Swartzendruber Answers Questions about Lifestyle Policy and Firings

By Jeff Mellott, Daily News-Record

Michael Shank, a graduate student at Eastern Mennonite University, felt encouraged, even heartened, after a 90-minute meeting Tuesday at the campus.

EMU President Loren Swartzendruber called the forum to take questions and hear comments about the campus’ church-based, community lifestyle commitment agreement that critics say makes the university unsafe for gays. (Read the president’s opening remarks.)

At the conclusion of the 90-minute forum in Lehman Auditorium, Shank said he hoped the meeting was the beginning of the process of addressing the issue. Swartzendruber said he is uncertain what will happen next.

Swartzendruber called the forum, in part, as a reaction to gay pride demonstrations the past couple of weeks at EMU. Shank, a heterosexual, helped organize the protests to draw attention to the firing of a homosexual professor last year and to address safety issues related to sexual preference.

EMU, according to Swartzendruber, fired the professor because of homosexual behavior, not sexual orientation. The dismissal, he said, took place before he took office in January.

“There have been people who have been asked to leave because of sexual behavior, homosexual and heterosexual,” Swartzendruber told an audience that filled more than half of Lehman Auditorium.

The Mennonite church sanctions sexual behavior only within a marriage defined as being between a man and a woman. EMU, with its enrollment of 1,444 students, has the right as a private church institution to establish standards on behavior, Swartzendruber said. About 60 percent of EMU’s undergrads and 69 percent at the EMU Seminary are Mennonite, according to university figures.

Swartzendruber said EMU has followed the direction of the Mennonite Church USA on the issue. But the president said he would not tolerate bigotry and name-calling on the campus. “I personally will not tolerate a lack of safety,” he said.

Drawing A Line

Swartzendruber said he accepted that homosexual orientation is something that is not chosen. “I think the scientific evidence is clear on that,” he said.

But the church’s position is clear on the subject, he said. “The church has decided that is where they would draw the line,” he said. “We all draw the line somewhere. We do have differences of opinion where we do draw the line on that continuum.”

The community lifestyle commitment, which is signed by all students, staff and faculty, indicates where the church draws the line. The statement also speaks out against harmful discrimination.

Shank, 29, who grew up in a Mennonite Church family, spoke up during the forum. “It is hard to draw the line. I don’t think it’s being drawn on core Mennonite values,” he said of the nonviolence aspect of the belief.

Campus Issue

The forum attracted EMU Seminary student Allan Reesor-McDowell. The 22-year-old is a 2002 graduate of the university who wants to work with church-based groups.

“This has been real good,” Reesor-McDowell said after the forum. “There’s been a lot of tension surrounding this discussion about sexuality and sexual orientation.” The forum allowed people on both sides of the issue to have their say “in a non-threatening way,” he said.

Reesor-McDowell, who is from Toronto, Ontario, did not get up to speak at a pair of microphones set up for comments. “I would affirm the statements the church has made,” he said. “Whether or not I will always have a clear idea of what that always means, I am not sure.”

Swartzendruber thought the meeting went well and maintained a civil and respectful tone. “If some people feel it is not a safe place,” Swartzendruber said of EMU, “I am sure they will let us know.”

The president’s cabinet, he said, could discuss the issue. The term ends with commencement in less than two weeks. The summer vacation, Swartzendruber said, will give the administration time to review the issue.