Monday, May 5, 2008

Holy Conferencing as Soul Work: Witness of Johnetta Betsch Cole

I’ve taken my title for this series on the United Methodist practice of holy conferencing from a statement by Johnetta Betsch Cole. Dr. Cole is president of Bennett College, a United Methodist college in Greensboro, NC.

Johnetta Betsch Cole is a supporter of the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) Historically Black Colleges and Universities Program. This program, which assists historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in dealing with LGBT issues, was founded in 2002 following a series of attacks on gay and lesbian students at several HBCUs that elicited concern about the apparent rise of anti-gay violence on HBCU campuses.

The HRC program helps HBCUs deal forthrightly with the plain social reality—the undeniable fact—that all HBCU campuses have LGBT students, professors, employees, and administrators. The program helps create safe spaces in HBCUs in which students, faculty, staff, and administrators can feel comfortable about revealing their identity and discuss the challenges they face on HBCU campuses.

In an address to students gathered from around the nation at an HRC HBCU Program seminar to study ways to head off homophobic violence on HBCU campuses, Johnetta Betsch Cole told students, “You’re now preparing to take on the responsibility to help other students touch their soul – and to help institutions touch their soul” (

For a variety of reasons, I want to focus my critical reflections on Wesleyan holy conferencing on Johnetta Betsch Cole’s “touch the soul” image. In the first place, this image arises out of the experience of a group subject to double marginalization by power structures around the world: it arises out of the experience of an African-American woman. This is a group from whom we might expect powerful insight into the mechanisms of marginalization and ways to address those mechanisms effectively.

In the second place, Johnetta Betsch Cole heads a United Methodist institution of higher learning. Unlike some United Methodist institutions of higher learning (including some other United Methodist HBCUs), Bennett College has chosen to deal head-on with homophobia as a problem internal to all college/university campuses, including HBCU campuses, as well as a problem in society at large that demands the attention of church-affiliated colleges/universities which seek to train students to be agents of transformative social change.

Almost all HBCUs were founded by and are currently affiliated with churches. As do other church-affiliated colleges and universities, these institutions struggle to deal with the internal politics and strictures of the churches with which they are affiliated. These institutions typically have a high percentage of ministers and members of the sponsoring church on their governing boards. Those ministers and church members have a critical role to play in enabling or hindering attempts of the institution to deal with gay issues.

As with many other church-affiliated institutions of higher learning, HBCUs have often found it difficult to be open about the presence of LGBT persons in their campus communities. Some HBCUs—along with many non-HBCU church-affiliated schools—have chosen to deal with this social reality by not dealing with it at all, by pretending that no one on their campus is LGBT, even as it is obvious to anyone with eyes to see that there are many closeted LGBT students, faculty, staff, and administrators. On these campuses, it can sometimes even be dangerous for members of the campus community, including faculty, staff, and administrators, to be open about their sexual orientation.

These campuses are dominated by a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” mentality that allows prejudice to grow, and that can, at worst, result in acts of violence ranging from the “hard” violence of physical assault to manifold acts of “soft” violence including verbal assault, exclusion of gay students and employees from rights and privileges including freedom from unjust termination or the ability to have partner benefits, or subtle forms of persecution and discrimination in how a supervisor treats an LGBT employee (or a faculty member an LGBT student).

Such “soft” violence towards LGBT brothers and sisters on a college campus can create an environment so toxic that it erodes the psyche and soul of those brothers and sisters, who are provided no forum in which even to speak of the reality of the prejudice they face, let alone challenge it. Any attempt on their part to identify and challenge the prejudice is quickly met with ugly blame-the-victim tactics of managerial triangulation that name the LGBT person himself or herself as the source of the problem: he/she is too “sensitive,” is paranoid, is a professional trouble maker, is “angry,” is given to temper tantrums and pouting, wears his/her feelings on the sleeve, is corrupt, is a potential sexual predator, is given to lying (since “those people” always lie), is vicious and resentful: you name it.

He or she is, in short, “the spawn of the devil.” And nothing the LGBT brother or sister does will ever permit her or him to escape that tag, since this is the social space accorded by such institutions to their LGBT brothers and sisters, and the price of remaining in the community is to occupy that constricted space or to face expulsion.

At their worst, some church-affiliated HBCUs (including some United Methodist ones) invite overtly anti-gay speakers and ministers to address their college or university community. This pattern continues, sadly, at some United Methodist HBCUs where I continue to have contacts, even in the aftermath of the recent condemnation of homophobia by the latest General Conference. Despite the UMC Social Principles' insistence that anti-gay discrimination is insupportable, some of these United Methodise HBCUs still lack official policy statements prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

My third reason for highlighting Cole’s “touch the soul” image as a fruitful prism through which to examine the Wesleyan practice of holy conferencing is that it recognizes that the work that needs to be done in institutions—above all, in church-sponsored ones—to confront and eradicate homophobic violence of all sorts is work at the level of the soul. Combating homophobia is soul work.

Creating a safe public space in which to discuss the complex, emotion-laden issue of homophobia—which is to say, the presence in our midst of LGBT brothers and sisters with complex real lives, hearts, minds, and souls—is soul work. It demands courage, commitment, intellectual rigor, honesty, compassion, and a commitment to change when change is incumbent on us.

Not facing problems that require soul work is certainly easier. But not facing problems that require soul work is neither an ethically defensible option, nor one permitted to any church (or church-affiliated institution) that professes to deplore homophobic discrimination and violence.

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