OneWheaton, an organization comprised of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning, (LGBTQ), Wheaton College alumni created a splash at the end of April after passing out a letter of support for gay students at Wheaton College and in the evangelical community.
Kristin Winn, spokeswoman for OneWheaton, said the initial response from students, alumni and members of the Wheaton community, has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We’ve been absolutely floored by the response. On the second day our website crashed due to the number of hits we received,” Winn said from her Los Angeles home.
Winn said there have been a handful of negative emails, but the numbers are "negligible" in comparison to the support.
When the letter was initially passed out to students, it had the signature of 100 alumni members, some of whom are homosexual and some who are supporters of the organization’s message. Within two weeks though, that list of signatories grew to more than 500. Every day, the organization receives emails and calls from alumni, wanting to add their names to the letter, she said.
A group of alumni started organizing OneWheaton in January, Winn said. After members attended the at the college, "we felt very moved to act after that," she said Thursday.
Winn, who struggled with her sexuality during her years at Wheaton College, said some of the callers were Wheaton alumni who believed they could never have an association with their alma mater because they were homosexual.
Winn said OneWheaton will seize upon the momentum the group found and work during the summer to create a stronger presence in Wheaton to prepare student support for the next school year. The organization is also working to increase its online presence, said Winn, a 2007 graduate.
“The more people who know about us means there are more people who can offer support for those on their journeys,” she said.
Being a homosexual at an evangelical college is not easy, but it is not necessarily a nightmare, either. Winn said her college experience was a good one. The friends she made during her time at school have been overwhelmingly supportive, she said.
The same was true for Steve Slagg, a 2009 Wheaton graduate who blogs about being gay at Wheaton College.
“My experience isn't universal, but it was very positive, despite the difficulties of being gay while there. People loved me and welcomed me, and I made lifetime friends, many of whom were asking the same questions I was,” Slagg wrote in an email Thursday.
Slagg said many of his peers encouraged him to reject his sexuality, but a handful encouraged him to embrace it. He said he sought out those reaffirming voices. He said it was a rigorous process, but one that was ultimately good for him. But he said it might not be the right method for every young person struggling with sexual identity.
“You can work out your sexuality with fear and trembling at Wheaton, but you have to own it—nobody will do that for you,” Slagg said.
There people in Wheaton willing to support students and residents struggling with their sexuality. Individuals across the community are offering to help the organization. Winn said several businesses and churches in Wheaton have contacted OneWheaton to offer the use of space for future meetings.
OneWheaton members are also planning to participate in the Chicago Pride Parade this summer. She said they have not considered entering into the Wheaton Fourth of July Parade, but may do so.
The organization is not just having an impact in Wheaton. Winn said there are members organizing social gatherings of Wheaton alumni all across the country, and that they are coordinating with similar organizations at other Christian colleges in the U.S.
Wheaton College officials are maintaining a low-key response to the emergence of OneWheaton. Immediately following the release of the OneWheaton letter, College President Philip Ryken sent a letter to students and alumni. He wrote that the college stands “with LGBTQ persons before God as persons created in God’s own image, and also as sinful persons in need of God’s forgiveness and love through Jesus Christ, God’s Son.” But, he said, the Bible condemns immoral behavior, including homosexuality.
LaTonya Taylor, director of media relations for Wheaton College, said the college has no current plans to respond to OneWheaton, other than Ryken's letter.
Wheaton College does not currently plan to take any action against students or faculty who publicly support OneWheaton. However, she said it is likely school officials would seek to have a conversation with such students or faculty members. She said each student annually affirms the school’s Community Covenant, which is a “voluntary affirmation of our shared theological and moral stance, and an agreement to live within the behavioral boundaries described in the Covenant.”
She said if a student expresses public disagreement with the covenant, student development services tries to use it as a “teachable moment.”
If it was a faculty or staff member, Taylor said college officials would have a “clarifying conversation to discuss how the person’s affirmation of Wheaton’s Statement of Faith and Community Covenant were consistent with their support for that organization.”
In addition to prepping student support, Winn said the organization will closely monitor the activities of the Wheaton College administration and its treatment of students.
“As long as the college holds the view that homosexual behavior is a sin, we will continue to offer an alternative view,” Winn said.
That alternative view is being supported by offering refuge and affirmation to homosexuals and their supporters. St. Matthews United Church of Christ and St. Paul Lutheran Church openly welcome homosexuals in Wheaton.
Melody Eastman, senior pastor of , said her church opens its doors to everyone, welcoming them in the reconciliation of Jesus Christ. Several years ago the congregation voted to become a church that was open and affirming of homosexuals, Eastman said.
“Many of our members believe homosexuality is a sin, but they believe they should extend the welcome to everyone,” she said. “But, many of our members affirm that (homosexuality) is part of God’s creation in its diversity.”
Since the church opened its doors to homosexuals, Eastman said it has seen its ministries grow stronger. She said within the first year they began to see homosexual couples become an open part of the congregation and take an active role in the church. Eastman estimated the LGBT population of her church is between 8 and 10 percent of the congregation.
“The OneWheaton movement has shown us that there are a lot of LGBT folks under the radar in Wheaton,” Eastman said.