Messiah College was founded in 1909 on the traditions and values of the Brethren in Christ Church. Those values are reflected in the Community Covenant, an agreement that outlines the behavioral expectations for all members of the Messiah community.
The Covenant forbids many sinful practices such as drunkenness, profanity, and sexual intercourse outside of marriage. However it’s the phrase prohibiting “homosexual behavior” that has been a source of controversy.
Provost Randall Basinger says the covenant is often misunderstood. “What’s presupposed in here is that we make the distinction between same-sex attraction and same-sex sexual expression. Those are two different things. So Messiah doesn’t rule out individuals who have a same-sex attraction or are in some sort of continuum or are struggling trying to sort that out. Our expectations aren’t ‘what kind of orientation do you have,’ our expectations are ‘how do you express the expression of sexual activity within our framework.’”
In 2013, singer-songwriter Josh Ritter expressed his opinion on the Community Covenant by calling the “homosexual behavior” policy “exclusionary and bigoted.” In 2011, openly gay student Isaiah Thomas transferred after claiming he was harassed.
When a case of harassment is reported, including one that involves one’s sexual orientation, an institutional response is clearly outlined in the student handbook. Basinger confirms this, “I think the college comes down very hard if there’s any kind of harassment against that, of being a certain sort of person.”
In light of the recent Supreme Court ruling, many Messiah alumni shared their experiences based on their sexual orientation. Some remember Messiah as an unsafe environment for LGBT students.
2005 graduate Lindsay Ladd said if she had to do it over, she would not have chosen to attend Messiah. “It’s not a welcome environment for a gay person at all. I appreciate how I was taught to critically think at Messiah. I appreciate the camaraderie of soccer games, sledding down cemetery hill on Lottie trays, and intramural sports, and it was good for me at the time, but it would not be the right place for me now. It would be one of the worse options for college for a gay kid.”
2011 graduate Allison Knowles came out as pansexual at Messiah and openly dated another woman. “My time at Messiah was a very lonely time for me. I was emotionally harmed at Messiah, the only reason I was not physically harmed, I think, is because I am a woman. I was reprimanded multiple times for being in a relationship,” she says.
Not all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Messiah students had negative experiences. 2012 graduate Megan Clapp came out as a lesbian to her coworkers, friends, and family her senior year. She has nothing but positive things to say about the experience.
“Nearly every single person I told responded well and in a loving way. I honestly think coming out at Messiah was the safest place I could have come out. I had real friends who were genuine in wanting to dive into the topic and who were open about understanding more about homosexuality,” she says.
Sometimes the issue has even affected students with a high profile at Messiah College. Keith Voets arrived at Messiah in the fall of 1997 and left during the summer of 1999. During that time he was the President of the Messiah College Student Association, what would now be the Student Government Association. While on campus, he joined the Metropolitan Community Church of the Spirit in Harrisburg for gay Christians.
“The day I became a member, the wrestling team showed up because they wanted to see what a gay church looked like. They saw their new student body president up there becoming a member. I knew it was not going to be good,” Voets says.
Voets was celibate during his time at Messiah and did not believe he was breaking the Community Covenant. He says certain administrators at that time agreed that joining the MCC Church was an act of “homosexual behavior.”
“It was just very clear from my interactions that summer that I was not welcome by everyone. For my own mental and spiritual health I had to leave,” he says.
Administrators say creating a safe space for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students was important after previous reports of harassment. “I can say any time an alleged situation comes up it forces us to reevaluate and look at our policies and refine them and continue to create a safe environment for all students on our campus,” says Dean of Students Kris Hansen-Kieffer.
A few years ago Sixth Day Sexuality started as an ongoing series of events related to sexuality and relationships on campus. The Director of the Engle Center, Ellie Addleman, says part of the program is support groups.
This past year the Listening Place was launched as a support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.
“The Listening Place is a little distinct in that it’s by no means any kind of a therapy group or a change group. Usually when you think of support groups, that carries a connotation that the people in the group have some sort of ‘problem.’ I think it’s important to point out here the ‘problem’ is not that members are gay and the group is not attempting to get people not to be gay. The ‘problem’ is that being gay on a campus like Messiah’s can feel lonely and isolating and judged and even at times kind of scary or intimidating. And so that is the problem that people find they need support for from each other and in a sense from the institution,” she says.
Check back for our next article on the present to see what Messiah is currently doing regarding this issue and students’ opinions on the Supreme Court same-sex marriage ruling.