The Gordon Experience Part II: Erosion / by Lily Greenberg

During my first visit to Gordon College as a prospective student, I attended a chapel service. The college president, D. Michael Lindsay—a young-looking man with dark hair and pale skin— took the stage to introduce the speaker. His voice sounded like a plush mattress—soft and benign. I considered the Gordon acceptance letter I had received a month prior, with a handwritten congratulatory note at the bottom from Lindsay himself. I was curious about this man—what college president takes the time to individually welcome students? With his note in mind, I resolved to introduce myself, approaching the front pew at the service’s conclusion. I extended a hand.

“My name is Lily Greenberg, and I’m visiting here for the first—“

“Oh yes, from Franklin! Congratulations on your acceptance—you’re really a strong student. I hope your visit is going well.”

I flushed. The president of this college knows me by name. And I don’t even go here. My high school principal never even knew who I was, and I graduated in the top ten of my class. It felt good to be noticed.

The next time I saw President Lindsay, I was an official student at Gordon College.

***

About a month into my freshman year, as we were getting ready for bed, my roommate paused and asked, “What do you think about Gordon’s Life and Conduct Statement?”
I faltered. “Gordon's what?"
“Like the behavior expectations thing we all had to sign?”
“When did we sign that?”
“Before the semester started. Every student signs it.”

I didn’t remember the document, but wasn’t too concerned. I figured it was probably like the 10 commandments or something, a list of commonly accepted “bad things”—sure, sure, I won’t covet or steal or commit adultery or whatever.

My roommate pulled up Gordon’s Life and Conduct Statement on their website, reading aloud,

“Those words and actions which are expressly forbidden in Scripture, including but not limited to blasphemy, profanity, dishonesty, theft, drunkenness, sexual relations outside marriage, and homosexual practice, will not be tolerated in the lives of Gordon community members, either on or off campus.”

She emphasized the phrase “homosexual practice” and looked up at me. As I was coming from a part of the country that is still to this day asking why people choose to be gay (as if that’s a choice), I was relieved to find that Gordon acknowledged a homosexual orientation at all. They only prohibited the actions, right? So it’s okay to be gay? From where I stood, this was groundbreaking. At the time, my liberal leanings only amounted to a watery “live and let live” philosophy. And, because Gordon’s statement on “homosexual behavior” didn’t apply to me personally, I didn’t push. 

***

Over the course of my first year at Gordon, I saw President Lindsay around campus quite a bit. He would always wave to me in the dining hall or on the campus sidewalks. Once, after we exchanged hello’s in the sandwich line, a girl from my floor leaned over to whisper, “You know him??” I beamed with importance. It was like being friends with a celebrity.

At the end of my freshman year, I applied to be a Student Ambassador. The Ambassador program had been under construction and soon to be revamped. It was pitched with prestige—these student ambassadors would be hand-selected students working for and traveling with President Lindsay, as well as representing the student body at Board of Trustees events. I figured this would be great for my resume, and maybe even provide a nice stepping stone should I want to be a student leader later on in my Gordon career. I was accepted into the program.

***

I returned to Texas that summer to work at camp once more, a little bit less enthused by the on-fire-for-Jesus culture (I had had a heavy dose at Gordon), but grateful nonetheless to be with some of my oldest friends. While at camp, I was mostly out of service, corresponding with friends by postal service. Once a week on my day off, I would return to Wi-Fi. One particular midsummer’s day-off, I received an unusually rampant flood of messages. Have you read this letterI scanned it, unsure of the meaning.

In a letter addressed to President Barack Obama, 14 leaders of Christian institutions requested a religious exemption for federal contractors with regards to recent LGBT+ employment policies. Among the names signed at the bottom of the letter was President Lindsay’s. My brain went gray.

I texted furiously back and forth with my freshman year roommate, whose neurons always seem to fire much quicker than mine.

“So this is just to ensure religious freedom?” I asked.
“That, or to be able to discriminate against LGBT people without losing funding,” she translated. “Oh.”
“Yeah.”

With an explosive article in the Boston Globe highlighting that letter signed by President Lindsay, Gordon shone like an emblem of conservatism and homophobia. Any affiliation with Gordon College became a weakness rather than an asset. Organizations previously connected to the college cut ties. No more community outreach programs. Local schools that used to hold their graduation ceremonies in the Gordon chapel declared they would not be returning to campus. Countless alumni removed the college from their resumes.

More than anything else, I didn’t understand. I couldn’t piece together why President Lindsay would sign such a letter, or what his intentions were. Surely this was a mistake? Surely there’s an explanation? No such explanation arrived. Only vague Christianese statements from the college.

I returned to a strange campus in the fall. Though the campus might have looked normal to an outsider, the very atmosphere felt different—somehow thicker, and heavier.  Certainly there were students who spoke out in protest of the letter, but for the most part, people carried on as usual, grinning like good evangelicals. We sat in chapel and sang about unity. And yet, I had more questions than I did words. My whole head felt like a question mark. But in that weighty air, my inquiries seemed shameful. I held them in.

It wasn’t long before formal protesting broke out. Students stood outside of the chapel services with colorful signs advocating for Gordon’s queer community. I watched friends join the activist circle, and stared at my feet. To protest would be a departure, a definite placement of myself against my own college’s values. A death, of sorts. I held on to my fractured Gordon identity. 

***

Coming into the new year, I was a hesitant student ambassador, as were many others. Do I really want to represent this school? Last spring, it seemed like an honor. Now it felt like punishment.

Thankfully, the highly coveted Student Ambassador program was hardly a program at all. As prestigiously advertised as the Ambassador positions were, they mostly amounted to running the coat check at an occasional social for donors or trustees. I deeply regretted the money I had invested in business casual wear.

 When second semester rolled around, each student ambassador was assigned to travel with President Lindsay to an out-of-state conference. Mine was the Jubilee Conference in Pittsburgh, PA. I had to prepare a three-minute speech about why I chose to come to Gordon, and what has been valuable about that experience. I was to give my speech at a Gordon-sponsored dinner.

I was not excited about this trip, or the prospect of repping Gordon in another city, but it didn’t feel right to back out after I had already committed. So off to Pittsburgh I went.

The overall conference was alright. There were tons of speakers and events, which left me overwhelmed. The Gordon dinner, however, was pretty small, as it was directed towards alumni and prospective students living in the Pittsburgh area. Apparently there were not many. I floated around the room, mingling with guests. I noticed President Lindsay speaking enthusiastically with one couple and their daughter. His eyes were shimmering. When I stepped closer, I caught some of his words.

“You are such a strong student, and would thrive in a community like Gordon.”
The father interjected, “But it’s just too expensive. She can get full rides elsewhere, you know.”

The two men went back and forth—Lindsay describing the myriad of ways this girl would thrive at Gordon, the father returning to the price tag.

Later in the evening, as I stepped out of the dinner party to use the restroom, I saw President Lindsay standing in the hallway speaking with one of his assistants. The shimmer in his eyes was gone. His soft voice seemed shrill.

I want her, and we will do whatever it takes to get her to Gordon.” He went on about her test scores, about her leadership. Just like that, the warm President Lindsay that first greeted me on the Gordon campus became a salesman, a collector of strong students. I thought back to the note he scratched out on my acceptance letter. Was that all a ploy?

I gave my speech about Gordon, talking about my favorite professors and classes. President Lindsay got up after me, gave his speech, and invited questions. One alumna inquired about the letter he had signed over the summer. In Lindsay’s somewhat canned response, he kept reiterating how the college’s Life and Conduct Statement had not changed, how this was not new, how the Boston Globe had just blown things out of proportion.

“Nothing has changed,” Lindsay repeated, like a mantra. Nothing has changedEverything is the same as it always has been.  

But somehow, I had never felt farther away.

***

Note: In my recounting process, I asked around quite a bit to hear what fellow students could recall. I discovered that we had similar blank patches--when did we sign the Life and Conduct Statement? How did I feel when President Lindsay signed that letter to President Obama? None of us could quite call forth the details. I began poking at these absences, asking why there wasn't space to question our own behavioral standards before signing, wondering why we had to piece the meaning of that letter to President Obama together without facilitation. Here is my hypothesis: perhaps that lack of clear, public acknowledgment followed by space for open discussion left us with a murky stew of feelings and memories, knots that we still struggle to straighten out.