By: Kate Stoltzfus
A crowd of more than 85 students, faculty, community members and three administrators arrived for a long-awaited conversation at Open Letter’s Summit last Tuesday evening.
The meeting was organized by Goshen College’s Open Letter group, which advocates for LGBTQ equality in hiring practices, and was held in the wake of change. Eastern Mennonite University announced on November 15 to enter a six-month discussion period to review their same-sex hiring policy, and while EMU is the first Mennonite-affiliated school to make such a decision, Open Letter’s Summit turnout proved there are many people on campus ready not just to talk, but to act.
Open Letter’s current leaders, Abby Deaton and Stefan Baumgartner, organized the two-hour Summit. There was an information session to clear up myths and give background of Open Letter’s movement, as well as a time for attendees to break into discussion groups for talk about ways to move forward.
“We realized that many people don’t know as much or know very little about the hiring policy and all the complications behind it,” said Deaton. “Our biggest point we want to communicate is that this isn’t an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation. We don’t feel like we are fighting anyone. We feel that there is a hesitancy to change and we want to show those in charge that we want this change. We aren’t fighting, we’re pushing.”
Emily Shenk, a junior at EMU and member of the university’s Safe Space group, also spoke at the Summit.
“We are excited about the possibility of Goshen, EMU, Bluffton and Hesston – all the Mennonite sister schools – getting together to be a collaborative force of power,” said Shenk.
Deaton and Baumgartner addressed reasons why more of a push has not been made to change the policy. Among factors listed were fear of loss of finances or donors, low enrollment, damage of the ties to Mennonite Church USA, confusion on the student level of what do to, and uncertainty as to whose responsibility it is to change the policy.
Said Deaton, “The debate comes from people wondering what could happen if the policy changed – it’s not individuals refusing to change the policy.”
While there is fear that some donors would stop giving if the policy changed, according to Deaton, there are also people not giving money because a reversal hasn’t been made yet.
But both Deaton and Baumgartner stressed that the change is not the responsibility or the power of just one person – it’s about support from all sides, including faculty and student involvement, and alumni and administrative support. As of now, 505 students and 953 alumni have signed since the group’s inception.
Open Letter’s Summit was a landmark event for the group, which was founded by alum Patrick Ressler in 2011. After the group formed, several members talked to GC administration about a change in the policy, but “administrators’ hands were tied with a lot of controversy over the National Anthem debate, and another complicated change at that point was not possible,” said Baumgartner.
Deaton believes the summit helped the movement immensely.
“We’ve already been approached by people in president’s council to meet for a discussion,” said Deaton. “I’m really excited to talk with these people, because the better we understand what is going on, the more we can communicate to the wider campus.”
Bill Born, vice president of student life, was one of the administrators in attendance and believes a “positive tone” is set for ongoing discussion. He said the administration “affirms the solid ground established at the Open Summit.” As far as any formal decisions, GC’s Board will have to take into consideration their broader role in MCUSA.
“EMU’s Board decision to take time to listen and assess the issue of LGBTQ hiring policies in a more formal sense has raised the matter to another level for each institution,” said Born. “Our own board has discussed a variety of Intercultural matters, including the issue of our hiring policy, but not at the same level of formality to date. As would be the case with any potential policy shift in relation to the MCUSA Church Confession of Faith, a bit of time for consideration and listening is appropriate.”
Said Baumgartner, “We see this as a civil rights issue; that there are LGBTQ people in our world, countries, communities, and this campus, and we want to make sure there is an inclusive space for them to live their lives fully. We are urging the administration to open up the conversations that are currently taking place behind closed doors to all people who care about Goshen College.”