Open discussion necessary for healing, support

As there has been much discussion about the role of Grinnell’s Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and the new student organization, Grinnellians Seeking Christ, I wanted to chime in as Chief Diversity Officer and as someone who has experienced these issues personally in my own life’s journey.

(There are articles and letters that explain in this S&B how the former organization lost its student organization status via SGA & the College—by excluding openly and actively LGBTQ students from leadership positions, GCCF was not granted student organization status because such exclusion is in violation of the College’s non-discrimination policy.)

I understand the emotional reaction to this sense of exclusion, particularly as a queer Latina of faith. In fact, prior to attending Grinnell College, I was enrolled by my parents in a fundamental Baptist school. I was “outed” my senior year and was threatened with expulsion.

Given that I was soon to graduate, and among the top of the class, the pastor decided not to expel me for my “lesbian tendencies”, and I was given 85 instead of 100 demerits, avoiding expulsion and being put on disciplinary probation. A strict regimen of expectations was implemented by the pastor and principal for me to maintain my student status through graduation—including attending the school’s church via Sunday School, Sunday morning and evening services, Monday counseling with the pastor, Wednesday prayer meetings, and Friday youth outings; and punitively, I was suspended from classes for a day, served two-hour detentions every Thursday, and was eliminated from playing sports.

All of this defined the second semester of my senior year. Missing any one of these activities or not respecting these imposed sanctions would lead to my direct expulsion. Thankfully, I survived, and I grew in my faith. But, I knew fallible human beings made these decisions, not the God I came to know through my faith. I personally understand the pain of human beings attempting to define my relationship with God.

The hurtful scars from those experiences linger to this day. However, I am proud to say that I have since reconciled my faith and sexuality, with much reading, meditation and guidance. I know that I am special and unique, just as I am, to my Creator in my faith system. No human being can come between me and my Creator.

So, as I experience and try to mediate the division over the full inclusion of LGBTQ students in an organization, I cannot help but relate these discussions to my experiences and insight as someone who has worked on diversity for nearly 20 years professionally and longer personally.

I share them here to make real the impact of policies that in this community may only be experienced in theory by many. In fact, I chose Grinnell for my undergraduate college experience precisely to find a place of inclusion after the difficult journey of punishment and exclusion simply for being myself. I found a wonderfully welcoming campus, faculty, student and staff community in terms of my sexuality, and I am proud to be connected to continuing to foster that inclusion to this day.

However, as difficult as my exclusion and near expulsion was for me, I feel just as strongly that everyone needs to find a way to be included in dialogue and challenged in their ways of thinking, instead of discussion shutting down and taking sides at this time on campus.

This is the very definition of diversity. Grinnellians Seeking Christ is inclusive of openly and actively LGBTQ students and thus provides an option for some of our students. And, while no longer a student organization, Grinnell’s Intervarsity Christian Fellowship is a place where some of our students find voice and recognition of their beliefs, just like other community-based organizations or churches locally. They both have a place in our larger community and town.

Thus, as Chief Diversity Officer, I welcome the difficult dialogues and sharing of experiences that will help us all learn more about each other, as we must encounter different ways of thinking to grow into new ways of being that are inclusive in a world full of division and strife over this very issue. Grinnellians are not alone in dealing with this debate. But, we must be in a place to include even those who may choose to exclude some of us based on their beliefs.

We can be models of change and inclusion, even in the face of exclusion. And, it is my hope that the two Christian groups will come up with a list of what makes their organization distinctive, so that all students may choose which to join with full knowledge and awareness of expectations.

Furthermore, I encourage each fellow Grinnellian to choose to engage, not badger or exclude, the people who believe differently than they might. We can all choose to be inclusive, even when others are not.

It is part of our ethos as a diverse and self-governing community. Accordingly, we can all grow to understand how we will develop our understanding of these issues, with respect and a sense of justice moving forward.

I hope my personal experience may help open eyes to the pain of exclusion, especially as it can and is challenged by Biblical examples. May you also find a way to practice inclusion as a campus community that respects all differences, even when they are not in agreement with our perspectives.

I invite all to dialogue with me and each other about these issues from a place of understanding and compassion.

Sincerely and openly,

Elena Bernal
Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer