Two years ago, I was in a phase not terribly different from where I am now. I was at home, it was a few days after Christmas, and I had just laid down for sleep when a jolt of excitement shot through my body, beginning at the top of my spine and ending at the soles of my feet. See, I was inching closer and closer, one day at a time, to the day when I would leave on jet plane to a faraway city to begin a new adventure. Okay, granted, it was a less-faraway city and a much shorter adventure, one that had a very different outcome (hopefully) than the one I prepare for now. Just bear with me.
Seeing as how this post is coming mere days before the beginning of a new year, I suppose it’s convenient to make it a “year in review” sort of thing, but, just to be clear, I don’t feel obligated to constrain life’s arcs to an arbitrary unit of time. This particular post picks up primarily in late 2010. Even with my hesitance to impose a narrative structure onto life’s chaotic happenstance, I can comfortably say that the current arc of “my story” began then and with what one might conservatively call a “series of unfortunate events.” (Incidentally, my sole New Year’s resolution is to reach a point of comfort saying “my story” outside quotations.) But first, a bit of back story to get us rolling. After all, the beginning of one arc in a story is quite often the end of another.
In late autumn, 2010, I was a college junior and a different person–whether “different” should be preceded by “quite” or “somewhat” is still up in the air. I was at that time both a student chaplain and managing editor at Oral Roberts University’s student newspaper, the Oracle. As I look back, joining the newspaper’s staff was and–as of yet–is one of the most important decisions I’ve made in my very short life, one that had lots of diverse consequences. I’d started as a staff writer the previous year and written several fluff pieces for the entertainment section before seeking and receiving permission from my editor to pursue a series of articles I thought and, to a degree, still think were very important.
You see, when I matriculated at ORU in 2008, the first months were spent wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into. I kept thinking, in the midst of Chapel services, class devotions, and cafeteria table talk, “Why is everyone here so effing weird?” I’d never been around so many people so expressive and jingoistic about their faith. Even so, it wasn’t long before I’d joined them and become just as expressive and just as jingoistic, mostly by force of attrition. The human desire to conform is quite powerful. Reading my Facebook posts from that period is both entertaining and slightly painful, like re-reading the notes you wrote your fifth grade crush would be. Not only did I buy into a very ORU-centric and Charismatic expression of Christianity, but I also bought into the university itself. I suppose there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but it proved quite pivotal not long thence.
The next fall was when I joined the newspaper. I gradually developed this vision of ORU as a place that could blossom into a center for the promotion of unity within the Body of Christ as well as potentially neutral ground where the various expressions of the Faith could come together. Though my understanding of it has evolved substantially, Christian unity was and is very important to me and I wanted to do what little I could to foster it. Thus, with my editor’s blessing, I began writing a series of stories for the Oracle intended to introduce ORU’s student body to different and diverse bodies of believers. I wrote five in all, covering a Messianic congregation, Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Monasticism, and Methodism. All were published in the spring of 2010 and I have to say I remain very proud of that work. It was a pivotal life moment all its own, as it was just as much a learning experience for me as for anyone else. When I returned to campus in fall of 2010 as a chaplain and as newspaper managing editor, I saw both roles as vehicles to pursue my deep-seated dream of promoting unity.
Then the shit hit the fan. A lot of it.
First, the university’s administration began taking a much more hostile stance toward the student press, likely because they were beginning to regain their footing from the chaos following Richard Robert’s downfall. Bear in mind, Student Media had only won its freedom from the university’s propaganda–I mean “PR”–department after Regime Change barely two years before. The most consequential incident came when Randy Roberts Potts (Oral Roberts’ grandson, who happens to be gay) released his beautiful video for Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign. This was news, news that was highly relevant to the ORU community, and naturally we intended to cover it, possibly use it as a segue into a broader discussion about Christianity and LGBT issues. That’s when the hammer fell.
One of the newspaper’s reporters had already scheduled an interview with Randy when the paper’s faculty adviser was summoned to a series of meetings with administration officials. The adviser himself had alerted them shortly before that we were pursuing the story, mostly as a courtesy so as to not catch them off-guard. Long story short, we were told that the interview was to be cancelled immediately and that we were not to write any stories concerning LGBT issues. Since the paper is technically funded by the university and the institution is private, they could do that, though it is in very bad form. There was also a fair amount of concern–justified concern–among staffers that the adviser’s job could be in jeopardy because we’d pursued the story.
That wasn’t the only such incident either. We were, on other occasions, forced at the last minute to pull from print feature stories on things like “The Walking Dead” and Harry Potter that administrative censors deemed “too controversial.” A Censorship Committee–pardon me, I mean an “Editorial Advisory Board”–was created by the president to oversee the paper and the yearbook. None of this made any sense to me, since we were only doing what student journalists should do.
Alternately, while serving in my role as a student spiritual counselor that semester, I was confronted with Charismatic Christianity at its most megalomaniacal. The university’s semi-annual revival service that fall featured “pastor” and “apostle” Guillermo Maldonado of Miami, Fla. In what was previewed to be a “high-octane” healing service, Maldonado combined Salsa dancing and wild, arm-waving theatrics to produce the most egregious sham I have ever witnessed. After calling people to the stage who needed healing related to their ears, his aides would shuffle those who didn’t respond to his healing overtures off the platform. Those who did respond often seemed to do so both out of a powerful desire to receive healing and possibly out of intimidation. One student kept trying to tell the man that nothing was happening, and Maldonado responded, to the effect, “Your reason is getting in the way of your faith.” Another student known by virtually everyone on campus to be deaf was conspicuously escorted off-stage when she didn’t gain her ability to hear, all while this side-show nutcase moved up and down the line of people on stage laying on hands and gushing pure gibberish. For my part, I have never been so incensed in my entire life as I was that night sitting in Christ’s Chapel alongside the men I was serving as chaplain. “Shame!,” I shouted at one point. But my voice couldn’t carry over the din. I was outraged both at the charade going on in front of us all and at the fact that not a single spiritual authority figure in the auditorium had the testicular fortitude to put a stop to it. There had been lots of things that had happened up to that point to stoke doubt in my faith in the institution. That one shattered it.
By early November, I knew that I needed to leave ORU, if only for a short time. It was too late to transfer to a different school and still graduate in a reasonable time-frame, but I was suffocating and needed to get away so I could think some things through. Leaping at the first opportunity I could, I applied for an internship at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. I knew next to nothing about FRC when I applied and had no idea it had recently been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (or what the SPLC was for that matter). Plus, at that time, I was still a conservative-by-osmosis and hadn’t really taken time to think through FRC’s issues for myself. I can’t describe my joy when I learned I’d been accepted into FRC’s internship program and that I wouldn’t have to return to ORU (except to move out) in the spring. I went to bed every night over Christmas break thinking about how awesome it was going to be living in Washington with all those wonderful sites and museums just a short walk away. The experience was much more nuanced, however, and opened up cans of worms of its own.
This concludes Part I of this long-ass post. But don’t touch that dial! You can read Part II here.