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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

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

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  • C

    ChrisOct 5, 2011 at 11:23 pm


    Appreciate the thoughtful response.

    Not sure how varied the on-campus Christian scene really is though (see surveys of students, faculty, and staff) so I think that’s an area of diversity that needs continued dialogue. I have not found Bernal to be helpful in this way, since she seems to start such discussions with a predisposition that favors the loudest voices, not necessarily the quieter middle.

  • D

    Doug D.Oct 5, 2011 at 5:31 am

    There is much more that makes the two organizations distinctive than than the LGBTQ issue. Let it be known that discussion for starting Grinnellians Seeking Christ, at that time nameless, began before the LGBTQ issue and gets at much deeper, theological differences. Without going into too much detail, one of these major differences has to deal with interpretations of the Bible. The Intervarsity group stresses a stricter, more literal interpretation of the Bible while GSC leans towards a more open and less literal interpretation of the Bible, taking scripture within the context of the whole Bible. To put it simply, just as churches and denominations are varied, why shouldn’t the Christian scene on-campus also be varied?

    As Elena accurately pointed out, open discussion is key. Yes, exclusion is a two way street in this case. However, the college has a nondiscrimination policy, and SGA, in their good conscience, could not support a group that is discriminatory. Additionally, know that SGA worked with the Intervarsity organization and those considering starting a second Christian group.

    Many of us attempted to gauge in open dialogue within the Intervarsity group and ask for answers on what the group stood for, valued, and required. Many were told “this is not up for discussion” or “we’ll talk later” with later never coming. In a sense, losing their official student organization status has been good for the Intervarsity group, for it has forced them to begin to engage in dialogue and more clearly define their stances and expectations.

    Don’t get me wrong. There are great people in both groups, and I am good friends with people from both. We simply view things differently; this is not (or at least should not) be an us versus them situation. Let us engage in open dialogue as both groups remain active on-campus.

  • C

    Chris M.Sep 18, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    It seems very clear “what makes their organization distinctive” — that is, the two groups have made clear their value positions. The colleges chooses to support one and shun the other. Isn’t that just game over? It seems the college will not support those who do not already think like the monied, or funded, class. I’m not sure how that supports diversity because Intervarsity is not a fringe group. You will find people outside the Grinnell bubble to have different values. How are you preparing students to work in a multicultural world if you reinforce ideological homogeneity through your budget funding policies?