Anna Morris | Assistant News Editor
Students sat on the front steps of Edman Chapel holding signs and singing on Friday morning, Jan. 31, in a demonstration of solidarity and a desire to be heard before chapel guest Rosaria Champagne Butterfield gave her testimony and address to the Wheaton College community.
The demonstration, named “More Than a Single Story” by its organizers junior Justin Massey and sophomore Jordan-Ashley Barney, featured students holding signs that said “We’re all loved by God,” “This is not a protest,” “Rosaria’s story is valid, mine is too,” and “I’m gay and a beloved child of God. This is my story,” among many others. The students remained on the steps until just before chapel began, at which point they prayed together and then entered into the chapel to hear the message. Plans for the demonstration were formed on Wednesday, when Barney and Massey learned about Butterfield’s coming to Wheaton and heard from friends about their concern for the possibly negative impact that Butterfield’s story could have on Wheaton students.
Butterfield, who is the author of “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert,” gave her message on her conversion to Christianity and her thoughts on sexuality through a Christian lens. Chaplain Stephen Kellough, who is responsible for inviting speakers to campus, felt that Butterfield’s “thoughtful and passionate articulation of a life transformed by Christ” would be beneficial for students to hear.
“My invitation to Dr. Rosaria Butterfield was intended to help us to think through issues of sexuality, to be sure,” Kellough said. “But really, my interest in having her speak in chapel was much more than that. It was her profound and winsome description of an entire life — sexuality and all — transformed by the gospel that was the most compelling reason for her being invited to speak in chapel.”
Massey said that he feared that students would be isolated or marginalized by Butterfield’s story of transformation from “radical, lesbian, leftist professor to this morally good Christian,” which could make LGBTQ or feminist students feel that those two identities were “oppositional” or mutually exclusive.
“We feared that if no conversation was added to the single message of the speaker that students who are not very well informed were going to walk into chapel, hear the message, and have misconceptions confirmed or that students who are LGBT would be told that this story is the absolute way that things happen,” Massey said.
Following the demonstration, Massey, Barney and other students who took part in the demonstration were invited to a “talk-back” discussion including Butterfield, a few alumni, associate dean of Student Care and Services Allison Ash, dean of Student Engagement Steve Ivester and ministry associate for discipleship and Grad Chapel Clayton Keenon. There, students had the opportunity to discuss with Butterfield their concerns about her message and its impact on students who have expressed feelings of marginalization and hurt on Wheaton’s campus.
“At the meeting after the chapel, the students explained that their demonstration was meant to express concern that Dr. Butterfield’s story would be interpreted by the community as prescriptive rather than descriptive,” Ash said. “They expressed the desire for other stories to be told among the community in order to represent more than one person’s individual experience.”
At the talk-back, which was held at the suggestion of Butterfield, students were also able to discuss their personal experiences of being gay and being feminists at Wheaton, as well as the general attitude that they felt that the Wheaton community held towards them.
“We shared basically all of our thoughts with her, and she was really appreciative,” Barney said. “It was great, because she was able to say that homophobia is a real sin, and that it should be repented of and made amends for, so it was really good to have that conversation going, because our direction was not ‘hey, we don’t want you here’ or ‘we want to change what the administration or chapel is doing about their beliefs,’ but we really wanted to combat the isolation that students feel on campus on a daily basis, and how that really is not okay right now,” Barney said.
Additionally, Massey and Barney met with Chaplain Kellough before the demonstration to give him advanced notice that they would be holding a demonstration before chapel and to inquire towards his reasoning for inviting Butterfield to speak on campus.
“I think he was really grateful for us coming and talking with him,” Massey said.
Kellough voiced his appreciation that students were expressing their concerns and that the topic of sexuality is a challenging one, particularly in an evangelical Christian college.
“I am glad that students have felt the freedom to express their concerns about the manner in which we discuss issues of sexuality on campus and in chapel,” Kellough said. “These are things that matter. It is especially important for us in an evangelical Christian college to challenge one another to think Christianly, to think biblically, to think compassionately, and to be willing to think counter-culturally.”
The demonstration and talk back has inspired further conversation and action as to what the campus can and should do to help those who are feeling marginalized and hurt. Ivester said that he, Ash, vice president for Student Development Paul Chelsen, and associate dean of Residence Life Justin Heth met with several of the students who participated in the demonstration to learn more about what led the students to hold the demonstration and to hear their thoughts about Butterfield’s visit. Additionally, the administrators sought students’ opinion on homophobic attitudes on campus.
“We discussed an interest in opening public and private discourse on campus that would engage a process of defining terms surrounding same-sex attraction and identity, understanding the student experience, and ways we can better support students identifying as gay or experiencing same-sex attraction,” Ivester said. “We genuinely desire to address issues of harassment, prejudice and homophobic attitudes,” he added. Ash also said that although no specific course of action has been decided as of now, she is hopeful that students felt heard and cared for, and believes that there is more to be discussed.
Both Massey and Barney said that their takeaways from the demonstration were generally positive, and that they felt encouraged by the conversations that were started between them and other students about the issues that they shared through their stories.
“I feel so hopeful for what is to come, because during that meeting the administration was so open to hearing us, and hearing what we had to say about the hurt that has been caused at Wheaton time and time again,” Barney said.
Massey said that, after three years of engaging in this conversation at Wheaton, he was happy to see students stand up and act on their beliefs. He also said that he feels that this kind of action from students is necessary to create change and address the kinds of social issues that More Than a Single Story aimed to shed light on.
“For me, this kind of gathering and speaking out in something that we believe in is essential to our Christian call,” Massey said. “I think that we are called to be active, and to speak out and engage … I want to see more students that are willing to step out and to show their unique perspectives.”
Kellough stressed the importance of stories — both Rosaria’s and other students’ — but also the “story of all stories,” that of gospel transformation and faithfulness.
“My prayer is that hearing Dr. Butterfield’s story will encourage and embolden all of us to share our stories with each other — to warmly invite those stories and to warmly receive those stories,” Kellough said. “My hope is that in telling our personal stories, we will be pointing one another to the ‘story of stories’ found in Jesus’ love for us.”