PASADENA, Calif. — Nick Palacios struggled to get his conservative Pentecostal parents to accept him as a gay evangelical Christian for nearly a decade before his family found a common ground through faith.
Now, as an openly gay seminarian, the 29-year-old hopes to carve out a similar acceptance for other gays in the broader evangelical community through his role as president of the nation’s first LGBT student club sanctioned by a major evangelical seminary.
The group, called OneTable, formed last fall at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, one of the world’s largest multi-denominational seminaries, and has attracted about three dozen students.
“It quickly became apparent to me that I was going to be OK and that I wasn’t going to have to forsake my faith for my sexuality,” Palacios said of his struggle for acceptance.
“I really hope that people will see Fuller and OneTable as a model of what the body of the church is supposed to do in this situation.”
Fuller’s stance has created ripples in the larger world of Christian colleges and seminaries, where a growing number of gay evangelical students are asserting their dual identities with underground clubs and nascent political activism. Last year, for example, a group called the Biola Queer Underground was quashed by Biola University, a small, conservative Christian school in nearby Orange County.
This fall, the LGBT group plans on staging rallies to combat Biola’s longstanding policy on homosexuality — that sexual relationships are reserved for heterosexual marriage — and address what many students call a campus climate of fear and shame.
Some activists have hailed the approach taken by Fuller as an important step forward for gay rights. Others say it’s an empty gesture unmasked by the school’s fine print: Students can “come out” but they can’t have sex, be politically active or challenge a school policy that states homosexual sex is “inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture.”
Richard Flory, a researcher at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, said Fuller’s acceptance of the group, while unique, is more about symbolism than about a move toward true tolerance.
“It sounds like they want to have it both ways: Jesus loves you as you are, however there are limitations to what you can be,” Flory said. “It’s like sticking your toe in the deep end of the water to see what happens.”
Fuller’s community standards states that “sexual abstinence is required for the unmarried” and marriage is between one man and one woman.
Nevertheless, Fuller’s decision not to push back against OneTable is a critical step toward acceptance for gay evangelical students, said Justin Lee, the executive director of the Gay Christian Network, which tracks the burgeoning movement. An increasing number of young people have been coming out on Christian campuses nationwide, whether they are accepted or not, and Fuller’s move acknowledges that and provides a touchstone for students who would otherwise keep their sexuality a secret, he said.
While some Christian colleges across the country have accepted LGBT student groups, Fuller is the first evangelical seminary to do so, Lee said. In February, one prominent evangelical school, Wheaton College in Illinois, officially recognized a support group for students who have questions about their sexual orientation.
Fuller has a total of about 4,500 students, with 100 denominations represented. In addition to the main campus in Pasadena, regional campuses are located in Menlo Park, Sacramento and Irvine in California; Colorado Springs, Colorado, Phoenix, Seattle and Houston. OneTable is only on the Pasadena campus.
Palacios and other Fuller students say they aren’t out to be political — they are aware of the group’s limitations, and choose to accept them.
OneTable fits into the greater conversation at Fuller, which is committed to helping students understand that sexuality is part of being human, said Juan Martinez, who oversees the approval of the seminary’s student groups. Martinez does not take issue with Fuller’s LGBT students as long as they accept the school’s guidelines of being both celibate and non-political, he said.
“If you are ready to make that kind of commitment, then we’re ready to walk with you,” Martinez said. “We’re not going to turn around and say, ‘No. You can’t be here because you like girls or you like guys as opposed to the opposite sex.'”
Many evangelical Christians disagree with Fuller’s decision to allow the club, however, and say it’s simply not possible to be both gay and evangelical.
Fuller is not acting in the students’ best interests by sanctioning the group and should instead be teaching reorientation as the students’ best option, said the Rev. Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian organization.
“It’s possible to change any or all of these attractions,” said Sprigg, a former Baptist pastor.
OneTable’s genesis comes at a time when gay rights and the intersection of faith and homosexuality are at the forefront of national — and global — conversation.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the federal law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman in June. The same month, the president of Exodus International, a Christian organization once dedicated to helping homosexuals repress same-sex attractions, apologized to the gay community for inflicting “years of undue suffering” and shut the group down.
For Palacios, Exodus’ end struck a personal chord. Ten years ago, after confronting him about his sexuality, Palacios’ parents saw Exodus as a chance for their son to change — they thought the organization could “reorient” him.
For years, Palacios armed himself with biblical verses and religious texts he could use to defend his identity as a gay Christian. Now, after years of their son refusing to repress his sexual orientation, Palacios’ parents have become more accepting and were even amicable toward a former boyfriend.
“Just as it has taken me the better part of 20 something years to figure out the blend of faith and orientation I can’t expect my friends or family to get it that quickly,” he said.
Some straight students at Fuller have also embraced the chance to discuss faith and homosexuality openly. Samantha Curley, 25, the group’s former president, said hearing about her friends’ struggles made her a better Christian. Before starting at the seminary, she said, she didn’t have any gay friends.
“I think that’s ultimately what faith does,” she said. “Jesus wanted us to experience the full expression of humanity. I’m fearful of what will happen if we don’t learn to do that in the church.”
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