“This is important. It’s really important. For a lot of people these are really core identity issues,” said Hope College President Matthew Scogin to a crowd of attentive students last Tuesday night. He was referencing the Hope College’s Board of Trustees’ decision this past summer to remove Hope’s Position Statement on Human Sexuality. Previously Hope College held that, “This biblical witness calls us to a life of chastity among the unmarried and the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman,” and that “…Hope College will not recognize or support campus groups whose aim … is to promote a vision of human sexuality that is contrary to this understanding of biblical teaching.” Now, Hope’s Christian Aspirations statement will serve as the singular declaration of what Hope stands for as a Christian college. One result of this change is a more welcoming environment for students who identify as LGBT+, including the “coming out” of a new official campus club: PRISM. PRISM’s stated mission is to “provide an open space for any LBGT+ persons and allies to develop community and promote inclusion at Hope College.”
This conversation took place on January 21 when President Scogin and Dean of the Chapel Trygve Johnson led an open discussion centered around the removal of the Position Statement, the meaning of being a welcoming campus and what Hope’s Christian Aspirations represent. The discussion was put on by GRACES, a club which seeks to support respectful, open dialogue about the many aspects of human sexuality. Before the meeting, members of GRACES put out flashcards on all the tables for students to write down any questions they had for the President. When asked if anyone wanted to put their questions forward, hands flew up around the room. Even as questions were being addressed, frantic scribbling was heard throughout the room as participants thought of follow-up queries. President Scogin and Rev. Dr. Johnson addressed as many anonymously-presented questions as they had time for. One student asked what Hope’s plan is regarding creating a more welcoming atmosphere on campus. President Scogin responded that Hope can work on this by “being a place that goes out of our way to listen, to understand, and to love people who are different from us.” With reference to PRISM, he added that, “This new student group is great, and there will be more things like that, but the most important thing is, what can we do as individuals?” This emphasis on improving individual actions before turning to policy statements was a part of why the Hope Board of Trustees chose to remove the Statement. “The world is not set up to listen, the world is set up to talk, to push views… our opinions have become our gods,” said President Scogin at one point during the conference. By removing the controversial statement and replacing it with Hope’s Christian Aspirations, Hope is seeking to be defined by its actions and treatment of others instead of by policy statements that exclude.
To elaborate on the importance of individual action, President Scogin described how Paul the Apostle dealt with a division among members in a church he was supporting. Scogin mentioned that Paul took a definite side in the division; he didn’t compromise his beliefs. However, he also severely condemned the members that he agreed with for their unloving attitude. Paul believed that even those with whom he disagreed should be treated with utmost respect and compassion. President Scogin said this of Paul’s attitude: “I’m going to go out of my way to make you feel loved, to make you feel comfortable.” It was implied that no matter what our opinions are, each one of us can take something from this lesson when dealing with conflict.
When discussing the Board’s decision, President Scogin said he felt it was important to note that there was a year in between the Board’s creation of a Christian Aspirations statement and the removal of the Position Statement on Human Sexuality. The Christian Aspirations statement was drafted in late spring in 2018. It was meant to address confusion about what being a Christian College means in practice. The new statement is based on the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds and puts forth that Hope aspires to be faithful, welcoming and transformational. The creation of this statement led to reflection on whether it was still necessary for Hope to have a separate political statement on sexuality. President Scogin pointed out that Hope College does not have a position statement on abortion or the death penalty. “We’re not animated to deal with the issue, we’re animated to deal with the people,” said Rev. Dr. Trygve Johnson. The removal, or rather, replacement, of the Position Statement on Human Sexuality leaves room for students to seek their own answers to questions in our society and to have an open dialogue about these issues. Referencing the three Christian Aspirations, Scogin said, “There’s some intentional tension built into those three pillars… there will be challenging conversations that come out of it… I think that’s great.” Johnson added, “Talking to each other is a lot better than talking about each other.”
One concern voiced by a student was that although all students at Hope, even those who don’t identify as Christian, are all encouraged to learn about the basic truths of Christianity, students aren’t always similarly encouraged to explore other religions and learn from them. When this came up, President Scogin responded, “Every student should know something about Jesus; every student should know about world religion[s].”
Although respectful, participants in the discussion emphasized the weight of the issues being talked about. The President left students with the message that as dialogue is raised and changes take place across campus, all students are encouraged to take a stand for their beliefs, but also are encouraged to seek out those who see things differently and have meaningful conversations. Above all, it is important to keep in mind that each and every person at Hope carries great worth and deserves love, respect and protection.