“A lot of people ask me, ‘What’s it like being gay at a Christian college?’” Julie Rodgers said. “And I’m like, ‘It’s kind of like being human.’”
Nervous laughter filled the room as Rodgers spoke her first words to the 100 or so students in Brown Chapel Monday night.
The conversation stared promptly at 7:30 p.m. and was an expansion of her earlier presentation in Chapel. This one focused on sexuality and intimacy within the church and Rodgers’ own personal story.
The smell of coffee and cookies lingered in from the lobby through the open doors where more students were trickling in.
Bright lights shined on three chairs set in a loose half circle on the stage as Rodgers began to share her story.
As the homeschooled daughter of a Texan family, Rodgers was exposed to the church at a very young age. By the time she was in junior high, she knew wanted to follow Jesus.
“I remember being out by the fishing pond with the stars in the sky and the wind in my face,” Rodgers said. “And I remember thinking to myself, I want to know the Creator of all this beauty.”
Later on, Rodgers developed her passion for Jesus into a career. She now holds a position as a ministry associate for spiritual care at Wheaton College after leaving a job working with youth in her hometown of Dallas, Texas. Here she ministers to students and helps create a space for their stories.
When she was a junior in high school, Rodgers told her mother she was gay. It was Valentine’s Day. Afterwards, Rodgers’s mother promptly drove her to Exodus International, an ex-gay ministry where attendees are given therapy programs focused on helping people “heal” themselves of their attractions to the same sex.
“I would go through these steps and feel a lot of shame,” Rodgers said. “I started internalizing that.”
Late one night in particular, Rodgers, remembers these thoughts tumbling over and over again in her head. As night lightened to early morning, she made herself some coffee and hopped up on her roof.
“Usually I’m not one of those people where I’m like, ‘God speaks to me,’ because I’m too worried that I’m making it up in my head,” Rodgers said. “But that morning, I clearly remember God saying I know you’re a mess, but I came so I can share this with you.”
Rodgers then found herself in libraries, reading up on theology from both sides of the sexual orientation argument.
“I wasn’t persuaded by the literature,” Rodgers said. “I wasn’t persuaded that that [marriage] was something God would bless me entering into.”
Rodgers knew then that she was called to a life of celibacy.
“And I’m all, ‘Great, well that blows,” Rodgers said. “Celibacy is not sexy, right?”
But Rodgers has a different view of what it means to be celibate. She discredits the way modern day culture has created the pinnacle of happiness to be the moment when individuals find ‘the one.’ For Rodgers, singleness is as much a gift from God as marriage is.
“I think single people can be a gift to married people,” Rodgers said. “Why do we think a life of celibacy or singleness is a life without love? That’s totally warped. We can’t live without intimacy, but we can live without sex…[and] the risks of intimacy are far less than the risks of isolation.”
After sharing her story, Rodgers was asked questions from both audience members and facilitators, Ross and Kendra Oakes Mueller.
“She radiates a sense of authenticity,” said Ross Oakes Mueller, professor of psychology and facilitator of the conversation later in the evening. “Part of what I like about her as a person is her insistence on remaining human and whole.”
Ross Oakes Mueller first met Rodgers Monday night after Associate Director of Chaplaincy Ministries, Melanie Wolf, asked him and his wife, Kendra Oakes Mueller, to mediate the conversation time that was set aside. The questions he presented to Rodgers were a mixture of questions written by students before the Q&A and some that Ross Oakes Mueller had put together himself.
The goal was to get the audience to engage in conversation as a Christian body and as students explained Oakes Mueller.
“I’m on sabbatical, so I’ve only been on campus twice this week and literally every student I’ve talked to who had attended the event brought it up without me raising it,” Ross Oakes Mueller said. “And all [the comments were] the positive…[about] her sense of accessibility and authenticity.”
The crowd of students who stayed well after Rodgers had finished proved evidence that her discussion sparked positive feelings from attendees and that many felt comfortable enough to approach her afterward.
“It surprised me that it was happening at PLNU,” said Gia Cabarse, a junior applied health science major who attended the event. “It was such a healthy way to introduce the topic…the group I was with was snapping as if it were poetry.”
Cabarse saw the positive acceptance of Rodgers’ words among her peers as the start of a needed conversation about the LGBTQ community.
“I’m very proud of my school for having her and facilitating this kind of conversation because it’s something that needed to be talked about regardless of sexuality especially for the people who don’t identify as heterosexual,” Cabarse said. “They needed to hear that they are still welcome in the church and a part of this community.”