WRITTEN BY: DR. PHIL BOWLES | CONTRIBUTOR
I have had a mostly enjoyable 45-year career teaching in three high schools and two colleges, 36 of those years at PLNU. I decided late in my teens that I wanted never to leave school behind, that the life of the mind, the classroom, and the small group were what I desired most. Since school for me had taken over where the moral and religious education of home and church had left off, I could not get enough of those studies, of those teachers, in all of those subjects. Neither could I get enough of asking questions, of getting a few answers–and then of turning over in my mind several possible answers to the most difficult questions. These possible answers were gleaned from my reading, from my own reasoning, from mentors and peers, and eventually, not least of all, from my own students.
In the 1980s at Point Loma College, my pedagogical passions were linguistics, training teachers of English and collaborating with my peers across disciplines—in part, to advance the worthy cause of writing across the disciplines, but also, selfishly, to learn more about the subjects my colleagues were teaching. After failing at several attempts to interface composition with other disciplines, I received administrative support to co-create with geneticist Dr. Darrel Falk what our dean called a summer academic boot camp: Program Quick Start, the precursor to the current LEAP program. I directed and taught in that program the better part of a decade. Dr. Falk and I also created the co-disciplinary Integrated Semester for Freshmen (ISF), providing a common first-semester experience for 48 students, and offered another fourteen years in the fall semester. (Today, a few of the elements of ISF are being used in the new humanities Honors Program.)
Those years of collaboration were not always easy, but they were satisfying, taking me beyond the boundaries of my own disciplinary expertise, an appropriate development for a professor in the liberal arts.
This life of multi-disciplinary inquiry has also been shared in large measure with my very able life’s partner. Beyond my God, my spouse, our three children with their spouses, our five grandchildren, and my teaching career, two issues have energized my adult life—the first for over forty years and the second for just over ten. The first is sustainability and the second is LGBTQ+ issues and faith. It seems fair to say they have been my extra-curricular passions.
According to New York Times columnist David Brooks, “People with passion have the [fortitude] to be themselves with abandon. We all care what others think about us. People with passion are just less willing to be ruled by the tyranny of public opinion” (Oct. 22, 2015). Reaction to our activism in sustainability and LGBTQ+ issues has been mixed.
Forty years ago as newly-weds, our upbringing by post-depression era parents and my lay interest in natural science resulted in our personal practice of minimal buying of stuff, reusing things my peers might have thrown away after the first use, and recycling as a weekly family routine before doing so was easy. So when a few of us on this campus became activist in sustainability, it was gratifying to have the leaders of the campus embrace what became a truly comprehensive mindset and daily practice to be responsible stewards individually and collectively. Although this occurred when many evangelicals were demonizing environmentalists, causing Mieras Hall to receive more than its share of criticism, I was proud to say PLNU was doing what leading institutions do, weathering the backlash while pursuing the better way. Stewardship of resources had been declared an institutional core value!
Such was not the case institutionally a decade ago regarding LGBTQ+ issues. (Although the Voices of Love group may have turned this corner recently, thanks be to God.) During those activist years on LGBTQ+ issues and faith, a number of outspoken critics, most overtly on the web, called for me and some of my faculty peers to be fired for organizing and speaking at meetings of an off- campus discussion group on LGBTQ+ issues and faith.
Sharon and I had been thrust into dealing with gender and sexuality issues when a close friend of the family, and a PLNU alumnus, reconnected with me in part to say that he had begun to transition from male to female and that day was the last time I would see him dressed as a man. We were able to be there in the distant hospital with our friend as she had gender reassignment surgery. Then, several years later, after we had become activists, our younger daughter, Emily, (a PLNU alumna who played soccer on scholarship and was a leader in Young Life in multiple locations) emailed the family that she had found somebody to love, another woman, and she was sorry for any pain that information caused us.
For about eight years, ending in 2012, LGBTQ+ issues and faith had been our passion, our avocation; only the demands of family and aging brought our regular work to a close. Several years earlier, while attending a San Diego Gay Pride Parade for the first time, I remarked to another PLNU employee that I could not find a recycling container along the route where I could toss my plastic water bottle. He challenged me then and there to do something about the need. Thus began a six-year relationship of this straight old man with the mostly younger officials and fellow volunteers that make the Pride Parade and Festival happen every summer. As coordinator of recycling for several years, I became acquainted with many fine persons formerly outside my circles of friends and associates. And when they heard me say I was a teacher at PLNU, they were often surprised and pleased. In fact, they sometimes melted into an emotional puddle as they recounted their beginnings in church–explaining that since they identified with LGBTQ+ folk, they had felt alienated from church and sometimes from family. They felt ostracized because of people’s reactions to who they were.
I’m fairly sure I was called to teach in this place, and I am certain Sharon and I were called to work in creation care and in gender and sexual equality. But socially and professionally we were vulnerable. In his Daybook Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen writes, “Fruits … come from weakness and vulnerability. And fruits are unique. A child is the fruit conceived in vulnerability, community is the fruit born through shared brokenness, and intimacy is the fruit that grows through touching one another’s wounds. . . . [W]hat brings us true joy [in life] is not successfulness but fruitfulness” (1985, entry for Jan. 4). I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked at PLNU and pray that my efforts may bear sweet fruit.
Dr. Phil Bowles is a professor of English. He has advocated for LGBTQ+ rights at PLNU for nearly ten years and along with his wife has coordinated an off-campus discussion group on LGBTQ+ issues for five years.