Karen Higgins, mother of Equality Ride co-director Katie Higgins, and co-director Jarrett Lucas speak with members of Columbia International University campus leadership. Photo Credit: Soulforce Q Equality Ride Photo Credit: Soulforce Q Equality Ride

Ed. Note – Katie Higgins is the Soulforce Q 2008 Equality Ride co-director. Soulforce is a national interfaith organization utilizing the King and Gandhi techniques of non-violence and civil disobedience to confront religious prejudice. Soulforce Q is the organization’s youth division.

The Soulforce Q Equality Ride is retracing a few of its 2006 and 2007 steps and remaining below the Mason Dixon Line in 2008. For me, it’s a homecoming; I was born in Florida, attended kindergarten in Virginia, lived in South Carolina for 12 years and spent my college years in the mountains of western North Carolina. My family spreads out from Texas, through Alabama, down to Florida and back up to Virginia through my maternal and paternal lines. You can say that I’m a Southerner.

As we rolled into South Carolina on I-77, I found myself on a familiar road, one that for four and a half years brought me from home to college and back again. This time, however, the only thing familiar at the end of the road was something that became a part of my life three years ago, another blocked campus, another autocratic administration, and students who wonder why are sitting with them on the side of the road instead of in their student union.

Our first communication from Columbia International University (formerly Columbia Bible College) was a lengthy letter that highlighted all of the reasons why the Equality Ride could not come onto their campus. Their policy was cited, scripture was beckoned and being LGBT was synonymous with promiscuity. It was actually quite similar to the letter that we sent to the school in March, which outlined the reasons of why we wanted to visit CIU. There was one major point where we deviated in reasoning though. The letter from the school read, “…CIU has decided that accepting your invitation to visit our campus is not in the best interest of our students.” I wonder how many students were included in that decision-making process?

The Equality Ride is in its third year. We have visited over 50 colleges and universities across the country and all activities have been documented by national and local media and by the assorted blogs that follow our route. I’m still waiting to read the first-person account that says we are a group of young adults who are to be feared. I have met students who say they were told we yell, throw rocks and might even try to enter into their dorm halls. Since this isn’t the case, the only “threatening” parts of the Equality Ride I can think of are our voices. The worlds of academia and thought have traditionally been the supportive fortresses for dialogue, but somehow in many Christian institutions of higher learning, this has gone awry. Columbia International University decided that keeping their students “in the closet” is in their best interest. I’m not talking about the closet that many of us come out of as we find the courage to face the world as LGBT people (which, they have plenty of), but the tightly regulated closet that keeps thousands of students across this country out of necessary and realistic conversations about humanity.

When we arrived at CIU last Monday, the public works department had been put to work and sectioned off a swatch of grass with yellow “DO NOT ENTER” tape, plastic barriers and two portable toilets. I can’t say that it was the worst set up that I’ve seen on the Equality Ride — that honor goes to the mountain-top roadside, without a sidewalk at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga. — but it was one of the most thought provoking physical situations that I have found myself in during years of Equality Riding. Why here? Why did a dozen administrators stand 50 yards away and watch over 60 of their students walk from their student union to the side of Monticello Road? And as the school abruptly ended the conversations we were having with students, why did four police cars race up to the yellow tape in a unnecessary act of intimidation?

It must be the power of truth. It must be the feeling that schools have to sit with when they tell the Ride for months that dialogue is not in their student’s best interest and then by the time the Riders leave, nothing has happened other than peers talking with one another about their lives and the power of creating the space for love within our communities. I would like to challenge CIU and the rest of the schools that we are visiting to ask your students what they are interested in. This was not our last chance for dialogue in Columbia. I know that I can promise to bring a bus of bright and passionate young adults to what that answer is.

— For more information about the Equality Ride or to donate, visit www.equalityride.com.