LGBTQIA+ Student Group Forced to Reschedule and Change Documentary Screening Event Last Minute

Cunningham Dining Room, where the VOL Documentary screening will take place. Photo credit to Charis Johnston.

Voices of Love (VOL), a Point Loma Nazarene University student group that provides community for LGBTQIA+ students, had been told by their faculty and staff advisors that they followed the guidelines to host an all-campus showing of the film “1946: The Mistranslation that Shifted Culture,” which discusses an alleged mistranslation responsible for the Christian condemnation of homosexuality.

Despite the event initially being approved by Jake Gilbertson, dean of students and faculty advisor to VOL, it was canceled by Mary Paul, vice president of PLNU’s Office of Student Life and Formation (SLAF) and Gilbertson, on April 1.

After several days not knowing if the event would be rescheduled, VOL was notified by Paul and Gilbertson that it could be shown in a limited capacity, only in the VOL group meeting, but not campus wide. The screening will now take place in Cunningham Dining Room on April 17 from 7- 8:45 p.m.

Rebecca Laird, interim dean of the School of Theology and Christian Ministry, said, “The leaders of VOL respectfully followed the outlined processes for student events. Actions that can be viewed as silencing student views are hard to understand on a university campus.”

VOL members feel betrayed.

“As we have been planning this event all year, and have been told to believe that the event was approved, I was very shocked, hurt and disheartened by the news,” said Karissa Cloyes, a VOL board member and second-year visual art student.

Sarah Bell, another VOL board member and fourth-year Christian studies student, said that she had workshopped this event for years leading up to the planned screening and was disappointed “to receive the order to cancel.”

On April 4, the day of the intended screening, VOL leaders and Sarah Beckham, the other VOL faculty advisor and resident director of Hendricks Residence Hall, met to discuss what happened. They decided to draft a public statement to update the VOL community that the screening will shift to become a part of their regularly scheduled meeting without sanction to be a campus-wide event.

In the email that VOL leaders sent out to the VOL community, they wrote, “We learned that certain members of PLNU’s administration, who believed the film advocated for a position contrary to the Church of the Nazarene’s current stance on human sexuality, directed us to cancel our event.”

With the email drafted by leaders and approval pending from Gilbertson and Beckham, the entire VOL team met on April 8 and Gilbertson inquired if it would be helpful to meet with Paul, as she was the alleged origin of the command to cancel the event. 

“We don’t recall there being a formal invitation from Mary [Paul]. Instead, it was more of a suggestion/offer on Jake’s behalf if we felt a meeting would help inform our email to VOL members. We didn’t feel it would be helpful because it would not change how things had transpired,” all VOL board members said via text message. 

Paul said in an email sent separately to both The Point and to all SLAF faculty, “The VOL leaders turned it (the meeting) down due to busy schedules.”

Later in an email interview with The Point, Paul said, “If other reasons were given, those weren’t shared with me.”

In the team meeting, Gilbertson also asked that VOL wait to send the email update until the end of the day so that he could let Paul know what was going to be sent to the VOL community. He later called and asked that they wait to send their email until April 9 so that Paul could draft a statement to VOL leaders explaining her decision to cancel. 

On April 10, a day later than guaranteed and six days after the event was supposed to happen, Paul’s statement was sent to VOL leaders, and was co-authored by Gilbertson. 

The email, provided to The Point by VOL leaders, states: “I [Jake Gilbertson] want to take responsibility for several logistical challenges that did not set this event up for success.” 

Within the email, Gilbertson said that the event was planned for a date when several key SLAF staff would not be present — including himself — on campus because of a conference. 

He also said that the documentary had not been pre-screened by the advisors of VOL and that there were several aspects of screening this film that would require greater campus care including “a campus plan for support and available follow-up after this conversation” and “providing a broader context of Biblical interpretation and Christian historic practices of engaging scripture that would align with our Nazarene tradition.” 

Following an attempt to reach him at his office and an email correspondence, Gilbertson said he was traveling and declined to comment. 

“I think those in power are afraid of what it would mean to be wrong. Knowing the Church of the Nazarene’s, and subsequently PLNU’s stance on sexuality, I understand how this particular kind of fear can/did result in censorship,” said Bell. “Currently, the institution at large does not wish to overcome fear because fear is essential for maintaining power and control, and this ideology is unfortunate.”

“1946: The Mistranslation that Shifted Culture” argues that the word “homosexual” was never in the Bible. In this documentary, a piece of evidence is found at Yale University that proves that the word was a mistranslation in the 1946 Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

“What was censored was the Bible. When the Bible is too dangerous to a Christian campus we are not in a good place,” said a faculty member who requested anonymity.

In an email interview with The Point, Paul says, “The decision for an internal viewing and the postponement of an all-student event ultimately falls to my responsibility.”

The film screening is now taking place at the final VOL meeting of the academic year. 

“This means that folks who view the film will be left without additional space to process, lament in a communal setting, or ask questions and share their thoughts aloud,” Bell said.

Colby Douglas, the Associated Student Body (ASB) director of student relations and a third-year business management major, said that VOL is not a chartered ASB club because it operates under SLAF within a collection of groups known as the Community Life Advisory Board. Douglas sits on the board to increase collaboration between ASB clubs and those groups but ultimately, the ASB team does not hold authority over their operations.

Paul said that the differences in expectations for member gatherings and all student events are explained in the Traditional Undergraduate Programming Policy and Practice, which states, “Events should be designed in a way to foster a healthy campus culture and not to cause disruption. Any event that is considered a threat to the campus climate can be canceled by the cabinet member that your office reports to. If there is a possibility that an event could rise to this level, you are encouraged to have discussions with their overseeing cabinet member before moving forward with the planning process.”

There is no definition given for “healthy campus culture.”

“Sometimes it feels like Point Loma functions with strategic ambiguity to where it seems they’re ambiguous on purpose. If the university clearly defined heavily conservative expectations for staff and faculty regarding how they can and cannot advocate for and support the LGBTQIA+ community, my fear is there would be a mass exodus of employees within multiple departments. That’s not what we want for our students or for our university,” said a PLNU employee who requested anonymity.

With LGBTQIA+ perspectives becoming the stress point between the current Church of the Nazarene Doctrine and ambiguous implications at PLNU, students are facing homophobic vandalism, faculty being fired and negative school ratings by Campus Pride.

“This year, the queer community at PLNU has had to deal with many instances of homophobia, and even a hate crime,” Cloyes said. “Regardless of the admin’s intention, the VOL leaders have had to take the brunt and hold the emotional weight of these decisions without the same support other groups on campus have. It is exhausting, as a queer person on campus, to hold the emotional weight of how these harmful decisions continue to affect the queer community.”

VOL leaders felt emotionally drained by the cancellation and the drawn out, back-and-forth messaging from SLAF.

“While this situation is drastically different than situations that have happened in the past it’s hard not to feel like the canceling of this event is a continuation of the painful marginalization of the LGBTQIA+ community on PLNU’s campus,” said Beckham. “I feel grief for my student leaders and other LGBTQIA+ students on campus who learned about the cancellation and were negatively impacted by the situation.” 

Amid VOL leaders feeling disappointment at the limited capacity of their event, a VOL board member contacted ASB asking for the support of student leadership.

Nathan Shoup, ASB President, said in an email to VOL Leaders and ASB members,“To put action to word, I alongside other ASB board members are eager to be in attendance next Wednesday for the viewing of 1946. My hope is that our support and solidarity shown through our presence at the VOL concluding meeting is a loving reminder that we as student leaders desire for you to be heard and to have space on our campus. You are not just seen nor heard, but you are loved.”