This is Part II of a two-part post. To read Part I, click here.
In many ways, my escape from ORU in spring of 2011 turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Over Fall Break in 2010, I had gone on a university-led educational trip to Washington, D.C., which included a guided tour of the U.S. Capitol by noted pseudo-historian David Barton, a tour of Fox News’ D.C. bureau facilitated by Kelly Wright, and, of course, a visit to the Family Research Council. Don’t get me wrong, it was interesting. I’ll never forget standing with Barton in the middle of Statuary Hall awkwardly singing “God Bless America,” or seeing Charles Krauthammer whisk by in his wheelchair at Fox en route to pontificate for Special Report, or meeting Juan Williams a few days before he got fired from NPR. It’s just that the irony of it being called an “educational” trip didn’t dawn on me until some time later.
I wasn’t at that time looking quite so intently for an escape (that would be a few weeks later), but I was intrigued when, at FRC’s headquarters on G Street, the internship director gave a short talk about their internship program, which included a weekly stipend and free housing. A short time later, after I’d made up my mind I was leaving ORU even if it killed me, that internship program came to mind. Finding that it indeed was a paid internship with housing included and that I could earn credit toward graduation while working it, I mailed in an application. It was really down to the wire when I finally got word of my acceptance on the last day or two of finals week. I don’t know that I’d ever been so happy and excited. As most students were returning to campus in January with freshly-bought textbooks, I returned with a rented U-haul trailer. In a couple of days, I had emptied my room, loaded everything into the trailer, said my goodbyes to the men I’d served as chaplain, and enjoyed a parting hamburger from McNellie’s with the very dear friends in my chaplain dorm group. A little over a week later, I was on a plane to Washington.
Before we continue, remember that I was born and raised in one of the most politically and religiously conservative states in the Union. I wound up studying at a university founded by a Pentecostal Holiness preacher and that’s still ran by his ilk. Consequently, my exposure to alternate viewpoints was severely anemic. When I was growing up, most of the authority figures in my life were the sort of people who said that gay rights advocates, women’s rights activists, Democrats, liberal Christians, unionized workers and people like Jon Stewart, Ted Kennedy, and Cornel West were not only wrong, but “evil.” All were pawns in an elaborate global conspiracy to take God out of the Bible, the Bible out of the Constitution, and then murder all the Christians. I kid you not, my worldview was so warped by the time I was 18, I legitimately thought Barack Obama was probably the Antichrist. Those views were tempered slightly over time, but, ironically, it wasn’t until my internship with FRC that I was confronted with how wrong they all were. I just might be the only person in the world who’ll be able to say interning with the Family Research Council turned me into a progressive.
It’s hard to pinpoint a single event that precipitates a seismic shift in worldview (it’s usually a series of small ones), but one in particular stands out in my mind. Given that I was a Communications and Writing major, my internship was within FRC’s media department. After helping the organization’s audio/visual coordinator film a few events, they felt confident sending me out on my own to record a seminar on the Hill. I forget if I knew what the seminar was about before I arrived, but it turned out to be a panel of Catholic clergy and laity discussing the issue of homosexuality and how people of faith could find a way to accommodate LGBTs. I don’t recall much of what was said specifically, but I do remember one layman, a father with a grown gay son, tearfully relating his own struggle coming to terms with his son’s sexuality. As I stood in the back of the room with the other cameramen, I felt a sick feeling start to rise in my stomach. It took me a long time to find words to describe that visceral conviction, but I really felt like a voyeur. Here I was, videotaping this very raw, heartfelt exposition on behalf of an organization whose only interest in it was if it could be put to use in some of their propaganda. It took a long time for me to fully think through and arrive at a clear articulation of how I felt about that and other issues, but I knew right then, deep down, that what I was doing was wrong. So, let’s just say I did my best to ensure the video quality was poor enough that FRC wouldn’t be likely to use it.
If I remember correctly, that event was mid-March, during an internship that lasted from mid-January to the end of April. In addition to an unpredictable work-flow (I often had nothing to do), I now had to contend with this gut-feeling that the work I was doing somehow wasn’t right. Bear in mind, I didn’t become a progressive overnight; shifts in worldview take time, particularly if they’re thoughtful, as I ensured mine was. The people I worked with were all very nice and sincere people who genuinely believed they were doing the right thing, fighting on the front lines protecting traditional values. I was doing the internship for class credit, so leaving wasn’t really an option. Nonetheless, by the time April’s end rolled around, I found myself in the odd position of being desperate to get back to ORU. I didn’t really miss the university; I missed the people there. I’m continually mystified by how Oral Roberts manages to attract some of the most outstanding people in the world while doing so little to deserve them. Perhaps more than anything else, the people are why I hung on and didn’t give up on the place.
As the internship wound down, I secured my place as editor in chief of the Oracle for the following year and I also arranged to return as a chaplain for a new floor of men. The debacle of the previous fall was still fresh on my mind, but I was cautiously optimistic about the upcoming year. I finished my internship at FRC a few days early so I could be back in Tulsa to see some of my best friends graduate and, as I packed my things in the tiny Capitol Hill apartment I shared with two roommates, I laughed at myself. How absurd it seemed that just a few months prior I couldn’t wait to get away and now I couldn’t wait to get back. Irony’s a bitch.
In hindsight, I can say now that “editor in chief” wasn’t the best move for me. I was a little foolish for thinking I could juggle that and taking a full course-load and being an effective chaplain. I let ambition–and a strong desire to be a thorn in administration’s side for my last year–get in the way of good sense. Furthermore, the circumstances of my departure necessitated that I air a few grievances before the very body I viewed as fundamentally illegitimate. Irony is without a doubt a woman and I almost certainly scorned her at some point.
My time at ORU had a peculiar effect on me, probably because the institution itself is so peculiar. As I alluded to before, it’s the sort of place people believe in and no matter how much I bought into it, meeting people who’d tell me how much they believed in ORU never ceased to be genuinely creepy. Over the course of my four years there, I went from naïve cynic, to true believer, to idealistic reformer, to disillusioned believer, to bitter cynic, to over-it-all, and, finally, to something else I’ve yet to define. More than anything, I think I’ve made peace with the fact that it is, ultimately, a flawed human institution founded by a flawed human being containing all the requisite idiosyncrasies. That realization opens the door to an extension of grace and a genuine hope that changes for the better do come.
As senior year drew to a close and graduation neared, any apprehension I had about the future was far outweighed by the sense of excitement pervading my body. My service as chaplain was life-changing and taught me far more about caring for, interceding for, and setting an authentic example for other people than I could have learned anywhere. In a place where a saccharine personality and working all the right Christian buzzwords into a conversation is essential to projecting the image of godliness, I wanted to demonstrate that was all well and good but that it wasn’t the end-all.
In one last hurrah, in my final weeks as a student, a wonderful opportunity presented itself to push back against the university’s utterly stupid censorship policies. A brave young lady penned a letter to the editor criticizing the university’s sexist enforcement of rules governing student life. It was published in the last print edition of the Oracle for the 2011-2012 school year and, although it made it past the censor’s pen, one of the vice presidents apparently threw a fit upon reading it (because lots of prospective students plus their mommies and daddies were on campus that day). Papers were removed from distribution bins and the newspaper staff received orders not to publish the article online. I happened to be in the newspaper office when word came down from on high that the faculty adviser was (again) summoned to a meeting for a dressing-down. A little while later, a brilliant idea occurred to me. I got in touch with the author and asked to republish the letter here on my blog. She agreed and an article that probably would have been read by 40 people tops in print has been read nearly 6000 times and continues to receive hits. Irony and I kissed and made up, I guess.
As you all know, I came home after graduation and that’s where I’ve remained, in what has essentially been suspended animation. Current economic conditions complicated a search for employment just long enough for me to realize the thing I was trying to do really wasn’t even what I wanted deep down. It was only a few weeks ago that I found out I’d be following my dream to work abroad for a few years and depart for South Korea just a few weeks hence. Thus, here I sit, often feeling a strong sense of déjà vu and then remembering that far too much has happened to call this a repeat of the past. Most significantly, I’m not running away from anything this time, I’m running to something. There is, nevertheless, an odd sense of inexplicable comfort in the realization that, in some small way, I’ve come full circle. There’s a sense of completion, of cloture, that’s truly priceless. We should never forget the past, but needn’t we live in it either, which is why writing this has been my final cathartic move in preparation for a new adventure. Whether this moment comes at the end of one arc of my life or is merely the next step in one, only time can reveal. Sometimes though, it just doesn’t do any good worrying about it. Things will happen as they happen. L’Chaim!