Chris King left the church she grew up in at 14, after being subjected to pointed, anti-queer rhetoric from her pastor. She described joining Galesburg’s First Lutheran Church, many years later, as a kind of homecoming. King and Pam Marolla, the Church’s pastor, founded the First Lutheran Safe Space, a non-denominational group for young people at the intersection of queer and spiritual identities. Marolla supports various interpretations of scripture.
“There’s no reason to check your brain at the door as you’re discovering what you believe,” Marolla said.
Marolla and King, gay activist Chett Pritchett, and pastor Jennie Edwards Bertrand made up the Sexuality in Christianity Panel hosted by the Office of Spiritual Life on Tuesday, Feb. 5. Bertrand is the pastor of a United Methodist Church (UMC) in which all members are queer or allies. Pritchett recently revoked his membership to the UMC because it does not currently ordain openly gay people.
Director of Spiritual Life Monica Corsaro chose to focus on the UMC because in less than a month, members will decide whether or not to split over issues of queer inclusion. The UMC is the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with churches in Africa and the Philippines. Corsaro said that whatever decision Church members make will have global ramifications.
“I really wanted to have people [on the panel] who know what it means to be in direct contradiction to the larger body and still be wholly inclusive,” Corsaro said. “It seems like you’re standing in contradiction but you’re not.”
While Tuesday’s event focused on a Protestant standpoint, the Office of Spiritual Life plans to host more panels in the future on Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Corsaro decided to start with Christianity because she feels the Church has a lot to answer for when it comes to the mistreatment of queer people. She is glad the issue has reached a tipping point.
“You can’t say that a person is only part of a person or can only be involved halfway,” Corsaro said. “There’s no way to be a halfway human being.”
Corsaro said when it comes to the Bible, there is an assumption that scripture should be interpreted in one way. She hopes the panels encourage students to think about scripture in new, critical ways.
“We might learn one way as we’re growing up and then, just as we’re learning critical thinking in our higher disciplines that we study, that’s how we need to learn to approach scripture too,” Corsaro said.
Sophomore Riya Dahal, who works at the Office of Spiritual Life, believes the point of panels like this should be to make students feel supported and included. She pointed out the importance of listening and understanding in these difficult conversations.
“It’s not just about the religion, it’s about learning about the person,” Dahal said. “I think going to the event will help people personalize everyone around them.”
While the panels are not a direct response to the recent conflict between Common Ground and InterVarsity Christan Fellowship, part of the event’s purpose is to promote interfaith understanding and productive dialogue on campus. Corsaro wants people to understand that not all queer people are anti-spiritual and not all spiritual people are anti-queer.
A large number of Galesburg citizens braved the weather to participate in the event. While Amy Lentz ‘18 enjoyed the panel, she was surprised by the low student turnout.
“I really wish more Knox students had shown up,” Lentz said. “I don’t think I saw anyone from IVCF.”
Discussion centered on interpreting scripture. Panelists explained the ways in which scripture is written, added and amended in specific historical and cultural moments. Pritchett and Marolla pointed out that the word “homosexual” didn’t appear in the Bible until the 1940s, when it popped up in passages originally condemning rape.
Corsaro intentionally picked panelists who have spoken out against oppression within their religious communities. During the event, each emphasized that it is as easy to interpret the Bible through love as through hate. Bertrand said she always hopes to raise more questions than she answers. Other panelists affirmed the importance of discussion over hard statements.
“Any church that has all the answers doesn’t have an infinite God,” Marolla said.