Melodies of hymns floated through the air outside of the Church-Chapel last Friday morning before Goshen College’s weekly chapel service even began. Students, many wearing purple shirts that read “Where is my GLBTQ prof?” gathered for a “solidarity hymn sing,” anticipating a conversation that would be held the following day at a college nearly 600 miles away.
At the same time in Harrsionburg, Va., students at Eastern Mennonite University gathered to do the same thing. There, EMU’s board of trustees would be attending the EMU chapel service, just a day before discussing a university hiring policy that excludes people in same-sex relationships from becoming employees.
“One of the songs that they’re singing over at EMU is ‘Be Thou My Vision,’ so we will be singing in solidarity with them,” said Stefan Baumgartner, a junior and an organizer of the hymn sing, during the event.
“We heard rumors of what was happening at EMU,” said Abby Deaton, a junior and another organizer of the hymn sing. “We wanted to do it before our chapel in solidarity with them.”
Baumgartner and Deaton are leaders of GC Open Letter, a student-formed project that organizes support of students and alumni who want to reform GC’s hiring policy, which is similar to the one at EMU.
The day after GC students and EMU students held hymn sings, EMU’s board of trustees authorized Loren Swartzendruber, president of EMU, along with his cabinet, to design and begin a “listening process” which would “review current hiring policies and practices with respect to individuals in same-sex relationships,” according to an EMU press release posted Monday.
The motion that passed unanimously by the board came in four main points:
First, the board’s official statement said that it reaffirmed its relationship with Mennonite Church U.S.A., which practices “Biblical discernment in community.” Additionally, it stated that “The purpose of this action is to ensure that staff, faculty and administrators have the freedom to articulate their personal beliefs and values.”
Second, the listening process was outlined to be conducted over six months, ending in June 2014. It will be overseen by the president’s cabinet and will involve “EMU’s multiple constituencies.” Until the process is completed, no changes will be made to current hiring policies.
Third, the board recommended that “particular attention is given to relationships and prayer throughout this process.”
Fourth, “the President’s Cabinet will report the results of the listening process to the full board at its June 2014 meeting.”
Swartzendruber announced this motion to faculty and staff at EMU in a university forum on Monday. Students received an e-mail from him including similar information on Monday as well.
“Unilateral decision-making leads to broken relationships and rogue actions. Collaborative decision-making means that a community is functioning well,” said Swartzendruber in a press release. “This board’s decision and this process will, I think, show how well our community functions. God is giving us the opportunity to model respect for each other, honesty and integrity.”
For Deaton and Baugartner, this decision at EMU came as a surprise. They have both worked toward addressing GC’s hiring policy since they became students over two years ago.
“I did not see it coming. We were in it for the long haul,” said Baumgartner.
Both Baumgartner and Deaton believe that this motion at EMU might spark a similar conversation at GC.
“We are both affiliated with MC USA, we both have similar policies, we both have advocacy groups on campus,” he said. “To see a school that is so similar to our school achieve something… it lights a fire.”
The connection that formed between students at GC and EMU to address similar hiring policies at both schools solidified at the Mennonite Youth Convention held in Phoenix, Az. in July. There, Deaton met Chris Parks, an EMU student, who is a leader for Safe Space, a student advocacy group at EMU that addresses issues surrounding gay people.
Parks also believes that the EMU board’s decision to enter a “listening process” could be influential beyond the EMU campus.
“For EMU to begin this conversation allows for those who sit in the power seats of the Mennonite church and other institutions to enter into conversation in their own contexts,” he said in an e-mail.
Along with the Safe Space planning committee, Parks helps to organize a hymn sing on his campus every Friday before the beginning of campus-wide chapel services.
“It fit very well for our board to be a part of chapel on a Friday morning,” he said regarding the hymn sing event held last Friday. “So the Safe Space advisor, Deanna Durham, the presidents, Erin Freeman and I, spent time promoting this one as a way to let the board feel and hear our presence.”
At GC, Baumgartner and Deaton also plan to hold events regarding the EMU board’s decision. On Tuesday, November 26, they will hold the Open Letter Summit in Newcomer 17 between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.
“This will be an open meeting to everyone on campus: students, staff, faculty,” said Deaton. “We will be explaining what is happening at EMU, what is happening at Goshen as far as where the open letter movement is, and we will hold a discussion about what actions should be taken next as well as answering questions people might have.”