Jake Reitan walked into a Chicago gay bar and met a student from nearby Wheaton College, a Christian school. As they were chatting, the Wheaton student told Jake he wasn't out on campus, couldn't come out, and actually agreed with the school's teaching about being gay - that it was a sickness.
It was from this chance encounter and Jake's determination that a dialogue was needed between out LGBT people and unwelcoming college campuses that the Equality Ride was born. I'm sure you've read about it in LGBT publications or even the straight media.
Sponsored by Soulforce, 34 LGBT young adults have spent 51 days on a tour bus challenging enrollment bans of LGBT students at 19 of our nation's religious schools and military academies. Soulforce uses the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to fight LGBT oppression.
Just like the folks who went on the Freedom Rides for black civil rights in the early 1960s, the Equality Riders are using peaceful civil disobedience to spread their message of equality, dignity, and inclusion. As the project's co-director, Jake has seen the inside of a number of jail cells.
So have his parents.
Randi and Phil Reitan met as teens at a Lutheran college in California. Phil was a conscientious objector. They both worked against the Viet Nam War. They married, had four children, but never lost their activist edge.
After Jake came out to them when he was 16, Randi and Phil focused their efforts on making their church, their town, and their country a better place for their son.
When the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) was deliberating whether or not to lift their ban on out LGBT clergy, Randi and Phil set off to ELCA's 2001 National Assembly to witness the governing body’s decision.
They asked Jake, then a Northwestern student, to join them. "If you hop in the car with us, you will never forget these two days," Randi told her son. They picked him up, and together they joined the civil disobedience, which was also organized by Soulforce.
"We were all praying on a street corner and refused to clear it until the church's policy was changed," explained Phil, a Minneapolis attorney. "The policy didn't change. We were all arrested." Instead of lifting the ban, the church's National Assembly decided to embark on a four-year study of homosexuality.
Eventually, the Reitans also left the church. "We did it as boldly as we could," said Randi, now a full-time activist for LGBT rights. "I wrote a piece for our local paper. The church needs to realize policies that discriminate also make people leave it."
"My faith grew out of this," she continued. "I don't need a church building to worship and honor God. What churches are doing is so wrong. I don't understand pastors who preach God's love from the pulpit and then don't live it, don't speak out against this oppression. It is a terrible untruth to teach that a gay person is sick and sinful. The day that all the churches are affirming is the day we don't have to pass laws anymore."
It struck me that Randi and Phil talked the talk and walked the walk of real Christians - truly wanting to love their neighbor. They certainly love their son and all their son's fellow riders on the Equality Ride bus.
Randi and Phil have gotten to know "the kids," as she calls them, because they've joined Jake at a number of the actions. "The [April 10> die-in at Brigham Young was so moving,"" said Randi. ""They read the obituaries or letters of 24 young Mormons who had committed suicide because they were gay and knew there was no place for them in the church. When the Riders left, there were 24 lilies scattered on the lawn.""
Randi and Phil's presence has also struck a chord for these LGBT young adults. ""Some of the lesbians have asked, 'Can I just have my parents call you?'"" said Phil. ""You see they're hurt...they just want you to hug them because they want mom and dad's love.
""There's one girl who was talking to her dad who told her not to come home if she got on the bus. These kids should be a joy to their parents, it's unreal how parents reject. What can be greater than the bond between a parent and a child?"" asked Phil.
Abiding faith, abounding pride in their gay son, an absolute commitment to working for LGBT rights - these are the parents we'd all love to have.
What's next for Randi, Phil, and Jake? This summer they plan on participating in a walk from Denver to Colorado Springs, with the goal of paying a visit to James Dobson and the headquarters of Focus on the Family.
They just might get arrested again. But for Randi and Phil, it's worth it. ""The untruths that are told about lesbians and gay are absolutely bizarre.""
Their concern for the LGBT community is palpable. But sometimes it just comes down to the simplest of emotions. ""I long for the day that Jake finds a man that he loves, and we can have this wonderful wedding for the two of them,"" said Randi. "

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