NEWBERG — It is, as one George Fox University administrator summarized to the Newberg Graphic newspaper, “a very touchy issue” with which the school is grappling.
The sensitive, hot-button topic facing not only George Fox but many other Christian colleges and universities nationally is homosexuality. And as two adjacent front-page articles last month in the Newberg newspaper outlined, the challenge facing the school is to show Christian love and compassion for all students while holding fast to the university’s traditional, Bible-based prohibitions on any sexual relations outside of a married, heterosexual relationship.
One indicator that the university is confronting the issue is that George Fox will hold a forum for the campus community early this month, featuring a panel on sexuality with speakers both from within and outside the school.
According to the newspaper, discussion about such issues on campus has increased significantly because two current undergraduate students at George Fox are apparently the first in the university’s 127 years to come out as openly gay. One is A.J. Mendoza, who last spring founded Common Ground, a student-run club that seeks to extend support for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning) students, but the club is not sanctioned by the university. The other is Landon Isabell, who announced his gay orientation last summer after feeling encouraged by the Common Ground meetings.
Common Ground has roughly 90 members —about 80 percent of whom are heterosexual supporters. Although it is perhaps the largest club on campus, it was denied provisional status as a club by the university and its student government association.
Wesley Jones, student government president, told the newspaper that the university’s Associated Student Committee voted 6 to 1 against granting Common Ground provisional status. He said the committee determined the club went beyond support for LGBTQ students, which implies tolerance and love, into advocacy, which was not acceptable because it implies approval of homosexuality. Mendoza countered that the club does not officially condone homosexuality but simply aims to provide support and safety for a highly at-risk population on campus.
Joel Perez, dean of inclusion and student leadership programs at George Fox, acknowledged that the topic is a “touchy” one, in light of opinions held not only within the student body but also among parents, alumni, potential donors and others in the wider university community.
Perez noted the university addressed LGBTQ issues this year for the first time during training sessions for resident assistants, peer advisors and students leaders. He said the university also allowed Common Ground to have a table at the campus Club Fair this year, even though the club has no official status at the school. But he said some of the club’s pamphlets, such as one promoting National Coming Out Day, were not allowed because of conflicts with university policies and because of potential concerns from students, trustees and alumni.
Mendoza and Isabell said that while the heterosexual Christian friends involved in Common Ground have surrounded them with love, support and acceptance, the climate at Christian colleges such as George Fox remains very challenging and often painful for LGBTQ students.
In fact, Mendoza told the Graphic that a year ago he came close to committing suicide because of the rejection he had felt. Mendoza was openly gay as a high school student, but during his freshman year attending George Fox on a full-ride leadership scho-larship he basically kept his gay orientation hidden. As his sophomore year approached, he decided to “come out” about his sexuality to some close friends on campus who were planning to room with him. But once he did, said Mendoza, they rejected him and canceled their roommate plans. He said his severe depression and suicidal thoughts resulted.
Mendoza said he was greatly helped by a counselor at the university. He also made a list of five people he thought might be supportive if he came out to them. Those five did indeed show support, and helped him find additional supporters. With their assistance, Mendoza last spring formed Common Ground.
Isabell said he was still quiet about his sexual orientation when he attended the early meetings of Common Ground, and was surprised and thrilled to meet Christians who affirmed gay people. He eventually came out on social media this past summer.
Mendoza and Isabell said many fellow students have since confided to them that they, too, are LGBTQ.
Isabell said George Fox’s Quaker roots and affiliation inspires some of the “straight” support within Common Ground. Because of the historic Quaker emphasis on nonviolence and on standing with the marginalized; any hurtful rhetoric and outright bullying against LGBTQ people is seen as forms of violence and therefore opposed, he said.
Mendoza said he had carried a great deal of anger toward churches in general because of attitudes shown toward gays, but that he also was impressed by the Quaker support shown since last spring. That led him to begin attending West Hills Friends Church in Portland, the only officially LGBTQ-welcoming church out of the 65 in the evangelical Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends, according to the newspaper.
Earlier this year, a group of George Fox alumni calling themselves OneGeorge Fox asked the school to reconsider its ban on homosexual relationships. As outlined on its web site (www.onegeorgefox.org), the group, like Common Ground, seeks an increased dialogue about faith, sexuality and acceptance.
In response, the university earlier this year responded with the following statement:
“George Fox University affirms the full humanity and dignity of every human being, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We recognize that there are individuals who identify as LGBTQ or as having same-sex attraction within our community. They are valued … “We believe that God has intended sexual relations to be reserved for marriage between a man and a woman.
“We recognize that this belief may be in conflict with the practice or vision of the larger culture, as Christian beliefs have been in other times and places. Yet we hold to the historic Christian position on this issue while being respectful of those who disagree with us.”