Speaker sparks controversy at USM

Posted on April 15, 2013 in News
By Sidney Dritz

In an interview with The Free Press, Guy Hammond expressed a hope that his event Friday and Sunday, “Caring Beyond the Margins,” would help to provide a bridge between the LGBTQ community and the Christian community, a hope which was borne out, after a fashion, in the diversity of the population which turned out to protest Hammond’s presence.

Hammond is a Nova Scotia-based pastor and founder of “Strength in Weakness Ministries,” a group which specializes in counseling Christians who are “same-sex attracted,” as the website puts it, to deny that attraction for the sake of their religious convictions.

USM’s Religious and Spiritual Life has been working with the USM Center for Sexualities and Gender Diversity to host a panel that the university interfaith chaplain, Andrea Thompson McCall said, in an interview with The Free Press, is a direct response to “Caring Beyond the Margins.”

“It was strongly felt,” she said, “that a Christian LGBT-friendly perspective was needed.”

Hammond’s presence at USM, which was sponsored by the Alpha Omega club, a USM student group affiliated with the Casco Bay Church of Christ, has provoked a certain amount of controversy on campus. This controversy was sparked after members of Alpha Omega delivered a stack of their postcards and an invitation to a meet and greet with the speaker to the office of the USM Center for Sexualities and Gender Diversity on Wednesday, April 3.

According to Student Body President-elect Kelsea Dunham, a group of students began planning a protest of Hammond’s event shortly afterwards. Dunham was among the protest’s organizers.
Sophomore computer science major Michael Legere, who works at the center, described the invitation as “almost like ambush tactics,” before going on to discuss the event’s fliers. “It’s a very misleading thing,” he said, referring to the fact that Hammond’s rhetoric focuses on compassion and understanding.

Both Legere and Student Body President Adam Higgins were painting signs in the hours leading up to the event to protest against Hammond’s presence, and expressed overlapping sentiments.

“I find it deeply disturbing,” Higgins said, “that we have a group brought onto campus that fundamentally believes,” and here Legere cut in, “that LGBT people are broken, according to them.” Higgins nodded and finished, “I find it deeply offensive.”

Student Senator Ciarra Pickens, who is the student leader for Alpha Omega, expressed surprise at the community reaction to the event.

“We anticipated a reaction from the LGBTQ community, but did not expect it at the magnitude that it’s currently at,” Pickens said.

However, her surprise is not shared by all. When asked whether the student reaction to Hammond’s event was in keeping with her expectations, McCall said, “It was certainly no surprise to me.” And Hammond’s own reaction to the protest over his presence was matter of fact. “It kind of comes with the territory,” he said.

When asked about the invitation made to the Center for Sexuality and Gender Diversity, which sparked the protest, Pickens explained in an email to The Free Press, “The parties responsible now see how this act may have been viewed as offensive.” It was, however, in keeping with Hammond’s thesis when he spoke on Friday night, “trying to give Christians the verbage [sic] and the words,” to discuss what he described as the “controversial topic” of homosexuality. When asked about the invitation, Hammond told The Free Press, “It’s not something I had a part in, but I think it was a really smart move.”

“Caring Beyond the Margins” was not featured on the USM events page, but was instead advertised only by the Casco Bay Church of Christ and through the distribution of postcard-sized fliers at the school.

“They did a lot of targeted marketing in the residence halls,” said Sarah Holmes, coordinator for the Center for Sexualities and Gender Diversity.

She explained that some of the postcards had been slipped under students’ doors, a violation of university policy, and that one of the floors where this took place was the gender neutral “Rainbow Floor.” Holmes said that the students involved had since conversed with directors of student life on both campuses on the subject.

Hammond was paid by the Casco Bay Church of Christ to preach last Sunday, but spoke at USM for free, and Hammond said that it was the church, and not Alpha Omega who contacted him.

“It was a group decision to invite Mr. Hammond here,” said Pickens, who cited the desire to help her organization, a conservative Christian student group, “interact with the community at large” and the LGBTQ population in particular.

“We believe that the ideal of this event has greatly been misunderstood as an attack, when what we were striving for is a teaching opportunity for students on how to treat people of different lifestyles with respect,” Pickens said.

She is not the only one who believes that there has been a lapse in understanding between USM’s LGBTQ community and Alpha Omega. Mea Taveres, one of the organizers of the protest against Hammond’s presence, said of Alpha Omega, “The students who are bringing this person here have no idea,” before expounding upon the protesters’ concerns, “[the ‘ex-gay’ movement advocated by certain Christian groups] isn’t in theory, people die over this.” On Alpha Omega, Tavares said, “They genuinely believe that, so [the protest] is as much for them as for our community.”

His attitude was mirrored by that of Dunham, who described the protest as, “all about caring and compassion,” explaining, “We really don’t believe their message is compassionate; We just want to show the counter message.”

McCall described the event and the accompanying protest as “a teachable moment,” citing the USM Religious and Spiritual Life’s goal of promoting understanding between different viewpoints. “Talk is cheap,” McCall said. “We can talk about [religious understanding] all day long, until we’re faced with someone with a really different belief.”

Steve Lafrance, Alpha Omega’s advisor, declined to make any comment to The Free Press, but in his introduction of Hammond, he asked of the audience, “If nothing else is accomplished, reflect on your position, and how and why it is your position.” He then took a moment to plug Alpha Omega’s next event, “Christianity Explained.” Both the Religious and Spiritual Life’s response panel, “What Would Jesus Do? Christian Support for FULL LGBTQ Equality,” and the Alpha Omega event will take place on the Portland campus next week.

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