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Soulforce kicks off tour at ND

Becky Hogan | Friday, March 9, 2007

The Soulforce Equality Ride is making its way across the U.S. to spread awareness about religious intolerance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people – and its first stop among 32 Christian colleges and universities was Notre Dame.

A bus arrived on campus Thursday with representatives from Soulforce Equality, a non-profit organization that promotes “freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from religious and political oppression through the practice of relentless nonviolent resistance,” according to the group’s Web site.

Last year, the organization began the Soulforce Equality Ride, a 50-day bus trip that visits schools across the nation.

This year the tour will make stops at 32 Christian colleges, but Notre Dame is the first and only Catholic institution on the Equality Ride’s schedule.

Two buses with 25 riders and two co-directors will cover the country’s territory. The first bus will tackle the West, while the second one will travel along the eastern regions of the United States.

The West bus arrived at Notre Dame Thursday and will remain on campus today.

The riders organized a press conference at one of the Notre Dame Avenue entrances Thursday, said Kelsey Pacha, a lesbian junior at Northwestern University and one of the 25 riders on the western route. But she said Notre Dame Security/Police did not welcome the demonstration.

“We were a little disappointed,” Pacha said.

She said NDSP officers gave different riders citations.

“It was a hurtful [message] that we were silenced,” said Delfin Bautista, another Soulforce rider. “We were trying to simply engage students in dialogue.”

Pacha said the Soulforce riders hope to bring Notre Dame’s attention to two issues: the University’s failure to recognize AllianceND – a gay and lesbian support group on campus – as an official student organization and its refusal to allow the group to meet on campus.

“If there are 200 students on campus that support AllianceND, then it should definitely be able to be funded by University, publicize its events and meet on campus,” Pacha said.

Pacha also spoke about the name changes to the Queer Film Festival, which last year became “Gay and Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Spectatorship and Narratives” and this year the “Qlassics” film series.

“It is unfortunate that the University put pressure on students to remove the word ‘queer’ from the [production’s] title. … This speaks about silencing issues on [Notre Dame’s] campus,” Pacha said.

While Soulforce Equality riders recognize the weight of the University’s strong Catholic identity on the administration’s decisions, Pacha said there is an increasing number of Catholic institutions willing to officially recognize lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) groups.

“Although we know that Notre Dame has to comply with what the Vatican says, we also know that comparable institutions – such as Georgetown and Boston College – have recognized student groups,” Pacha said.

As part of Soulforce’s campaign on campus, four openly gay Notre Dame students spoke about their experiences in the Notre Dame community Thursday at LaFortune Student Center.

“At Notre Dame things are a little bit different than the other schools which have policies that prevent openly gay students from enrolling – Notre Dame doesn’t do that,” Pacha said. “We’re expecting that people will be willing to talk to us about this, especially groups like AllianceND.”

Pacha said she became involved in the tour and the organization after a Northwestern graduate she knows founded the Equality Ride. She also has a friend who participated in last year’s kick-off tour. Their experiences inspired her to take a seat in the bus this spring.

“Some of the riders are in grad school, some are in the seminary, a few are social workers and most of us are college students,” Pacha said.

She said approximately one half of the riders are Christian and five out of the 50 riders are “straight allies.”

“Soulforce believes the best way to fight oppression built into structures of government and laws is to refuse to comply with those rules in a nonviolent way,” Pacha said. “We have all been trained in civil disobedience and what that looks like.”

At every campus the Equality Rides visits, two riders from the group are selected to head the organization and planning of presentations and arrange discussions with campus administrators, Pacha said. She and Bautista were put in charge of organizing Soulforce’s visit to Notre Dame.

“Most of us who are in school are either taking a semester off or a quarter off,” she said. “It is definitely a sacrifice, but it is a worthy cause.”

The Soulforce team said although it met with some resistance from the Notre Dame community, the University is still more accepting of their effort than some of the other colleges on the schedule.

“At other schools we are expecting a lot of resistance,” Pacha said. “We have already gotten angry e-mails from people telling us that they don’t want us to come to their campus and threats that we will be arrested if we do. The situation [at these schools] is a little more volatile.”

She said she wasn’t frustrated with the situation, but rather thought it was unfortunate that schools would take such an extreme view against the creation of dialogue.

The Soulforce riders will attempt to spark positive discussion again today.

“We will be giving a gift to the University in the form of wreathes in front of the Tom Dooley statue today,” Pacha said.

Discussion arose nearly 30 years after Dooley’s death that the renowned Notre Dame missionary was gay.

“The riders will offer a wreath to honor those who are courageous and have fought for change and tried to make a difference,” Bautista said.

After today’s events, the bus will head to Wisconsin for the tour’s next stop to continue spreading the message of tolerance and acceptance among hetero- and homosexual students.

Pacha said as a Christian, the narrow-minded attitudes toward LGBTQ students on certain religiously affiliated campuses influenced her decision when she had to pick a college.

Though she was admitted to Notre Dame, she chose to attend Northwestern, thinking she may have struggled to find support at the University.

“A lot of us are Christians and a lot of us are gay Christians,” she said. “We should be able to enroll in these universities without feeling like we are being condemned.”

The Christian disposition toward LGBTQ students should be one of inclusiveness, not intolerance, Bautista said.

“The purpose of our Notre Dame visit is to try to get the University to take a stance on making the word ‘catholic’ truly mean universal,” he said.

Each rider has a Web site that includes a Pay-pal link where people can donate money to the Equality Ride. Each rider’s goal is to raise $3,500 to cover the cost of ride.

Approximately 16 other campuses – including Brigham Young University, Pepperdine University, Yellowstone Baptist College and Wisconsin Lutheran College – are ahead on the tour’s schedule.