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Why avoiding activism is detrimental to our community.

When a student enrolls at Azusa Pacific University, their life changes forever. It’s a drastic change that happens gradually.

The life-changing moments happen one-by-one: They happen when you’re crying in the hallway during finals week and a stranger gives you a hug. They happen when your mental health is plummeting and your professor tells you, “It’s okay.” They happen every time a pastor pulls you aside, looks you in the eyes and asks, “How are you?” and actually wants to hear the answer.

The reason APU changes lives is because of its commitment to helping the community and living Christ-centered lives. But as with every community, some groups still have to fight harder to be heard.

APU is currently in the midst of a major cultural shift. This cultural shift goes back at least a decade to the start of APU’s underground club, formally known as Haven. The group, which met off-campus in nearby apartments, was composed mainly of LGBTQ+ students from APU and straight allies. Due to APU’s stance against same-sex relationships, the institution refused to acknowledge the group as a university-sponsored club.

In 2013, tensions began to rise when a transgender professor at the school announced that he was leaving APU in a joint statement with the university. They claimed their differences in theology were the catalyst behind the decision. In 2017, a prayer vigil became an outlet for some LGBTQ+ students to pray while voicing their frustrations regarding some of APU’s policies.

When Haven finally settled down on APU’s campus, they were known not as a club but as “an LGBTQ+ pilot program.” This meant the group would be monitored to determine, at a later date, if it would be allowed to stay on campus as a group. 

Leaders of the program expressed gratitude and surprise that APU had welcomed them on campus, such as Student Life Intern Nolan Croce, who said, “Seeing the support for Haven this semester is extremely heartwarming.”

When the news of Haven’s presence on campus became widespread, people within and outside of APU’s community responded passionately. One professor even stated that APU was losing its God-first values.

While unrelated to the pilot program, a change was made in the student handbook that formerly prohibited same-sex relationships on campus. However, the Board of Trustees claimed that the change in the student handbook was never approved by them.

Haven was directed to change its name. Many student leaders on campus say that this was a move to avoid the activism Haven promoted. The group is now known as the LGBTQ+ Care and Community Center but is not listed on APU’s clubs and organizations list online since it is still a pilot program.

Activism describes the strides that people in the community are taking to support their peers. After all the controversy Haven brought, many people were left believing that APU did not support them and was limiting their expression through taking Haven’s name away and limiting students’ ability to protest.

Student Government Association (SGA) Speaker of the House, Alexis Diaz, has been one of the most vocal student leaders on campus regarding this issue. As a queer woman of color, Diaz has experienced what it’s like to be a marginalized student on campus as well as a student leader for those who cannot speak for themselves.

In one panel, she expressed her frustrations that APU seems to avoid activism in favor of a quieter resolution to problems, which she says limits the amount of positive change APU is able to make.

“When I think about activism, I think about the strides we’ve made throughout history,” Diaz said. “And when I think about that … it almost feels like the LGBTQ community and the history that they’ve had at APU is trying to be erased.”

APU’s aversion towards activism is something noticeable within the student code of conduct, as the passages pertaining to activism are worded very carefully. For instance, Section 21.0 refers to protests and demonstrations, which are seemingly viewed as negatives according to the careful wording of the rule.  

A summary of the passage on APU’s official website reads: “It is the desire of Azusa Pacific University to promote appropriate expression of views that do not conflict with the mission/identity of our unique Christian higher education community. To accomplish this, provision is made for peaceful assemblies and forums rather than protests or demonstrations.”

Since the handbook and code of conduct allow for peaceful assemblies in Section 21.0, it does not break the First Amendment. However, the phrasing of this rule seems to separate peaceful assemblies from protests or demonstrations of any kind. This conveys a somewhat disturbing idea that protests themselves cannot be peaceful and if a student engages in one, they are out-of-line.

Secondly, the rule limits what these peaceful protests can entail and where they can take place. As a private institution, they are within their rights to do this but by exercising this right, they limit students’ abilities to be seen and heard.

The 2017 prayer vigil and a more recent 2018 public display of support for LGBTQ+ students were both approved by APU. Diaz, who had orchestrated the latter event, claimed the only reason she was allowed to host the event outside of chapel was through “very careful negotiations” with administrators. Typically, these events are not permitted to take place in such popular vicinities.

Despite the lack of visible change, however, APU saw a new chapter in the LGBTQ+ community’s life on campus. In a decision which may surprise some, the Board of Trustees decided to allow the LGBTQ+ pilot program to continue for the rest of the Spring 2019 school year. They will be allowed to pick a new name and be reevaluated at the end of the school year to determine their steps moving forward. Although APU continues to affirm a traditional evangelical view of marriage, they have also declared their support for all students — sexual minorities included.

There is no doubt in my mind that this resolution came to pass through the continued activism students and administrators showed throughout the 2018-19 school year. Activism is not something that is viewed fondly at APU because of the institution’s need to protect its image. They did not want controversy and they did not want their name to be tarnished. But one must question: Would our community have come to this decision if it were not for the controversy we faced?

Growth happens in adversity. It is only when we are challenged that we are truly able to ask ourselves who we are and what we stand for. It is important to never stop being an activist for oneself and for the communities in which we live. If we chose complacency, we lose; but if we chose activism, loving our neighbors and letting our voices be heard, we will all thrive together.