WENHAM -- Breaking with many fellow conservative Christian schools, Gordon College in Wenham will welcome to campus this week a busload of young adults who are sharply critical of the school's policies on homosexuality.
The gay-rights activists have repeatedly been arrested and barred from the campuses of other Christian colleges this year as they travel the country in their effort to call attention to what they view as discriminatory policies and hostile climates on evangelical campuses.
But officials at Gordon, where homosexual activity is barred by campus policy, have agreed to host the group for a series of presentations and conversations, saying they believe it will be good for students to hear a variety of views. The college has held three lectures about homosexuality and morality, the Bible, and science, and is highlighting the visit on its website.
"We present lots of ideas in the classroom that we don't agree with -- that's part of education," said Barry J. Loy , the dean of students. "I'm hopeful that they will come here to learn, and we will do the same. We're not keeping our students from them."
Loy e-mailed the entire Gordon campus about the visit, declaring that, "Gordon College affirms the historic, orthodox Christian position that homosexual practice is incompatible with the teaching of Scripture. However, the college plans to provide a gracious welcome to our Equality Ride visitors and views this occasion as an important educational opportunity."
Loy said he has not received a single complaint from a student or parent about the college's intention to welcome the activists.
The bus tour of Christian colleges is being organized, for the second year, by Soulforce , a gay-rights organization that advocates nonviolent resistance against "spiritual violence," which it defines as "the misuse of religion to sanction the condemnation and rejection of any of God's children."
There are two buses traveling the country now. The bus heading to New England has 25 riders, most of them in their 20s. The group has been greeted largely with hostility, and riders have been arrested on nine campuses when they have attempted to enter. They have been welcomed only at four campuses prior to the Gordon visit.
"I'm hoping that we'll be able to open some hearts and minds over at Gordon while we talk with students," said Kyle DeVries , a spokesman for the riders. "One of our main goals is to put a human face to an often abstract issue, and to share our own spiritual experiences and faith with students while they share theirs with us."
Gordon, with 1,500 students, was founded in 1889 in a Boston church basement as a missionary training school; it grew into a full-fledged college, with some graduate departments, and moved to the North Shore in 1955. All applicants to Gordon College are asked to sign a statement agreeing to "recognize the Bible to be the Word of God and hence fully authoritative in matters of faith and conduct."
Specifically, the statement says, "those acts which are expressly forbidden in Scripture, including fornication, homosexuality, adultery, drunkenness, theft, profanity, and dishonesty, will not be practiced by members of the Gordon community, either on or off campus."
Loy said he can recall only one instance of a controversy over homosexuality on the Gordon campus, and that was some years ago when a group of students wanted to form an advocacy group to support gays and lesbians and the student government did not approve of the organization. But he said the college knows that there are "students who have same-sex attraction" on campus, and that the college attempts to be supportive through its counseling center.
At Gordon, the college invited the riders to a worship service last night and plans to hold a dinner tonight for the visitors with faculty, administrators, and students. Later tonight, there will be a presentation in the college chapel featuring the riders, with a response from a college administrator. The riders will attend classes tomorrow, talk informally with students, and give another presentation.
Stan Gaede , a scholar-in-residence and senior adviser to the president, will deliver the response to the Soulforce riders.
"This is a place that takes education very seriously," he said. "Because we are a Christian community, we are interested in learning more and more about what it is we say we believe."
The event has received wide attention on campus, and students interviewed said they are hopeful about the visit.
"I'm really looking forward to it. I think they're going to bring a conversation to our campus that is going to be a good one to have with our student body," said John Stoeckle , 22, the executive president of the student association. "I don't believe in a fortress-like approach to life."
Stoeckle said that he supports Gordon's policy against homosexual conduct, but that "I find myself growing and realizing that the world is also a very complicated place, and we're often not really very good at loving people. We let beliefs become abstractions, and not people. And we have students at Gordon who are homosexual and really struggle with being here."
Ryan Stadt , 20, a sophomore philosophy major from Augusta, Mich., said by e-mail, "It seems like the wiser option to welcome the equality riders onto campus, first because they would have picketed the school anyway, but secondly, and more importantly, because we as an institution seek to honestly pursue both intellectual and spiritual questions. A teacher in high school once told me, 'An untested opinion is not worth having.' . . . So, what do I hope to get from our Soulforce visitors? A worthwhile, tested opinion."
Michael Paulson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.