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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / A Lee University building is pictured on March 18, 2021.

Mark Walker stepped onto the stage to clear up what he felt was confusion among his students at Lee University. After flipping open his binder and saying good morning, the university's president told the crowd in front of him and those watching online that this was a special chapel service.

"The families that truly care about each other, that love one another, they have what are called family meetings to work out differences," Walker said. "So, this is a family meeting because we at Lee love one another and care about one another that much."

The clarification Walker offered earlier this month set off a series of protests at the Cleveland, Tennessee, campus and online. Some current and former students say the university is creating a dangerous environment for its LGBTQ students, while the university and its supporters say it is upholding the doctrine of the Church of God denomination that all students agree to follow.

"Dr. Walker put a target on the back of every gay student on campus with his message," said Evelyn Mostrom, a 2016 graduate. "It's definitely one of those, if you give homophobes an inch, they'll take a mile. It makes me sad and afraid for those students."

The renewed debate about identity and inclusion at Lee began weeks ago when Preston Sprinkle, president of the Idaho-based Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender, gave a chapel talk to students about showing compassion and love to people experiencing gender dysphoria, the feeling of distress when a person's gender identity differs from their sex at birth.

Sprinkle told a story of a friend who was born a woman but identified as man. Sprinkle said his friend left the church but returned years later because of the love shown by a pastor.

Walker said he got feedback from students, parents and community members that Sprinkle's message was ambiguous since it did not address whether people need to repent their sin. The Church of God does not support same-sex marriage or same-sex relations, just as it does not support premarital or extramarital sexual relations. According to its doctrine, the church believes those who practice homosexuality or are in a same-sex marriage have been misled by Satan and, if they do not repent and become celibate, they "forfeit their salvation and relinquish their eternal inheritance."

The Church of God, which helps fund the university and provides the school's theological framework, put out a statement describing Sprinkle's message as "contrary to scripture." Lee University put out a statement as well. Sprinkle's talk was removed from Lee's social media pages. Then, on March 11, Walker gave his special address to the Lee community.

"There was enough confusion and concern that we needed to address it in that chapel because, in the Christian faith, repentance is what gets someone back to God, if you will," Walker told the Times Free Press. "Without repentance, there is no salvation or forgiveness of sins in the Christian faith. We wanted to make sure there wasn't any ambiguity there."

Lee University does not support same-sex marriage or same-sex sexual behavior, Walker told the campus last week. God shows love by telling us the truth, he said, and that requires repenting of all sin and holding each other accountable.

"If I claimed to truly love you, and I know that what you're entering into, the choices you're making are going to bring hurt and harm and damage to your life, but I don't warn you or tell you, I don't really love you," Walker told the students. "Speaking the truth to someone we love is not a sign we don't love them. It's just the opposite."

The university president went on to say that he and other university leaders were there to listen to students, though listening would not mean the university approved of homosexuality. He also said part of loving someone is providing the resources to help them, and the university would offer students the counseling or support to help them "deal with or overcome whatever their issues are."

Walker told the Times Free Press he received hundreds of notes, emails and text messages thanking him for stating the university's stance on gender and sexuality. Multiple pastors thanked Walker in the comments of the Facebook video. "A thorough scriptural teaching on dealing with temptation, sin, and living in Christian community," one pastor wrote. "This is absolute LOVE. Gentle, kind, long-suffering and true," another church leader commented.

But Walker's speech prompted another reaction from Lee alumni. Within hours they were messaging each other their concerns about student safety and what they could do to help those in the LGBTQ community, whom they felt Walker targeted in his talk.

They launched the Affirming Alum Collective to support LGBTQ students on Lee's campus by connecting them with resources and other people who identify as LGBTQ. The group created a petition calling on Lee's administration to recognize the danger posed to marginalized students. As of Friday afternoon, the petition had nearly 600 signatures.

Few of the students and alumni who spoke with the Times Free Press said they were surprised by what Walker said since the university aligns with Church of God doctrine. But many of the alumni were hurt and confused by the university's need to correct Sprinkle's earlier message, saying the correction was not in any way affirming.

People are generally invited to speak at chapel services if their beliefs are in line with the university's.

"It's not like you had some activist up there being very pro-LGBTQ+," said Miles Huff, who holds two degrees from Lee. "It was just like, maybe we should treat people OK. And that was too much for the university."

When Huff voiced his struggles understanding his sexuality as a student, he was given Bible verses and an accountability partner, he said.

"What this teaches you is that you are bad. Your identity is wrong. You are flawed," Huff said. "And mental health issues and the trauma that so many Lee students experience because of that is huge."

The idea Walker outlined in his talk that Christians need to call others to repentance worried some alumni who said it could provide cover for students to harass or bully people in the LGBTQ community, since some could justify the harassment as calling people to repent. Walker said using repentance as a cover is wrong, and the university wants to know about any form of harassment so it can be addressed.

But alumni said Lee's LGBTQ community is largely underground because of safety concerns. Few people in Lee's administration or faculty recognize the lived experiences of queer students on campus, they said. Many students do not trust the university's counseling center or top leadership, said Madelaine Burgess, a 2020 graduate. Instead, they know which professors or faculty can be trusted and which cannot.

A survey released this month by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project found 12% of students at Christian colleges identified as LGBTQ, though nearly 40% have told no one or fewer than two people, and many said they felt uncomfortable on their campuses.

Walker's comments about providing resources to help them overcome whatever they are struggling with scared some alumni who thought the president could be referring to so-called conversion therapy, a discredited practice sometimes using physical or emotional pain to attempt to change someone's sexuality.

The president denied this and said he was not prescribing any type of counseling.

"Going to the idea of conversion therapy, that's not what I meant at all," Walker told the Times Free Press. "To my knowledge, that's not what we engage in, in our counseling center. If a student wants to know about how to accept Jesus Christ, we'll certainly talk to them about that. But it's not about trying to move them from gay to straight, if you will. It's about how can we listen, how can we help, how can we provide them what they need with whatever they are struggling with at any level."

But, for LGBTQ advocates, Lee's offering of resources feels dangerous given the church does not believe people who identify as LGBTQ should express their sexuality. Katie Rinaudo, a 2013 graduate, said the university is not creating a safe place for students to understand their sexuality if it is also saying they need to change.

"This is who someone is," Rinaudo said. "You can't say 'come talk to me about what you're struggling with' when a student doesn't think they're struggling with it because they believe it is who they are. And it is who they are."

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, LGBTQ adults are at greater risk for depression and anxiety. Youth who identify as LGBTQ face increased rates of suicide and are more likely to report feelings of hopelessness, according to the alliance.

The Rev. Keith Mozingo, a 1981 graduate and pastor of Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles, said he spent years grappling with his sexuality in the ultraconservative Church of God environment where he was raised. He tried dating women and even was engaged for a period before coming across a book by Troy Perry, a former Church of God preacher who went on to found the affirming Metropolitan Community Church denomination.

In his mid-20s, Mozingo said, he felt the Holy Spirit tell him he was created and loved as he was, and his identities as a gay man and a Christian were not in conflict. Mozingo said a relationship with God is more important than following a specific doctrine, and he is disappointed that college campuses still teach what he described as outdated interpretations of scripture.

"We are all created in God's image, and there's nothing to be ashamed about in living your life in the way God created you," Mozingo said. "It doesn't matter what the church says. It doesn't matter what pastors or teachers or parents or anybody else says. What's important is what God says."

The Rev. Claire Brown, a 2011 graduate and priest ordained in the Episcopal Church, said the university's statements do not allow for meaningful conversations about the experiences of LGBTQ students and the various forms of Christianity that are affirming. The Episcopal Church is an open and affirming denomination.

"For all students, straight or LGBTQ, this monolithic idea of what Christianity believes about something as deeply personal and diverse as gender and sexuality is not only doing a disservice to their learning about the world as part of their liberal arts education, but it's also inhibiting them from growing in faith," Brown said. "I think healthy faith asks questions and opens conversations."

Two days after Walker's chapel talk, students and alumni brought signs and chalk to Lee's campus. On the sidewalk, they wrote, "LGBTQ+ Students: You Matter" and "God loves the gays and the theys." People at the chalk protest said campus workers washed off the sidewalks shortly after the messages were written.

The students and alumni who want greater support for LGBTQ students said the washing symbolized the university's view toward people who do not fit the heterosexual norm the school desires.

"It's very hurtful, and it's very traumatizing to constantly have to be in an environment that you know isn't affirming of your identity," said Joie St. Hubert, a junior at Lee.

Walker told the Times Free Press that portions of the sidewalk needed to be cleaned because the university had scheduled a video shoot for that area of campus before the protest happened. Other areas were not cleaned up for more than 24 hours, he said.

Discussions around future protests on campus are ongoing.

"There's been a lot of, I think, pent-up anger and resentment and hurt from a lot of people. That's what I'm sensing," St. Hubert said. "Literally, this entire week, I've just come up to people and, literally, we don't even exchange words. We just hug. That's literally all that we can do. It's such a deep, deep feeling of invalidation."

In the closing minutes of his chapel talk, Walker told students the university is a work in progress. There is always room for improvement but it will always love God's way, he said.

"You know why we're willing to have this kind of a moment here on this campus? It's because Lee is God's place. It doesn't belong to anybody else. Nobody else," Walker said. "This is God's place."

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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