posted April 19, 2002

Task Force Report Outlines Steps

Following a year-long review, Hope College will take a variety of steps to help students deal with issues of sexuality.

The recently-released report of the college's Task Force on Issues of Sexuality recommends steps including developing a series of presentations on a variety of aspects of human sexuality, and formation of discussion groups and support groups to help students who are wrestling with issues of sexuality including homosexuality. According to President James Bultman, the college will begin implementing the report's recommendations during the forthcoming 2002-03 school year.

"The plan the task force recommends has been carefully designed to provide a safe place for education, dialogue and support while maintaining the integrity of the college's official position on matters of sexuality," Bultman said. "It is a model on which they all agree, and it is one that I can and will accept."

Homosexuality, in particular as it relates to the Christian faith, has been discussed on campus for several years, particularly actively in 1999, when speakers with opposing views on the topic visited campus. Bultman formed the task force after the college's Campus Life Board denied the bid of the Gay Straight Alliance student group to be recognized as a formal campus student organization during the 2000-01 school year.

Hope College's Institutional Statement on homosexuality adopted by the Board of Trustees largely reflects that perspective of the Reformed Church in America (RCA), the founding denomination with which the college remains affiliated. The RCA and the college distinguish between homosexual orientation and practice, identifying the latter as "contrary to Scripture" while, also in keeping with biblical teaching, encouraging "love and sensitivity" in the care of all people. The college does not provide formal recognition for groups whose purposes include the advocacy or moral legitimization of homosexual behaviors. As an educational institution, the college seeks to encourage the kind of thoughtful conversation that assists students to develop discernment about complex moral issues.

The task force met throughout the current school year to consider a range of issues related to sexuality, not only homosexuality. The group's work included examining the treatment of homosexual students on campus, exploring how the college can best exhibit care and compassion for homosexual students, reviewing recent attempts at Hope to educate students on issues of sexuality and considering additional beneficial educational experiences.

The 12-member group, comprised of members of the Trustees, faculty, administration and students, released its report earlier this month. Central among its conclusions is the conviction that since the college lives its life "in the context of the historic Christian faith" it ought to similarly place the Bible "in a privileged position as the only final authority for the faith and practice of the people of God and as the primary resource for people seeking to discern their moral responsibilities." At the same time, the report recommends that as an academic institution, Hope College should not ignore "other important sources of moral insight and guidance which operate in a complex inter- relationship with the Bible." Citing hospitality as a principal Christian virtue along with honesty, courage, humility and patience, members of the task force worked in a spirit of cooperation despite the fact that they reflected a wide variety of perspectives on the issues addressed in their report.

"It is... critically important to recognize that as an academic institution Hope College owes its students and the other members of our community the opportunity to explore such morally controversial and socially relevant issues as those surrounding sexuality," the report says. "At Hope College such exploration ought to be guided by the standards of intellectual integrity befitting an institution of higher education, and in a spirit of Christian love consistent with the college's theological commitments."

"The task force strongly believes that for the campus to effectively enter into dialogue about homosexuality, it must address wider issues of sexuality on the Hope College campus," the report notes. "In part, this conviction stems from its perception that the issue of homosexuality, with all of its intensity, has obscured the moral issues confronting heterosexuals on campus."

The committee's conclusion was underscored by a survey it commissioned. "It is clear from our survey that a number of students on Hope's campus are engaging in sexual behaviors that are leaving them at risk for psychological, spiritual and physical damage," the report says. "Hope needs to take a proactive approach in helping students make conscious, wise and healthy decisions regarding the expression of their sexuality."

The planning committee recommended by the task force will be charged with presenting a balanced program to help educate Hope students on a broad range of issues relating to sexuality. "These events would provide opportunities for students to learn new information, engage in moral and theological reflection, and make informed decisions about the wide range of sexual concerns facing college students," the report says. "Given the educational purposes of the college, we would expect these events to be well informed, wide-ranging and both intellectually and morally challenging."

The task force proposed the discussion groups as a way to encourage ongoing conversation among students. "These groups are designed to offer a place of safe dialogue," the report says. In addition to its initial recommendation of a discussion forum concerning sexual orientation, the task force cited possibilities including male-female friendships, sexual abuse, sustaining long-term relationships, pornography and promiscuity.

Recognizing that a variety of students may need support as they struggle with issues related to sexuality, the task force recommended that the college's Counseling Center and Campus Ministries offices work cooperatively to establish support groups to meet the needs of specific groups of students. In recommending that such a group for gay students be established initially, the task force seeks to have Hope provide "a recognized safe environment for our students to meet and speak openly with each other about their lives and their experiences in an atmosphere of trust and confidentiality."

In framing its recommendations, the task force also emphasized that all discussion should be conducted with sensitivity to and respect for those involved.

"Our campus community is comprised of persons with a variety of religious and moral perspectives," the report says. "The voices of all members of our community are welcomed in our conversations, even when we do not agree with each other."

"Hope College is committed to creating an environment in which our conversations are carried out with an 'uncommon decency,' which displays a variety of virtues," it continues. "These virtues will include a generous hospitality creating a safe place for people to voice views unlike our own, patience which encourages us to work long and hard to be understood and to understand, humanity which encourages us to assume we have much to learn from others, and courage which makes us bold to speak what we believe is true."

"As we seek to understand complex issues together, we will consider ourselves to be functioning normally when we are dealing graciously with one another in all our differences," the report says. "We undertake these endeavors in the hope that God's Spirit will lead us, through our faith, learning and obedience, into justice and peace."