of hope that the Riders bring to students who are threatened and bullied every day for being gay.
The majority of the Ride visits will be to Council for Christian Colleges and University (CCCU) or Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) where there are still documented policies and practices that openly stigmatize individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT).
Most of these schools use language about "sexual purity" as a requirement for all students to avoid "targeting" gay students. At the same time, heterosexual students may freely hold hands and kiss one another while gay students may not. No one is confused about who can and cannot express love outside the closet without disciplinary action.
And the story of Tyler Clemente tells us what happens when the closet is kicked open on gay students by someone who doesn't care about them. He needed someone to care and intervene. Sadly, so did his oppressor.
Bullying takes place everywhere: in churches, in church-related colleges and universities, in public schools and in the public square. It tears at the soul of the person bullied and the person doing the bullying as well.
As the Riders loaded up their luggage and backpacks, I walked the bus exterior to read and touch each of their names boldly printed on the outside panels for all of the world to see. I thought about the 80+ colleges and universities that have already been visited by Riders in years past and the good outcomes in those places. Many of them are safer now for young women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and faculty. And I thought about the places that are still not safe at all.
Sometimes we think that "safe" means "free from physical harm" but we know better. Children and young people are deeply affected by the words and attitudes and perceived acceptance or rejection of their parents and teachers and pastors and peers. They watch what we say and do and they learn their prejudices from us.
Young people pick up on their parents and teachers' silences and their reluctance to talk about certain topics. They pick up on the judgmental attitudes in a chance remark. They learn, from crude jokes and rude remarks, just who they're expected to respect and who they're not. Perceived "authorities" on television and radio and the Internet and our elected officials get by with name-calling and still seem to win. School principals sometimes ignore cries for help or say these complaints are "unfounded."
A New York Times citation on a recent report by the New York Governor's Task Force on Bias-Related Violence says that "while teenagers surveyed were reluctant to advocate open bias against racial and ethnic groups, they were emphatic about disliking homosexual men and women, (who were) perceived as legitimate targets that can be openly attacked."
In the end, most of us can only tangibly support the children and young adults with whom we have a direct connection -- a relationship. This is a good time for citizens of Atlanta and surrounding communities and, indeed, all of us, to think about the young people within your sphere of influence. Young people need our help in choosing the strength of diversity as a value rather than weakness.
As the Equality Ride bus pulled away on Sunday, the song by Crosby, Stills and Nash, "Teach Your Children Well" went through my head. The fact that I know the words dates me, but the song is absolutely timeless in its wisdom and exhortation to the Riders and to the rest of us.
You who are on the road
must have a code that you can live by
and so become yourself
because the past is just a goodbye.
Teach your children well,
their father's hell
did slowly go by.
And you of tender years,
can't know the fears
that your elders grew by.
And so please
help them with your youth,
they seek the truth
before they can die.
I want the words of this song to be true for the Riders and all of the communities they hope to influence.
While church-related schools have the right to make policies in keeping with their creeds, they do not have the right to create environments of inquisition and shame for young citizens of our country.
While we are all entitled to our opinions and the right to express them, we are not entitled to diminish other human beings in ways that incite harm. These are the messages that the Soulforce Equality Riders will bring along their route. I hope you welcome them. I hope you are blessed by them. I have been.