(Photo: WETN Screenshot)
Last Friday, Wheaton College hosted Rosaria Butterfield, an author, pastor's wife and homeschooling mother. But Butterfield's offer to speak at chapel was spurred not by her present circumstances, but by her previous life experience as a lesbian in a committed relationship with another woman.
"Our invitation to Butterfield was based on her personal story of Gospel transformation that impacted every area of her life, including her own understanding of sexual identity and sexual practice," Wheaton Chaplain, Stephen Kellough told The Christian Post in a statement.
Originally an English professor with ardently liberal views, Butterfield converted to Christianity through a close relationship with a pastor and his wife, whom she met after she began to research the Religious Right. In 2012, she authored The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, which describes her experience of coming to faith, and is currently traveling the country and speaking at both secular and religious universities about her conversion.
"I was impressed. More than that, I was emotionally moved by the power of her story," Kellough, who had previously heard Butterfield's testimony, told students before he introduced her. "Her thoughtful, passionate articulation of a life transformed by the Gospel was exciting. Just as compelling was the gentle, welcoming way in which the Gospel was offered to Rosaria by a concerned believer."
Prior to her visit, some Wheaton students worried about signals that her appearance sent to members of the student body who considered themselves Christian and leftwing, feminist or part of the LGBT community.
"We were just struck by how her testimony—which is her own personal story—could be relayed to students in a way that they thought it was impossible to be leftwing, liberal, feminist or part of the LGBT community and be a Christian—because the way that testimony is struck up…it can create a sort of rule, that we don't believe is there, that you have to be 'that' or 'the other,'" said sophomore Jordan-Ashley Barney.
"We weren't upset at her or the administration; we just wanted to let the entire student body know you can be these multiple things and that many people are at Wheaton and we love Jesus just as much," she added.
Barney and junior Justin Massey decided organize "More Than a Single Story," an event outside of chapel prior to Butterfield's talk that asked students to share their own personal stories "by creating a poster and sitting with us to show unity and support for all students."
According to Barney, roughly 100 students joined her and Massey on the steps of the chapel, some bearing signs reading "Rosaria's story is valid. Mine is too," "I'm gay and beloved child of God. This is my story," and "I am a feminist and an LGBT ally and a Christian. This is my story."
That afternoon at Butterfield's request, 30 students, the Ministry Associate for Discipleship and Grad Chapel, Dean of Student Engagement, and Dean of Student Care, met to dialogue more about her talk and homosexuality at Wheaton.
"I think the meeting was the reason I went [to Wheaton.] I think the talk was just fluff," Butterfield told CP.
"I was so glad that the demonstrators were willing to meet with me in such a spontaneous way…I don't think it's fair for professors or grown-ups of any kind to go to campus and stir things up and just leave, so it's really part of my call to meet with the people who are upset by what I have said or what they think I'm about to say," she added.
Once the meeting convened, "we all just kind of got into a circle in a room and shared some of our thoughts about our worry of the 'single story' and our worry about the dichotomy about being a Christian and being these other things…She was really appreciative of what we had to say," said Barney.
While Butterfield did not see eye-to-eye with the students on everything and stayed within her convictions that homosexuality is a sin, she was still able to find common ground with them.
"She agreed that homophobia, for instance, is wrong and needs to be repented of and the fact that feminism or these different topics are not inherently contradictory to being Christian," Massey said.
Massey, who is gay himself, said that with regard to the college's care of LGBT students "it was really helpful to get Rosaria's perspective and have the administration key in and come to a consensus about the importance of the topics."
Butterfield agreed with Massey that the school had work to do with regard to how it provided a safe environment for its LGBT members.
"I learned a lot about a serious safety violations that have really compromised the students' sense of trust and safety on that campus and I was grateful that we had the ombudsman, who by law had to act on this," said Butterfield. "We can argue all day long about theology. We can also lovingly pray….all day long about matters of sin and grace…But at the end of the day, if there are safety violations on a college, those must be corrected."
"Students must be protected regardless of their profession of their faith or their sexual orientation or their behavior," she added.
Per student feedback about her testimony, Butterfield explained, "I always tell people wherever I go that my story is neither diagnostic nor representative."
"I didn't hear students tell me that I need to tell the story differently. I heard students tell me I needed to leave room for other people's stories," she added.
"My understanding was that the danger of the single story isn't so much asking people to falsify or change their story, but to leave room for the reality that while each believer has a unique story, it's truly only the Gospel story that gets to have the article adjective to have it," she said. "There are a million ways to be shattered and only one way to be whole."
According to Kellough, Butterfield is the first chapel speaker to speak at Wheaton on the theme of sexual identity since Wesley Hill, a gay celibate Christian and the author of Washed and Waiting, who visited the college during the 2010-2011 school year.
While Wheaton has no formal statement that specifically addresses homosexuality, the portion of its Community Covenant discussing student conduct with regard to sexuality forbids "sexual immorality, such as the use of pornography (Matt. 5:27-28), pre-marital sex, adultery, homosexual behavior and all other sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage between a man and woman."