a note regarding SPU’s recent refusal of employment to Mr. Rinedahl due to his homosexuality

I have sent this as an email to Dr. Dan Martin, president of SPU. I share it here to encourage others to reach out in support of Mr. Rinedahl and SPU’s LGBTQ community.

Dear Dr. (Dr. Dr.) Dan,

I hope you’ve been well through the chaos of this year.

I’m terrible at brief emails, so I apologize for that!

I’ve had a good few years, finishing my masters degree at Yale Divinity and starting the doctoral program of my dreams—working on gay literature and queer theory within a Christian theology program with some of my theological heroes for mentors. During my masters degree, I tried (and gradually succeeded at) broadening my repertoire from the wonderful close reading skills I learned from SPU’s English and U Scholars faculty into theory and theology, but the close reading I developed with the help of Drs. Reinsma, Chaney, and Thorpe and others remains at the heart of my work, making it interesting and (as I send off the proofs on my first article at a well-established journal) publishable. So, I remain grateful for my time at SPU and remember those years fondly, including all of my interactions with you.

When I left, I planned on doing a doctorate in English. Frankly, I was hoping to return to SPU’s English department some day to pour into students’ lives and help sharpen their minds, really, to open up possibilities within their lives as my horizons were expanded in college. When I came out at SPU, the faculty, staff, and my fellow students helped me make sense of faith anew, helping me to hold onto God as I and my faith grew and changed. On a very practical level, Dr. Keuss’s UScholars UFDN course introduced me to the Episcopal Church through St. Paul’s, Queen Anne, a re-homing that has served me well, as the denomination I grew up in, the Covenant, recently decided not to consider revisions of their own politics on sexuality.

Shifting to theology has been a natural progression, traceable back to my SPU honors thesis, and before that, my time at Oxford through BestSemester’s SCIO program. (I was invited to write a reflection some years ago on my wonderful time with SCIO for the CCCU’s magazine, so I wrote on the life-changing discovery of gay literature with Christian themes that the program facilitated, but it never saw the light of day, being perpetually delayed to the next issue. Anyway,) I was already thinking that getting a job as an out gay man writing on gay things would be a lot harder at an evangelical-adjacent Christian seminary or theology department than at an evangelical-adjacent English department when I saw the news about Jèaux Rinedahl and learned that gayness is a job liability even within nursing.

I don’t know who made that call or what that process looked like, and I understand that there are pressures related to donors and SPU’s Free Methodist affiliation. I also don’t think that changing everyone’s minds on the validity and holiness of gay sexuality and relationships is a likely path forward for SPU. But I do wonder why SPU’s generous ecumenism is extended to faculty across many lines of difference that are arguably more theologically central to the history of Christian life and thought and not across this particular line. My hunch is that, amongst the donors to whom everyone always directs the blame at moments like this, there is some fear of the culture SPU purports to engage and some distaste for elements of the world it empowers students to change, indeed, distaste for members of SPU’s own community—at least, that is what this news suggests. The famous mission commitment is thereby constricted. In the evangelical circles SPU runs in, it would be, admittedly, a bold move to abolish the statement of human sexuality or even to quietly but actually consider an openly gay person for full-time employment. But there are times when Christians should be bold, even if that means making decisions with difficult financial ramifications.

When I received the notification by mail in August of 2016 that I had been named one of SPU’s 125 Ones to Watch, I was incredibly heartened. The letter says that SPU is proud of me and that, in studying gay literature and Christianity, I’ve embraced its mission to engage the culture and change the world. You signed 125 of them, and I imagined that it must’ve given you hand cramps, but I’ve kept that letter in my desk drawer with other things that remind me that I am doing something right in the times when it feels like everything is going wrong. As the lesbian womanist theologian Dr. Emilie Townes said while visiting YDS some years ago, it is a mistake to depend on institutions for love and respect (a paraphrase). That is a lesson I have gradually learned.

This moment isn’t about me or my one-time dreams of employment there or anywhere—the academic job market is famously rough even at places that don’t discriminate against gay people. I write about myself because I felt accepted and was accepted at SPU, and as a student I established a rapport with various branches of the administration, a rapport that I hope meant something. I spent much time as a student volunteering to enthusiastically recommend the university to prospective students at admissions events and helping put on Let’s Talk About Sex, Faith, and Relationships, broadening the week’s discussion to include gay speakers. This letter comes from the resilience of my love for SPU’s faculty, students, alumni, and many of the staff members I got to know (including the lovely people in admissions).

As it is, SPU’s practical, on-the-ground theology of community life is incoherent, and it will remain so until the university’s whimsical ethos of inclusion is met with the fair treatment and literal valuing of its LGBTQ community members like Mr. Rinedahl. Literal valuing because this homophobic discrimination is economic in fruit and perhaps at root. I still believe that SPU can be the place of welcome it wants to be, not because I believe that those with power will make the choice I think is right (although I hope you all will), but because the Holy Spirit does not start something without seeing it to completion, and the Holy Spirit is and has been seeping through the cracks between those bricks on Queen Anne Hill, through the hearts and labor of faithful professors who for decades have cared for their queer students, through the staff members who work against the weight of institutional prohibition to ensure that their LGBTQ students know that they are held by the loving arms of God even in the darkest nights, and through LGBTQ employees, few and now fewer though they may be.

So, please change SPU’s hiring policies relevant to positions in which religion is not taught and to positions in which it is (a distinction that oddly demarcates whose faithful living matters), remove the Statement on Human Sexuality (rather than replacing it, which would create far more committee time for faculty who I’m sure are already tired), and hire Mr. Rinedahl full-time (if that is something he still wants). I’ve seen the official statement regarding his lawsuit. I would urge the university to resist hiding behind the global church to enforce homophobic policies, if that part of the statement is any preview of the coming response. It is a common move. It ultimately distracts from one’s own choices by pushing the blame for homophobia onto Black and brown majority-world peoples, and it obscures the history of the church’s colonization of sexual cultures found here and around the world only to use them as a convenient alibi. I genuinely look forward to dispatches from the conversation to come.

I blogged my way through my coming out at SPU. I stopped that practice, but I’m going to share this letter on my old blog to encourage other alumni to write in support of Mr. Rinedahl and also to show love and support to SPU’s current LGBTQ students, who must also be hurting.

Hoping you, your family, and the SPU community are healthy.

all my best,
Sam Ernest

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