Smiles and conversations dominate Equality Ride visit

The day started out with a thunderstorm, but the rain quickly subsided and the sun broke through the clouds. Could this have been an omen?

The Soulforce Equality Riders visited Eastern’s campus on Monday, April 24. They anticipated that Eastern would be one of the more receptive schools on their two-month route. It was also the last Christian school on their itinerary.

The purpose of their visit was to try to get the words out of the Eastern handbook that define marriage as “between a man and a woman.”

“Eastern has welcomed us in the same gracious manner that they said they would,” Equality Ride co-director Jacob Reitan said.

The morning began at 8:30 with a continental breakfast for the riders and certain invited guests. From there they visited two of Kathy Lee’s political science classes and gave talks in Baird Library throughout the day.

Even though there were organized sessions, it appeared as though personal conversations were what defined the visit.

“The Eastern students who came to this meeting not in agreement with the Equality Riders have not changed their views because of the Riders,” said Dennis Tanner, member of the Board of Trustees, of the formal discussion time. The event was about people becoming able to dialogue, not changing their views, he said, emphasizing that he spoke only for himself and not the entire Board.

“I had an amazing conversation with a faculty member at lunch and engaged in an intellectual conversation with a student who opposed the Equality Ride view,” Equality Rider Nathan Bengtson said. He then added that he thought the conversations here have been the same as at other schools but that the ones at Eastern were “laced with smiling faces.”

Those smiling faces were found all over campus. There seemed to be positive attitudes flowing from everyone from administration to faculty to students to guests.

Senior Amanda Matthias, the co-leader of Refuge, Eastern’s gay-straight alliance, felt confident about the day and was glad that no one was extremely confrontational.

The majority of the Eastern community said that they were glad the riders had come.

Rick Eisenstaedt, President of the Eastern University Foundation, said that he is proud of how Eastern is handling this tough issue by trying to understand all points of view with fairness.

“It is a good example of the gospel at work,” Eisenstaedt said.

“I’ve never been more proud to be a professor at Eastern,” psychology professor Landi Turner said.

President David Black said that the students, faculty and administration were hospitable not because it was some kind of strategy but because that is who Eastern is. He said that he believes that through mutually constructive conversation, we have found “the common ground of humanity and community. Each of us is a person.”

This attitude on campus did not appear to be shared by all. Part way through the morning an uninvited guest showed up at the gates. Michael Marcavage from Repent America, an organization based out of Philadelphia, came to proclaim “the truth about homosexuality,” as one of his pamphlets said.

The university had previously stated that only the Equality Riders, the Eastern community and invited guests would be allowed on campus that day.

Vice president of student development Bettie Ann Brigham personally asked him to leave. When he refused to do so without arrest, lawyers from both sides were called. Marcavage was given a table and not permitted to move more then 10 feet from it.

There was a constant group of students swarming around the table.

“I find it amazing that there are 40 Eastern students at once protecting the Equality Riders from one Christian man who is supposedly a disciple of Christ,” first-year Chris Slininger said. “I saw more love coming from the Equality Riders than the Repent America representative.”

Several Equality Riders held conversations with students around the Repent America table.

“I had a conversation with the Repent America guy, and it was a bit odd because he claimed to be a saint without sin and it was hard to take him seriously,” Equality Rider David Durand said.

Later, the Repent America Web site published an article under the headline, “Eastern University embraces homosexual agenda.”

“Eastern University is on the verge of apostasy. Please pray that the God-fearing students and teachers would rise up and speak out,” the article said.

The Riders were allowed to eat lunch and dinner with students in the Dining Commons and a dessert was planned in Upper Walton Lounge. After the dessert, the student chaplains held a candlelight prayer service before seeing the riders off.

At the close of the service, Reitan said that he wished Eastern had been the final stop for the riders so that they could end their journey on a positive note.

“I think they’ve done an excellent job,” Equality Rider Chad Grandy said. “They are the only school that welcomed us without [seeing us as] uninvited guests.”

The Equality Ride’s last stop was the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. According to their Web site, 15 Riders were arrested in an effort to protest the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

Dr. Mosser of the Biblical Studies department has offered to answer anyone’s questions about the literature that Soulforce distributed during their visit. He can be reached by email at

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