A simple charity fundraising bake sale has triggered a major gay-related debate at Andrews University, the flagship university of the Seventh-day Adventist school system and the largest evangelical Christian college or university in Michigan.
Eliel Cruz helped start Aull4one four years ago with a faculty sponsor. He was president of the club for three years and passed the torch to a new president this year, as he's graduating in May. Aull4One, an unofficial gay-straight alliance on campus, is a student-run group with a handful of faculty sponsors. Andrews University does not officially sanction the organization, though they know it exists and allow it to continue to exist, Cruz said.
"Our mission is to create a safe and supportive space for all members, LGBTQ and straight alike, in which we foster meaningful discussions and create a welcoming atmosphere where everyone's personal stories, perspectives, and ideas are valued," he said. "Our hope is to apply God's golden rule to 'Love thy neighbor as thyself' to the current conversations on Christianity, sexuality, gender, and identity. Our role is not to convict nor judge, but to show support, respect, and God's care for all. By following Christ's example, we hope to make our communities, our churches, and ourselves a living testimony of His love."
Aull4One meets twice a month and it "creates safe space for dialogue about the intersection of faith and sexuality," Cruz said.
About 80 students, almost all queer, are a part of the group. On average, group meetings have 30 to 40 students attending.
"We turned in a proposal last semester for [a] bake sale, [and the] Deans of Student life asked us to move forward with the proposal," Cruz said. "[Since] we are an unofficial group, we needed someone to sponsor us; this is quite common. Many students have ideas and get groups to sponsor them. Campus Ministries agreed to sponsor us. The fundraiser is benefiting Project Fierce in Chicago."
The purpose of the bake sale was threefold, Cruz said.
First, as an unofficial group, Aull4One has no means of letting LGBT students on campus know it exists. The bake sale "was going to help our [on campus] visibility," Cruz said.
Second, it was to raise awareness on how LGBT youth are disproportionately affected by homelessness, he said. "In the last five years, Andrews University has had dozens of events on homosexuality, all of which were theologically condemning and some that even promoted change therapy," he said. "It wasn't until last year that [the school] allowed LGBT students to share our own narratives through a panel, and the event was completely prompted by students. Our campus doesn't allow for LGBT education which feeds ignorance on LGBT stories."
Lastly, the bake sale was going to raise money for LGBT homeless youth. "We wanted to give back to this particular community [as] most have been shut out from their homes due to religious homophobia."
Cruz said the bake sale was put on the back burner in early March by Steve Yeagley, the assistant vice president for student life/director of co-curricular education in the school's student life department. "He told us he had spoken to the president [of the university] and the Provost about the situation and that the decision comes from them," Cruz said.
In an email from Yeagley to Cruz that Windy City Times obtained, Yeagley wrote that the university has decided not to support the fundraising proposal made by AULL4One. Yeagley noted that there is a fundraising policy found in the Student Handbook. "It simply states that funds may be raised for non-profit organizations 'whose mission and practices do not conflict with those of the University.'
"I think the judgment in this case is that there may be a perceived conflict between the mission and practices of Andrews University and those of [Project] Fierce Chicagocertainly not in their efforts to aid homeless youth but in their approach to the LGBT issue, at large."
Yeagley also wrote, "If a way can be found to serve LGBT homeless youth through an organization that more fully reflects the University's mission and the stance of our denomination (which clearly calls for exhibiting compassion toward LGBT persons), let's explore that."
Yeagley's email, naturally, drew the ire of Cruz and his club. So Cruz reached back out to Yeagley for further explanation. Yeagley replied via an email that WCT has viewed. He wrote, "I think the best I can do is to reiterate the administration's assessment that 'there may be a perceived conflict' between the mission and practices of the two organizations, and that they feel confident this is an accurate statement whenas I said belowFierce Chicago's 'approach to the LGBT issue, at large,' is taken into consideration."
Cruz is angered by the decision, to put it mildly.
"As a bisexual Christian man, I find it appalling that my university cares more about politics then the lives of LGBT people," said Cruz, 24, a senior, majoring in international business and French studies. "We went through all the official channels and were still told no. Even under theological stances that say same-sex relationships are sinful, as is the official stance of my school and church, this should be a no-brainer for everyone who claims to be a Christian to get behind."
Yeagley, contacted directly by Windy City Times for comment, forwarded the request to Stephen Payne, the school's vice president of the division of integrated marketing and communication. Payne quickly replied with the official university statement, via Becky St. Clair, the media communications manager from the division of integrated marketing and communication.
The statement read, "Andrews University recognizes the special challenges facing LGBT youth and believes that efforts to help them are worthy. Providing care to LGBT homeless youth is compatible with our institutional mission to demonstrate God's love to all people, and reflects our denomination's specific call to exhibit compassion for LGBT persons.
"At the same time, Andrews University has declined a student request to officially endorse a fundraising effort to raise money for an organization that may have a perceived LGBT advocacy role. This decision was made in the context of our student fundraising policy in the Student Handbook, which states that funds may be raised for non-profit organizations 'whose mission and practices do not conflict with those of the University.'
"So, our objection was not to the worthy goal of serving LGBT homeless youth and their transitional housing needs but to the perceived advocacy stance of the proposed organization. As a result, we can and will support LGBT homeless youth through organizations whose mission and purpose clearly align with the religious mission and purpose of our university and its sponsoring church. We invite our student clubs to find the appropriate organizations and opportunities to do just that."
Payne's email added that "Beyond this statement, Andrews University will have no additional comment at this time."
Cruz said the club chose the Chicago-based charity because the school is only about 90 minutes from Chicago.
Aull4One was hoping to raise "a couple hundred dollars" for Project Fierce through the bake sale.
But now, the group is going viraland shooting to raise more funds. Cruz said the club is now hoping to raise $2,000 through an online fundraiser. To support, go to life.indiegogo.com/fundraisers/aull4one-raising-money-for-project-fierce/x/10107893.