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'Trauma and ostracization': Students 'call in' Christian groups for discrimination

“We believe that our faith spaces can hold all of us: our doubts, our identities, our questions,” Zach Ripberger said.

<p>DTH Photo Illustration. A Bible sits on a rainbow pride flag. &nbsp;Students are sharing their experiences of discrimination in campus ministry groups across campus anonymously on the new Instagram page “Call in Campus Ministry.”</p>
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DTH Photo Illustration. A Bible sits on a rainbow pride flag.  Students are sharing their experiences of discrimination in campus ministry groups across campus anonymously on the new Instagram page “Call in Campus Ministry.”

When Zach Ripberger started college, he hoped to find fellowship through his faith. Instead, he ended up leaving campus ministry after encountering an environment that ignited an intense internal struggle between his faith and his sexuality.    

Now, inspired by Ripberger’s story, students are sharing their experiences of discrimination in campus ministry groups across campus. The new Instagram page “Call in Campus Ministry” has shared anonymous stories from students calling out both casual and explicit discrimination in UNC chapters of organizations such as Young Life and Cru. 

‘My whole identity was not accepted or even affirmed in that space’ 

An active member of his high school’s Young Life, Ripberger decided to join the Durham-Chapel Hill chapter when he came to college. Though the organization was not officially affiliated with UNC, Ripberger found many fellow students in the organization and started to build a strong friend group. 

The organization asked a lot of him, though. After being pressured to become a leader, Ripberger was expected to travel to a local high school 30 minutes away, five times a week, to hold discussions with the students. 

On top of all of that, he was gay — and none of them knew. 

"It got to the point that every time I was doing something with Young Life, I would just look around and I knew that my full identity, my whole identity was not accepted or even affirmed in that space," he said.

Duke University’s Young Life came under fire last September when it attempted to become an official student group. At the time, Young Life’s national sexual misconduct policy stated that “we do not in any way wish to exclude persons who engage in sexual misconduct or who practice a homosexual lifestyle from being recipients of ministry of God's grace and mercy as expressed in Jesus Christ. We do, however, believe that such persons are not to serve as staff or volunteers in the mission and work of Young Life.”

This clause has since been removed from all Young Life websites, but Ripberger said it still reflects the expectations of leaders. Representatives from Durham-Chapel Hill Young Life did not respond to multiple requests for comment by the time of publication. 

Going into his sophomore year as a Young Life leader, Ripberger said he was acutely aware of these expectations. That September, he met his first boyfriend, but forced himself to keep the relationship a secret from the organization. 

He was also a founding member of the Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi, or BYX. During his first year, while still coming to terms with his sexuality, Ripberger spent weeks preparing for his initiation to the fraternity, and working to get it officially recognized. 

When everything was finalized, Ripberger and his fellow founding members came together to sign BYX’s “Covenant Agreement,” a national contract outlining the obligations of all members. At the Battle House —  the North Carolina Study Center's main location, which has the mission "to cultivate Christian life and thought at UNC" — sitting in his suit and tie, prepared to join a community he helped start, he came upon the following clause:

“The organizational position of BYX is that we believe sex is a gift of God to be enjoyed only inside the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman. Therefore, we forbid such activity as fornication, adultery, and homosexual conduct. {I Corinthians 6:15-20; Hebrews 13:4},” stated the Honor Code of the organization’s agreement from 2014. 

“When I saw that clause, I then had to make a decision between something I was questioning and unsure about, and this opportunity to establish a community for myself on campus,” Ripberger said.  

“What’s disheartening to me is to hear denial or unawareness of the clause within the Covenant Agreement,” he said. “Because I will never forget that clause.”

UNC requires that all student organizations include a statement in their constitution saying that they abide by the University’s Non-Discrimination Policy for Student Organizations — which lists sexual orientation as a protected status. This statement is not included in the BYX constitution from 2013 linked on its Heel Life page.  

Carly Miller, a UNC Media Relations manager, said in an email that BYX is a social fraternity under the Interfraternity Council that has not received any student fees from the Undergraduate Senate in the last three years. Miller said any student or UNC community member who has experienced "harassing or discriminatory treatment based on any protected identity" can contact the University's Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office to learn about reporting options and resources. 

Miller said the University's policy on Non-Discrimination for Student Organizations states: “Our mission is to serve all the people of the State, and indeed the nation, as a center for scholarship and creative endeavor" and "The University's commitment to equal opportunity for each member of its student body is unshakable.” 

The BYX president listed on the organization's website, Brett McCraw, did not respond to a request for comment on the BYX constitution not containing the University's non-discrimination policy.

Throughout the rest of his first year, Ripberger said the BYX clause weighed on him.

“I fell into a really dark place as well, because it was me wrestling between, ‘I am in love with this person; I feel love, wholly and genuinely for the first time,’ but at the same time, I had not come to accept that as an intersection with my faith,” he said. 

Cameron Church, BYX’s president at the time, said in an email that he did not remember the clause from 2014. He said the current statement says: “The organizational position of BYX is that sex is a great gift of God to be enjoyed only inside God’s established covenant of marriage. Therefore, we do not condone sexual immorality in the lives of our members.”

The national BYX organization did not respond to requests for comment. 

That year, Ripberger ran for vice president of BYX, and won. By that time, he had come out to the founding president — but his relationship was still a secret.

When Ripberger and his boyfriend broke up, he realized he couldn’t turn to his own community for comfort. 

“What I realized was I was grieving hard, and I was grieving in silence,” he said. “And I couldn’t do that.” 

Ripberger went to Church and confessed. He said he knew that he would be expected to resign.

“To avoid having to feel the pain and the hurt of being told to leave, I decided on my own to preserve that dignity and that autonomy and to take the matters into my own hands so that I could at least control the narrative in that sense,” he said. 

In an email, Church said that he did not encourage Ripberger to resign. 

“When Zach came out to me, I told him I was there to support him however I could,” Church wrote. “He told me in that same conversation that he had already decided to leave the fraternity, and I was disappointed because Zach was a great vice president, and he had made a big impact on the fraternity.”

In order to officially resign as vice president, Ripberger had to make a speech to the fraternity explaining his decision. In front of all of his brothers, he came out as gay and announced his departure. 

“I wanted to let them know I didn’t necessarily want to leave,” Ripberger said. “I wish I could have stayed and this could be an inclusive space, but I had to.” 

By this time, Ripberger had already left Young Life as well, telling other leaders it was due to stress — which was partially true. After dropping, he said he heard virtually nothing from the leaders he had worked with in the past and began to feel judgment from other members. 

At this point, Ripberger was completely severed from the two biggest communities he had been part of — and said he felt ostracized from his former friends. 

“I was absolutely turned away from my faith and my relationship with God,” Ripberger said. “That process of reconciliation has been a long process over the last three years.” 

Calling In Campus Ministry 

In early July of this year, Ripberger decided to take his story public by creating the Instagram page, “Call In Campus Ministry."

One student who shared her story was Jennifer Na, a former member of Cru who graduated in 2019. In the post, Na describes experiencing racism and a lack of support from the group after sharing that she had been sexually assaulted. 

As a bisexual woman, she was jarred to find a statement similar to BYX’s in the Cru leadership application. 

Under the section of “Relationship with Yourself (Character),” the 2020-2021 application “ask that leaders to commit to the following”: 

  • “Must be of the conviction that romance, sex, and marriage according to the Bible is designed to be between one man and one woman..."

When asked about their LGBTQ+ policy, Cru responded with the following statement. 

"Cru at UNC seeks to be a welcome and loving community for all students to consider God's love for them. We strive to provide a caring environment as we follow Jesus in the midst of a rich and diverse campus culture. We welcome the opportunity to connect with any student directly to hear about their experience."

Stories like these fill the Call In Campus Ministry page. But Ripberger said he doesn’t want this to turn people away from their faith. 

“This is not an attack on Christianity,” he said. “This is really just an effort to bring these stories to life, so that people can finally be aware of the extent to this disexclusion and discrimination, and really trauma and ostracization that people are experiencing long term because of this.”

Ripberger has partnered with Queer People of Faith, a UNC group dedicated to creating an inclusive space for religious LGBTQ+ students. He said he hopes they can work to make faith communities more inclusive and share the stories of those who hope to change them. 

“We believe that our faith spaces can hold all of us: our doubts, our identities, our questions,” he said. “And so we hope for that reconciliation.” 

university@dailytarheel.com

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