University Catholics convocation sparks controversy
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University Catholics convocation sparks controversy

A convocation event held by University Catholics on April 6 was met with backlash and confusion from several attending students, including members of Belmont’s Bridge Builders organization, who said the event was ignorant and offensive.

“I think this is the most unsafe I’ve ever felt on campus, which is just ironic after Westboro Baptist Church came earlier this year,” Bridge Builders Publicist Cay Aldag said. “It’s one thing when it’s a hate group and another thing when it’s your peers, especially when it’s your sister organization under University Ministries.”

The event, titled “Portraits of Courage,” featured a viewing of“Desire of the Everlasting Hills,” a documentary made by Courage International, a group included on a 2016Southern Poverty Law Center report for “10 of the most prominent ex-gay groups.”

Courage uses a 12-step program, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, to help homosexual people abstain from sex, according to Courage’s website. The SPLC labeled this practice as “contemporary reparative therapy.”

The documentary, available for free online, tells the story of three homosexual individuals who “discuss their journeys to chastity and peace through the love of Christ.”

Some members of Bridge Builders felt the movie was ignorant in its message.

“The first portion of the movie has very ‘polite homophobia,’ where maybe if you weren’t exposed to it all the time, you wouldn’t notice anything wrong,” Bridge Builders President Hope Gipson said. “The further you get along in the movie, though, the more you notice ‘OK, this is just really bad.’”

Aldag and Gipson, who are both Catholic themselves, were surprised by the event and said they felt it did not align with the views of Belmont as a whole.

“We know Belmont is not at a place where it is horrifically homophobic, and I don’t believe Belmont is a place that is unsafe for gay people,” Gipson said. “I believe that Belmont has been very accepting as of late, and this convocation made them look really bad.”

Gipson and Aldag approached University Ministries Director of Outreach and Bridge Builders Faculty Adviser Micah Weedman before the convo with concerns about the documentary and how it might reflect poorly on the university, they said.

“We had watched the documentary beforehand, because we wanted to be aware of what they were showing. We were just appalled by the documentary,” said Aldag. “So we kind of knew going into it that it probably wasn’t going to be the most pleasant thing, but I was just horrifically surprised that it actually got worse.”

University Ministries was aware of the event, Weedman said.

“University Ministries exists as an office that provides space for the full spectrum of Christian denominations and traditions and expressions to gather, worship, study and fellowship together,” Weedman said. “Thus, our model is to allow each of these recognized groups to develop their own content and manage their own events with the understanding that no organization speaks on behalf of the university or the Office of University Ministries.”

University Ministries encourages “dignified and compassionate debate and discussion around issues of faith and sexuality” and “a university-wide commitment to the safety, thriving and well-being of all of our students, regardless of sexual identity or gender expression,” Weedman said.

“We constantly hope that these conversations can move forward in ways that respect that dignity of every participant and student at Belmont,” he said.

Aldag, along with Weedman and Gipson, met with Father Michael Fye, chaplain of University Catholic.

“We met with the hope that we could talk about what they were going to present and give them extra information, since they had no LGBT people consulting them on this, and maybe talk to them about some of the more concerning points to see if they could maybe reconsider pulling them,” Gipson said. “We went out of our way to let them know not to make Belmont look bad, since it will come back and make their organization look bad and will make all of us look bad.”

The meeting left Aldag and Gipson feeling frustrated, Aldag said.

“We didn’t get anywhere and I don’t think he took any of our concerns seriously,” Aldag said.

Fye assured Gipson a disclaimer would be given before the event, stating the event’s intentions and clarifying that the views discussed were not necessarily Belmont’s, Gipson said.

This disclaimer was never given, she said.

Fye, however, said it was.

“I believe they were wanting me to talk about the hopes and goals of the event, and so I focused on two things. One was trying to promote awareness and understanding for individuals who are experiencing same-sex attraction,” Fye said. “Some people, especially politically, want to label them and put them into a box and suddenly now there’s all kinds of things attached to it, and what this documentary showed is how varied and unique everyone’s experiences are.

“Once you can understand these people, then it opens up the door for love.”

Many of Aldag and Gipson’s complaints were experientially based, Fye said.

“One person’s experience is different than another’s, so if your experience doesn’t match that of another’s, it’d be easy to say ‘well, that’s not what I experienced,’ but you can’t then say what they’ve experienced is invalid,” he said.

A lot of disagreement could have stemmed from issues of interpretation as well, Fye said.

“Some of what they were concerned about were really just matters of interpretation, which is real and valid, and I totally hear that, but there are many that wouldn’t hear what they are hearing or see what they are seeing,” he said.

Several attending students were also left upset by comments made by psychologist Dr. Stephen Hopkins during the event’s Q&A following the documentary.

Hopkins, who was brought to the event by Fye, at one point described environmental factors that could potentially cause homosexuality.

“Women, there’s several things, if there’s a problem that they can’t attach to their mother or if there’s violence with the father and they don’t respect men because of something that they, they could’ve been raped or something, and so men are not desireable,” Hopkins said. “This all stems to issues that can happen that can interrupt the psychosexual development of the child.”

Aldag was opposed to this statement, especially considering when the convocation took place.

“I just found that so disrespectful, especially on the same night as ‘Take Back the Night.’ It was just so messed up,” Aldag said. “Basically the only reason that you’re gay is because you got screwed up.”

Student Jono Krawczyk attended the event and disagreed with Hopkins’ presentation, calling Hopkins’ claims false and baseless, he said.

“The essence of his argument, at least with homosexual relationships versus heterosexual relationships, was that homosexual relationships are inherently more unstable than heterosexual relationships,” Krawczyk said. “That is just not supported by the vast majority of social evidence or scientific evidence.”

However, Hopkins said his statements were based off of several studies “from the groundbreaking work of Karen Horney to Irving Bieber’s study, awarded by the APA for the excellence of its methodology, to Joseph Nicolosi’s work with shame and attachment loss.”

“In addition to this, 120 years of accumulated clinical findings continue to confirm and expand the complex role that one’s environment can play in psychosexual maturation,” he said.

Krawczyk spoke with Hopkins after the event to further understand his position.

“I understand that I should be challenged in my viewpoints, that I am not so closed-in to think that I should be in an echo chamber of my own more progressive, liberal views on how the world works,” Krawczyk said. “I gave him a fair shot to actually prove the point after the documentary that he showed, and his talk was even more offensive than the things that were said in the documentary.”

Hopkins said he felt sorry if anyone was hurt by the event, and the event’s intentions were never meant to cause harm.

“I am deeply saddened to hear that anyone would respond with offense or feel unsafe after hearing the lived experiences shared in the film or the information shared in the Q&A,” Hopkins said.

“Yet, I also would not want the men and women who shared their very difficult and heartfelt journey to be silenced. I submit that their experiences are as valid as yours or mine and can broaden our understanding of the human experience. If we pride ourselves in being a pluralistic society, we should not be offended or fearful of anyone’s personal quest for chastity. No one in the film or afterward suggested that this should be anyone else’s journey.”

Hopkins said he spoke with a gay student after the event, who said he was moved by the documentary.

“I was most struck by one student who waited until the end and quietly told me that he was gay, but striving for chastity and how moved he was to see he was not alone,” Hopkins said. “Without understanding, what a lonely journey that can be.”

Hopkins also said he felt the response from Bridge Builders was contradictory to its mission.

“Belmont Bridge Builders claim to ‘strive to foster an examination of the intersection of faith and issues of sexuality,’ yet the protest expressed before the event to the administration and the offense expressed afterward to the Belmont Vision seems to seek a shutting down of that examination, a blocking of that understanding and – I fear – a betrayal to their very mission.”

Gipson and Aldag said they were ultimately left confused at how the convocation was approved by Student Affairs, after they had previously struggled getting the name for “LGBT Week” approved.

Provost Dr. Thomas Burns said the convocation  approval process is usually not very in-depth, and someone from Student Affairs usually only looks at the description of an event before approving it.

“In this case, I’m going to guess that somebody viewed this and said, ‘oh, on the surface, that doesn’t seem so bad. It doesn’t seem perfect, but it doesn’t seem so bad.’ It seems like the message they delivered was a whole lot more over the top,” Burns said.

Burns did not attend the event, but upon hearing about it said he felt “disconcerted.”

“It feels like we’re endorsing a particular point of view that is requiring a certain set of beliefs when that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing, that somebody along the process should have known better than to make that happen,” Burns said. “I’m going to be really disturbed and frustrated if somebody in University Ministries knew this was what it was about, that Hope and others from Bridge Builders expressed their concern and discomfort and it was just ignored.

“That just doesn’t seem right to me.”

This article was written by Zach Gilchriest with contributing reporting from Rebecca Arnold and Kelby Bibler. 

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