Gordon College revives community service following controversy

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/12/31/gordon-college-revives-community-service-following-controversy/

WENHAM – More than a year after the Lynn Public Schools cut ties with Gordon College over its policies on same-sex relations, which are part of the Christian school’s detailed code of moral conduct, the college has reconnected with other North Shore communities and continues to look for opportunities to serve Lynn.

For 11 years until 2014, faculty and students provided services to the economically struggling city though the “Gordon in Lynn” program, in which first-year students serve local civic programs through a required course that includes community service. The median household income in Lynn is about two-thirds of the state median, and the percentage of those who live in poverty is almost twice the statewide rate.

But in August 2014, the Lynn school district said it no longer welcomed volunteers from Gordon, claiming the college intended to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

The issue arose from a July 2014 letter to President Barack Obama, signed by D. Michael Lindsay, Gordon’s president, and 14 faith leaders from around the country, including the Rev. Larry Snyder, the chief executive of Catholic Charities USA, Rick Warren, the senior pastor of California’s Saddleback Church, and Michael Wear, a political consultant and former staff member in the White House and on Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

The letter asked Obama to add a religious exemption to his executive order prohibiting “discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity” among federal contractors. The requested exemption wasn’t novel, as it mirrored language in Democratic-sponsored legislation that passed the U.S. Senate with bipartisan support before failing in the House of Representatives.

Although the president’s executive order does not directly affect the college, Lindsay said he signed the request for inclusion of a religious exemption to show support for other faith-based nonprofit organizations that have federal contracts.

An “executive order that does not include a religious exemption will significantly and substantively hamper the work of some religious organizations that are best equipped to serve in common purpose with the federal government,” the letter said. “In a concrete way, religious organizations will lose financial funding that allows them to serve others in the national interest due to their organizational identity.”

Obama signed the order without adding a religious exemption.

Soon after, Gordon found itself the center of a media firestorm and national debate over the extent of religious liberty in America. Controversy over the letter brought attention to the college’s policies on pre-marital sex and same-sex relations for its 1,700 students and 600-plus employees.

The school’s decades-old policies are reflected in an agreement that students and employees must sign. The agreement lays out standards of behavior that are designed to align with Christian ethics. In part, it stipulates:

“Those acts which are expressly forbidden in scripture, including but not limited to blasphemy, profanity, dishonesty, theft, drunkenness, sexual relations outside marriage, and homosexual practice, will not be tolerated in the lives of Gordon community members, either on or off campus.”

Within months of the letter’s release, three community partners – the Lynn school district, the City of Salem and the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem – distanced themselves from Gordon.

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll suspended a contract that let Gordon help maintain its historic Old Town Hall, although the seven-year agreement was set to expire in a month anyway. The building houses a municipal museum and performance space.

“I hope you realize how hurtful and offensive these ‘behavioral standards’ are to members of the greater Salem LGBT community, some of whom are Gordon alumni, staff and/or students,” she wrote in a letter to Lindsay, referring to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual community. She did not respond to a call for comment.

Soon after, the Boston Globe Magazine awarded Driscoll an honorable mention as “Bostonian of the Year” for symbolically washing her hands of the school, comparing Gordon to the perpetrators of the Salem witch trials.

Amid the criticism that confronted Gordon over its policies, the school found an ally in U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Peter Kirsanow, who criticized Lynn officials for giving their pupils the wrong idea about freedom of religion and speech. A lawyer in Cleveland, Kirsanow has long been active in civil rights and employment law at the national level. Kirsanow, who in 2013 was re-appointed to a third six-year term as a member of the Civil Rights panel and served for two years on the National Labor Relations Board, had harsh words for members of the Lynn school committee.

“Members of the School Committee have claimed that allowing Gordon College students to student-teach would send the wrong message to Lynn students,” Kirsanow wrote in March. “It is respectfully submitted that it is the School Committee that is sending the wrong message to Lynn students. Committee members, consciously or not, sent a message to Lynn students that the United States Constitution means little in Lynn.”

Today, despite a slew of columns from the Globe, the Salem News and other media outlets slamming the college, and extensive coverage on groups who cut ties with the school, many faculty members feel positive about their relations with neighboring institutions, even if some have required careful restoration.

Greg Bish, who directs Gordon’s Community Engagement office, started in August and is in the midst of redefining the office’s focus. The two-person operation is supplemented by about a dozen interns. Formerly, the office oversaw most off-campus student volunteer work, from international short-term service trips to aiding Greater Boston organizations and helping Boston’s homeless. Now the focus is on service-learning as a companion to academic studies and the benefits those learning experiences can bring to students.

The falling out in 2014 left the “Gordon in Lynn” program in limbo during the 2014-2015 academic year. Eight of Gordon’s student teachers initially placed in Lynn schools were reassigned to other nearby districts. In the fall of 2015, Gordon re-introduced the North Shore community program.

Now, Bish estimates that he has about 100 students each semester who participate weekly as  volunteers through the “Gordon in Lynn” program. Students venture to nine sites in the city to help out as tutors and after-school program aides, as well as in programs at local churches and working with adults with disabilities.

Bish describes these activities as learning to be a “good citizen” and says they are part of getting a college education at Gordon.

“We want you to become not just educated in your field but also someone who does care about others, someone who’s influencing social values, a leader in community, participating in social-action programs, racial understanding, et cetera,” he said. “Gordon’s commitment to service is tied to Gordon’s commitment to education.”

Although some other city programs followed the lead of the Lynn schools, Bish said that since that time, several new organizations have formed partnerships with Gordon. Still, college officials say they don’t have students working in the Lynn school system, and it’s unclear whether they will return. Catherine Latham, Lynn’s superintendent, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Sybil Coleman, who teaches social work at the college and organizes related internships, emphasized that a very small number of employers that took on interns had cut ties with the school. Coleman says her students are trained to understand their own biases from day one through training like SafeZone, a curriculum that helps create communities sensitive to sexual-orientation and identity issues.

Intern employers value Gordon students for their respect for human dignity, Coleman said.

“They hold high dignity and worth for every person they deal with,” she said. “There are no unworthy people.”

Gordon students have returned to Salem’s Old Town Hall, maintaining the museum and conducting its “History Alive!” program, said David Goss, an assistant professor of history who oversees museum studies programs.

“We’re trying to put things back in a way that will make our program stronger than it was before,” he said.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.