Holly Schmitz’s first love was a disaster. She was a 19-year-old freshman in 2002, already the starting setter for the Ozark Christian College volleyball team, when she fell for a teammate amid the camaraderie of a team road trip.
The feelings were mutual, and the relationship went well until someone on campus, suspecting something other than a Biblical bond between the women, reported them to the administration. Rules were put in place to keep them apart, including prohibitions on public touching and sleeping in the same room. Schmitz was moved to a different dorm, her roommate recalled.
The relationship continued in secret, but the campus is small — about 600 students — and Schmitz was eventually referred to an OCC staffer.
“They said, ‘You’re going to need to talk to her if you want to stay,’” recalled Schmitz.
The staffer pressed her to uphold the school’s code of conduct, which forbids homosexuality, but it was no use. The relationship continued, Schmitz said, until she returned from a national volleyball tournament to find that a note had been slipped under her door giving her 24 hours to leave campus. Her teammate was also expelled.
Schmitz grew up deeply ensconced in the evangelical church. She planned to graduate from OCC with a degree in music ministry, then build a career playing for church bands.
After being expelled, she said she bounced to another Christian college, then a community college. Today, at 34, she is a government worker in Des Moines, Iowa. She still considers herself a Christian but said she was hurt by her experience at the school.
“The only thing I haven’t lost faith in is God,” she told the Globe.
Seventeen years later, the challenges presented by Schmitz and other gay and lesbian students is not fading on the campuses of colleges with an avowed Christian mission.
National surveys show that young evangelicals — gay and straight — are more accepting of homosexuality than previous generations. Less than two years after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, questions about LGBT Christians on Christian campuses remain a live wire. Controversies erupted in recent years at several Christian institutions after they announced plans to hire gay or gay-affirming staff; in some cases, the hires were revoked.
“The ground is shifting,” John Schmalzbauer, a sociologist of religion at Missouri State University, said, pointing to a national survey showing that nearly half of young evangelicals support gay marriage — at odds with older evangelical Christians.
“That’s going to create tensions for evangelical colleges and universities,” Schmalzbauer said.
The fault line trembled again in Joplin last month when Jonah Box, a former student, mounted a campaign to be readmitted to OCC as an openly gay man. The school refused, sparking an online outcry and prompting a dozen alumni, many of whom identify as Christian and also as gay or lesbian, to share their stories.
Some recalled being pressured, either by staff or by their own Christian ideals, to undergo conversion therapy, a controversial and to some discredited form of counseling designed to alter a person’s sexual orientation. Others said they felt the Christian school was shutting the door on Christians.
Some of the students said they were hurt psychologically by their time at OCC.
Yet, these same alumni also spoke fondly about their time there, describing an atmosphere of scholarly seriousness and mutual care. A decade after leaving the school — and the church — one former student continues to study the Bible in Hebrew and Greek, languages he began learning at OCC. Another said he hasn’t given up on becoming a missionary, even as he struggles to reconcile two identities — openly gay and Christian — that his teachers considered irreconcilable.
“We learned a lot. I loved (my professors),” Erica Chu, an LGBT former student, said. “I know for a fact that I’m still healing from being at Ozark.”
Administrators insist that their stance has never changed and that students know the rules.
Matt Proctor, Ozark’s president, says the school does not condone conversion therapy, which could be made illegal if a bill introduced this year in the Missouri Legislature gets passed. He also said he could not discuss specific students but added in an email: “While I have only served as president since 2006, to my knowledge, OCC has never had a policy requiring conversion therapy, nor do we advocate it today.”
“Ozark has certainly had students who experience same-sex attraction,” Proctor said in an interview this week. “And we treat those students as we treat any other student who may be thinking through a difficult issue in their life. We certainly express love and care for them. And we certainly clearly communicate our expectations, which they agreed to when they applied as a student here.”
The OCC student handbook forbids “sexual immorality,” citing Biblical passages that forbid homosexuality as well as sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman. OCC’s position on the issue has not changed in its 75-year history, Proctor said, adding that the school traces its views “to the church’s historic understanding of the Bible for the last 2,000 years.”
Box, who is originally from Joplin, used his own Biblical arguments to make his case for readmission. He acknowledges he was not kicked out but said an earlier decision to leave stemmed from his inability to reconcile his sexuality with OCC’s standards.
In a meeting with Proctor, Box presented an 11,000-word essay that leaned on Scripture to argue for his admission to the College.
But Proctor didn’t budge, instead offering to sit down with Box for further Bible study.
A video of the encounter, which was recorded with Proctor’s consent, shows Box and other alumni debating the school’s position on sexuality with the president, a former teacher at OCC.
“I grew up a Christian. ... I’ve never not been a Christian,” noted Elijah Daniel, a former OCC student who is also gay, said on the tape. “Everyone has a place in God’s kingdom if they accept God. ... Is there a place for me?”
Proctor responds: “We’re doing our best to follow ... God. And our best guide is his word.”
The video, and Box’s story, seemingly struck a nerve, triggering a debate online and revitalizing online chat rooms maintained by LGBT alumni of OCC and their allies.
In interviews with the Globe and on Facebook, Box acknowledged he decided to attend the school because he “struggled with same-sex attraction.” With the help and prayer of students and professors, he hoped to stave off those urges.
“Everybody knew that I was gay,” he said of his time at OCC. “They all prayed for me daily to heal me of my homosexuality.”
He says he checked himself into conversion therapy, hoping to wrestle his sexuality into submission.
But that approach failed, and later, when he fell in love with a man, Box’s fellow students mounted an intervention in an attempt to dissuade him from pursuing a gay relationship, according to Box and his former boyfriend.
Unable to reconcile his sexuality with OCC’s policies, Box left the school. He says he remains a Christian, but it wasn’t until last month that he found a religious message he could embrace in a sermon, given by Christian activist Matthew Vines, author of “God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.”
Vines argues for LGBTQ inclusion in the church, and some of his YouTube talks about the Bible and same-sex relationships have been viewed more than a million times.
Box used some of Vines’ material to argue for his readmission to Ozark.
“I’m on fire again because it seems like I can be a gay Christian,” he said.
Still the same
When Erica Chu arrived on OCC’s campus years ago, the very concept of a transgender person seemed an impossibility. Born to conservative Christian parents in Nebraska, Chu was focused on saving souls: “It was off my radar to listen to any of my emotions, desires or interests.”
Now 36 years old and a part-time professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Chu, who now identifies as non-binary transgender, helped start an invitation-only online chat room for LGBT alumni of OCC.
Chu recalled being troubled by a classroom discussion at OCC about a Bible verse that was used to back up traditional evangelical views that hold that homosexuality is wrong.
“The question posed was, ‘Do gay people deserve to get AIDS?’” Chu said. The professor “thought it was just a light intellectual question to pursue. ... I remember being in the minority when I said I wasn’t sure. I remember most people said they deserve it.”
Jason Hare, now 38, is also a member of the online group. Hare, who is gay, is one of several alumni who joined Box in sending letters to Proctor in recent days. In the letter, Hare says he was given an ultimatum by school administrators: Break up with his boyfriend and submit to “reversion therapy attempts,” or leave. He said he chose to leave and eventually rejected organized religion altogether, but OCC stayed with him. He said he hasn’t lost his love of the Bible, which he reads in Hebrew and Greek, a practice he began at the school. And he still hasn’t left behind the pain of being a LGBT student at OCC.
“I was completely ill-equipped to deal with this issue,” he told the Globe. “Everything I knew was from Christianity. To have them say (that I couldn’t be gay) crushed me. It’s wrong what they’re doing. I had hoped that it would change on its own, but it’s 20 years later, and it’s still the same.”
Proctor offered sympathy for students who said they felt hurt by the struggle to be openly gay or lesbian on the campus of the evangelical school.
“It pains me to hear of the pain they’ve experienced,” he said, adding: “As a ministry training school, we may not be the college for everyone, but our hearts are for everyone.”
There is nothing illegal about what OCC or other religious-based colleges and universities are doing in enforcing such policies.
On the basis of its religious beliefs, OCC is exempted from parts of Title IX, the federal law that governs discrimination in education, allowing them to deny admission to students who do not conform to the school’s religious code. (Proctor says the school denies admission in equal measure to gay students and to heterosexual students who violate other aspects of the code, such as the prohibition of premarital sex.)
But with public opinion in the United States shifting in favor of LGBT people, Schmalzbauer says such policies could start to lose support.
Surveys show that 43 percent of evangelicals between 18 and 33 support gay marriage. While that figure is lower than the national average, it differs sharply from the views of evangelicals in the older baby boomer generation, 22 percent of whom accept same-sex marriage.
Schmalzbauer points out that the survey found that all young evangelicals, straight and gay, held more accepting views about homosexuality than their elders.
“Ten years, 15 years from now, it could be a very different decision, especially if this public opinion wave keeps shifting in the direction that it’s shifting,” he said. A wedding cake maker has already brought a version of the debate to the U.S. Supreme Court. “On the one side you have LGBT groups that describe this as an issue of human dignity. Then religious groups say it’s really about religious liberty. That’s a tough tension and fault line.”
For his part, Proctor says he does not see evidence of a generational rift among evangelical Christians, and others, including some former gay students, side with the college.
“Why should a private institution be told what their belief structure should be?” asked Matthew Berry, a former student. “I think they should have the right to say, ‘Here are our standards.’”
Berry, who calls himself a gay Christian, was married for four years to a woman. He says he underwent counseling while at Ozark to learn “coping mechanisms that you need to fit in to a Biblical Christian community.”
It was not conversion therapy, he said, but part of the school’s supportive approach to sexuality. When he was struggling with questions surrounding his eventual divorce, Berry sought the counsel of his former professors at Ozark.
“Sometimes you go looking for someone who’s a safe place, even if, at the end of the day, you’re probably going to walk out on different pages,” he said.
Melissa Tanis, a straight Ozark alumna, isn’t so sure. She says she was raised in a conservative evangelical family but began to reconsider her views on sexuality when an uncle came out as gay.
“It’s not fair for the school to say this is the one way to believe this, and you have to believe this in order to come here,” she said. “What (Jonah Box) is saying is that there should be other interpretations, so people who interpret it differently can still attend.”
On campus, however, there is little evidence that the dominant interpretation is losing ground.
Isaac Lankford, an 18-year-old freshman from Rhode Island, said the subject of homosexuality doesn’t arise on campus — unless a professor is explaining it in the context of traditional teaching. He sees no rift within the church and does not expect that OCC’s policies will change.
“Everybody has a sin that they struggle with,” he said. “You have to choose whether to act on it. But the policy is the policy.”
Squaring the circle
Dayne Curry, 34, was a perfect candidate for OCC in almost every way. He was active in church youth groups as a teenager in Wichita, Kansas. All of his siblings attended Christian colleges.
Curry seemed to skate through school without trouble. He balanced classwork with a job in the admissions office and preached on weekends at a small church. After graduating with a degree in Biblical literature, he lived for years in Afghanistan, where he worked for a Christian charity.
However, he said he has known since childhood that he is gay. He avoided the issue at Ozark, unlike other LGBT students who often tell peers and teachers about their sexuality in hopes of getting help to fight their urges.
He kept silent when others talked about dating — an ever-present topic at Ozark, where many students hope to find a Christian spouse.
“There were awkward times,” he said. “It was challenging to square the circle.”
But, he added, he already understood the church’s condemnation of homosexuality.
“So why go there?” he asked.
Curry felt homeless after graduating Ozark, stuck between the church he loved and a gay community with which he couldn’t fully identify.
“I have a huge passion to serve and love the poor as Jesus served and loved the poor,” he said. “But within the context of professional Christianity, if anyone knew I had attractions to men, I would lose all of that.”
Today, he’s working to reconcile the different parts of himself, to respect his sexual desires without giving up on Christianity or his dream of serving the poor. While he doubts Ozark will change its policies, he said Box’s unsuccessful campaign for readmission makes plain to him the need for change.
“When I listen to his story, the thing that I think of is that there’s no one there for him,” Curry said. “There’s no one answering questions for him in the church. I really mourn for that.”
Ozark Christian College enrolls roughly 600 students. As a condition of admission to the school, students agree to abide by a student handbook that forbids alcohol, tobacco, homosexuality and sex outside of marriage, among other things.
The college is accredited by the Association for Biblical Higher Education and receives government funding indirectly when students attend the school using federally backed Pell Grants or Stafford Loans.