Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Not So Hospitable House...

Just a few days ago, the administration of Columbia Theological Seminary, the seminary from which my husband Joel and I graduated, voted to continue discriminating against its LGBTQ students with regard to its housing policy.  Despite the repeated requests of students over the course of many years, and most recently after two years of "careful research of various alternatives, and conversation with numerous people in our diverse constituency," same-sex students in committed relationships are still not allowed to live together on campus.  This is inconsistent with housing policies on other PCUSA-affiliated seminaries, and I believe it is both unjust and inconsistent  with the mission of the seminary itself.  As the current policy stands, single students who wish to live on campus are required to live in single rooms.  Apartments / suites are reserved for married couples or traditional one- or two-parent families only.  If a same-sex couple in a committed relationship wants to live together, they must do so off campus.  If these couples have children, this means they will likely not be able to afford to live in the immediate vicinity of the seminary, which would mean their children could not attend the excellent City of Decatur schools where most "seminary kids" go. They would have to live outside the City of Decatur limits, or would have to live in communities that are far removed from the seminary itself, making the entire seminary experience less than ideal for the whole family.  

The Tolbert in 2005:  Michael, Joel, Adam, Jill, & Daniel

On Friday, Seminary President Steve Hayner addressed this decision in a letter to the student body.  In order to voice our disappointment with this decision, many CTS alums will be writing to President Hayner in the next day or two.  I have posted my response here, and welcome your respectful comments, feedback, questions, etc.  (Note:  Since originally posting this on Sunday, I have edited it slightly, both for typographical errors as well as to better represent my intent.)

April 22, 2012
Dear Steve,

I write as a concerned alumna of Columbia Theological Seminary to express my deep disappointment with the recent decision not to change in the seminary’s housing policy.  While I have the utmost respect for the leadership which each one of you provides for the seminary, and while I honor you and each member of your cabinet individually as brothers and sisters in Christ, I am deeply troubled that you have chosen to continue to allow the seminary to practice such a grave injustice with regard to housing.  To invite or encourage anyone to become a part of the CTS community, then to treat them as less than equal to their colleagues is, I believe, inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

It is equally disappointing that this unfair decision has been defended as if living in a same-sex relationship is an unacceptable “behavior” choice, as if intimacy between two people of the same gender in a committed, loving relationship is somehow inconsistent with life at CTS or the Gospel.   That you refer to a covenantal same-sex relationship as an issue of “behavior”  suggests that perhaps you believe identifying as LGBTQ is a matter of choice—much like a decision to smoke, avoid carbs, use drugs, exercise regularly, have an affair, or use excessive profanity.  Identifying as LGBTQ is not a choice, but is rather a part of how each of us is made—fearfully and wonderfully, in God’s own image.  The decision to continue to discriminate against LGBTQ students and their families reflects poorly on the seminary’s claim to “witness to God’s creative power, redemptive action, transforming justice, and reconciling love.” 

Over the years, many of us have tried to affect changes, large and small, within the CTS community during our time as students, and have often been met with significant resistance.  Some of us are beginning to fear that the administrative approach regarding student-led changes is to simply stall, to “wait us out,” masking the passing of time as time for discussion, discernment, due diligence, and the like.   Let’s be honest:  The reality is that most of us—the star students and the trouble makers--eventually graduate and move on.  We are called to ministries and lives that demand more time than we even have, thereby leaving little time or energy to be voices for change on the seminary campus.  And so we become complacent about what happens on that space between Kirk Road and Inman Drive.  We ignore the issues that were often core to our identities when we were a part of the day-to-day life on the campus of CTS, often leaving the burden of justice-seeking at 701 S. Columbia Drive or 604 Kirk Road to those who come after us.  However, God is at work among us in new ways with this recent refusal to change, and we have been called to action.  We have vowed to the current students as well as to each other that this time, the issue will not simply go away as the original initiators graduate.  Rather, our efforts will be strengthened with each passing year as more alumni voices are added to our chorus.  We are no longer willing to be passive or silent regarding the issue of fair housing on campus.  Our growing insistence for equality and justice with regard to seminary housing will be seen, heard, and felt in ways we will discern both individually and corporately.

As for me, in my continued work with college students and young adults, as long as this unjust policy is in place, I will be hesitant to encourage those who feel called to ministry to consider Columbia.  This policy clearly suggests that CTS does not, in fact, honor ALL of God’s children as full and valued members of its community.  Additionally, I will be prayerfully considering and suggesting ways that financial contributions—my own as well as those of my friends and family--can continue to support ALL of the students in the CTS community, without regard to sexual orientation, family structure, or gender identity.  The honest truth is that the current housing policy does not live up to the values that are professed on its website:  “Because we are a confessional community of the Church, we live under the authority of Jesus Christ as witnessed to in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments;  (We) commit ourselves to diversity and inclusivity, …seek to be faithful to the gospel, and to become a living expression of the Body of Christ to the world.”      

It is with both respect and deep sadness that I write this letter.  I continue to stand in solidarity with many of my colleagues and brothers and sisters in the faith who have a deep love for the Triune God whom we worship and serve, a love for each other in spite of our differences, and a love for the community of faith that nurtured us so wonderfully during our formative years in her daily embrace. 

In Christ,


Rev. Jill Patterson Tolbert, M.Div.
CTS Class of 2007

cc:  Deborah Mullen, Marty Sadler, Doug Taylor, John White


Andy said...

Amen sista! Beautifully said. See you tomorrow at 3:30 pm at CTS

Sarah said...

As a former international student at CTS, I was shocked and surprised to hear that LBTQ (apologies if I have the abbreviation wrong) students are treated in this way in regard to the seminary's policy for housing provision.

My experience while at Columbia was very refreshing as I witnessed students who were in committed same sex partnerships being able to take a high profile role on campus. CTS itself has a proud heritage of standing up for justice and I am saddened to learn that this appears to no longer be the case.

Sarah Moore
International Student from the UK, Fall 2001.

noe said...

this letter is beautifully stated and appreciated. I did not attend CTS, but had a connection to the community in my early 20s through housemates who were students there. After leaving Atlanta and coming out, I responded to the call to seminary. I appreciate that the institution I attended welcomed both me and my partner as members of the community. This ministry of hospitality and welcome is one of the core reasons I felt drawn to the seminary I attended and is the thing that keeps me tied to the community now that I'm an alum. I do hope and pray that the administration of CTS will have ears to hear your response.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I have twice come very close to applying to Columbia. Perhaps it was providential that I did not actually do so either time. Instead, I went to Louisville Seminary, which I've heard is only half jokingly referred to by the other Presby seminaries as the "Rainbow Seminary."

I do have a request: Would it be possible for you to post a link to a publicly-viewable copy of President Hayner's letter? The link in your article ( points to a Facebook page whose privacy settings prevent me from seeing it. Thanks.