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A gay group's homecoming in Wheaton
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2011-11-02

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During the unseasonably warm weekend of Oct. 7-8, alumni and their families returned to Wheaton College to celebrate homecoming weekend. This homecoming was different, however, because it was the first time that out and proud LGBTQ alumni and their allies returned to the campus in the school's 150-year history.

OneWheaton—the new group formed in April 2011 (its origins date back to Dec. 2010/Jan. 2011) to support LGBTQ alumni who feel/felt isolated while attending Wheaton College—participated in many homecoming activities, held a panel discussion and hosted a free concert featuring out lesbian gospel singer Jennifer Knapp.

Organization chair Jose Vilanova said, "LGBTQ alumni wanted to have healing and affirmation and our group was a response to that and this evolved over time as people became members of our private Facebook group."

The group's mission is, according to its website, "to provide an open, inclusive, and safe community for LGBTQ and allied alumni and students of Wheaton College. We support students and alumni with compassion, counsel, and resources so that they can live full, vibrant lives. We affirm LGBTQ individuals and their relationships that are the natural expression of their identity."

OneWheaton began when Vilanova received a phone call from Mitch Rodriguez, a young gay alumnus, urging him to get a bunch of gay alumni together to create "It Gets Better" videos for Wheaton students. Vilanova went on Facebook and started a private alumni group for LGBTQ former students to join and commit to take part in the videos.

Then Wesley Hill, another gay alumnus, spoke on campus, contending that gay Christians should remain celibate. Many alumni reacted to Hill's message, resulting in the videos being put on hold. Instead, they decided to go onto campus and distribute letters that shared LGBTQ alumni's individual and collective lives to Wheaton students as they left chapel. It was during the planning of the letter drop that the name OneWheaton was created, and the group continued to develop.

Currently, there are about 600 signatories to the letter on the organization's website. Approximately 365 people are on the private Facebook group and more than 1,000 people have liked the fan page on Facebook.

As for homecoming weekend, Vilanova said, "It was absolutely amazing and exceeded everyone's expectations. We all thought everyone would have a good time and were excited to meet each other in person. Every facet of the weekend turned out to be wonderful."

Co-chair Ruth Wardschenk said that this was one of the best weekends of her life, meeting and encouraging students while also witnessing fellow alumni heal emotionally. No longer afraid, Wardschenk said she cried as she walked around campus with her wife and daughter while wearing their OneWheaton attire.

Board member Hank Chen said, "I never thought I'd return to Wheaton College but I came this year not with a boyfriend but with my straight roommate, who was a proud ally and participated in everything OneWheaton did—not caring if people thought he was gay."

Concertgoers remarked that Knapp was spectacular. Following the concert, a Q&A discussion moderated by Kristin Winn, spokesperson for OneWheaton, was held. There, Knapp and LGBT alumni (Jessica Friesen, Adam Hibma, and Wardschenk) served as panelists. Vilanova shared that the panel discussion, attended by about 200 people, was just amazing. He added that they are still hearing stories of how people's perspectives of LGBTQ people changed (and continue to do so) because of the discussion.

To maintain anonymity, attendees used an iPad application or text-messaged questions ranging from what was it like to kiss someone of the same sex for the first time to a number of theology- and Bible-related inquiries. The one question that stood out for Vilanova was, "What is your view on the authority of the Bible?" Wardschenk answered, "If you identify as GLBT and Christian, you do not have to choose. You can have a partner or a spouse, a family, a church community and most importantly, you can have a complete relationship with Christ."

For the most part Vilanova, Wardschenk and Chen said that OneWheaton members and their families and friends didn't experience any issues, aside from some nervousness and iciness from some other alumni and current students. Conversely, they also got cheers and shout-outs from current students and respectful and inquisitive questions from people that led to constructive conversations with students, administrators and faculty.

The campus, according to Vilanova, had many preparatory meetings regarding OneWheaton and homecoming with the resident assistants. "The president of the college sent out an e-mail to the students reminding them that our members were alumni as well and they should welcome us on campus even though OneWheaton is not an officially recognized member of the college's alumni association," said Vilanova.

As for the future of the group, Vilanova says it's growing every day and "the Wheaton College alumni association and administration are really missing out because OneWheaton alumni have in a very short time created this amazing, miraculous organization. We're pretty damn fierce and they are missing out by not giving us full equality in the alumni affairs of the college."

Vilanova hopes that, at the very least, the college will acknowledge, encourage and support its LGBTQ students and not condemn them because it is written into the history of the college that two gay students committed suicide rather than living their lives as gay people. "Gay students who attend the college cannot keep feeling scourged by the campus. As recently as 2011, the chapel series on sexuality and wholeness depicted gay people as a tragic example of humanity. Imagine going to college for four years and having that message reinforced all the time," said Vilanova.

To find out more visit www.onewheaton.com .


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