What Liberty University Taught Me

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The bulk of my undergraduate career ended on the School of Music concert stage May 19th.

Tomorrow, May 26th, I move to Nashville, Tennessee.

A summer internship stands between me and student loans equivalent in value to a mid-size sedan, but roughly four years of gains and losses reached their head on a stage filled with individuals who, for the most part, neither affirm me nor my future aspirations.

Nevertheless, I'm thankful.

In reflecting on the last few years of life spent at Liberty University, I've more fully appreciated the rather convoluted experience I've had. It feels fractured - the first two years were radically different than the last two, and I've changed incalculably in a relatively short span of time.

My first two years of college were exactly as I had hoped them to be - fun, light, and if anything, a promising look toward a successful future in the Evangelical megachurch world. Yet these last two began in the dark night of the soul, precipitating a quick ideological pivot that cost everything I took for granted.

Two years ago, in the onset of my faith journey, I thought I could put my head down and just get it over with.

I was wrong.

It's not that I exclusively needed my experiences at Liberty to inform the person I am today, but they unwittingly became an invaluable part of who I've become. The friends, the memories, and the cost of coming out taught me - and I'm still learning - much about life and the pursuit of collective justice. I've lived and participated in a culture that blames the victim, vilifies the marginalized, and refuses to acknowledge its own sin.

Still I'm finding, through the trauma, the loss, and the anger, the early signs of a coming spring.

Though unexpected two years ago, there would be goodness if I was willing to dig for it, and it took longer than I'd like to admit. More often than not, the goodness found me where it was least expected, arising out of challenging circumstances and broken friendships. The heartache of un-belonging gave way to friendships with deeper roots than I've ever had.

Liberty University, even while it took so much away, taught me valuable lessons.

I learned what it is to rage.

I watched as the institution I thought I loved was exposed by its president as a platform for injustice, bigotry, and authoritarianism. I watched, between every prayer and media appearance, as administrators did nothing to salvage the remains of my future degree's credibility. I watched the cancer of Trumpism corrode any vestige of integrity left in white Evangelicalism. 

And I watched as the majority of my peers celebrated the outcome.

I learned to be mad and to do something with it, that it's even perfectly acceptable to just be mad. Though it sometimes came out in a bitterly composed tweet or poorly phrased rant on Facebook, I raged with everything I had against a structure of power that wanted nothing to do with me, and I refused to let it scare me into silence. 

Meetings with non-affirming professors, administrators, and fellow students in positions of power revealed to me just how far Liberty has to go, and the growing sense of overwhelming frustration would eventually give way to a resolved sense of peace: This isn't my job. I can't fix everything.

No, I can only become a better me, a more whole and loved person desiring wholeness and love in the world, remembering that progress is never to be assumed.

Sometimes, I must leverage my anger for my own sake, and make the world better for it.

Eventually, I found friends who, like myself, were disgusted with the status quo.

Together, we raged.

Together, we did things I never thought possible.

Together, we resisted.

I learned what it means to bELONG.

There are few sentiments quite as pervasively unsettling as the internal reckoning that takes place when you realize you don't just "not fit in", but you're genuinely - actively - unwanted.

It's interaction after interaction, passive-aggressive post after post, all intimating the same truth:

You don't belong here.

Typically, it came through the form of angry messages and comments on social media reminding me, through the lens of unchecked privilege, that I could easily transfer to some godless college that welcomes gays and live a happy, overtly rebellious life. In ignorance of my personal journey, I was asked why I ever chose Liberty in the first place, why I stayed, and why I had the audacity to call out my university's cultural heteronormative whiteness for trampling my humanity.

The perpetual ghosting, discomfort, and "let's-meet-without-an-agenda" gaslighting sessions reiterated the prevailing reality that, short of announcing I had abandoned the arrogance of affirming my humanity, I was just ruining everybody else's fun.

I sat in a professor's office, a teacher I had only ever respected, with him eventually having the decency to be frank, noting: "I'm not looking forward to seeing you walk across that stage. You don't represent what we believe."

My success, in spite of institutional strictures, was to be grieved.

Well, joke's on you.

If un-belonging taught me anything, it's the overwhelming value of belonging. Wholeness. Inclusivity.

I found deeper, more meaningful relationships with people I never thought I'd find at Liberty, and I discovered that there's more than superficial "love" that erases my experiences: It's a love that stands with and for me, love that celebrates my accomplishments, my sexuality, acknowledges my experiences, grieves with me in the struggle, and listens when I'm angry.

Love says "me, too".

I found belonging at Liberty University only after I lost any illusion of belonging in the first place.

I LEARNED TO LOVE AGAINST ALL ODDS.

When the only message intimated throughout life is that how you experience, give, and receive love is fundamentally flawed, it's fairly difficult to develop a sense of confidence and grounding, even if the ideology from which that message emanates has been summarily rejected.

It wasn't until the spring of my junior year that I experienced love - reciprocated love - that would upend life as I knew it.

We sat across the common area from each other in our hall prayer group. He lived in the quad on the opposite side of East 73's breezeway, and I only vaguely knew of his existence through brief interactions on Instagram. Judging by our body language, we both seemed to share in the same disillusionment as we sat through our prayer group leader's small messages every Wednesday night. Eventually, having connected during a late night outing early in the semester, he texted me.

He asked me to meet for tea at the Argo on campus, and we met.

Nearly four hours later, I knew I'd found a friend.

We quickly came out to another, sharing a lot of details from our lives. And while we had radically divergent life stories, we shared a lot in common, leading to a profound excitement over having finally discovered another gay friend with whom I could be completely authentic.

Over the next several weeks, we drew closer and more comfortable with each other until I began to suspect his interest in me. Ever the non-committal human being I am, I wasn't sure how I felt, needing time to process my complex and obfuscated emotions.

Thankfully, he was patient. Late night trips to get junk food and talk, an accidental text message followed by an "oops", and the strange experience of developing reciprocated feelings for another boy would eventually give way to a first official date.

Now, for the record, our first technical date was to La La Land; it was the same day he had fallen in the shower, leaving the right side of his face swollen and bruised. (He insisted on wearing a hat and sitting to my right in the movie theater.) We didn't call it a date, but we knew what it was.

Our first self-identified date was to "LEGO Batman" - romantic, obviously - and it was the first time I ever held hands with a boy.

A boy I liked.

A boy who liked me back.

And it felt completely normal. Natural. Good.

Shortly thereafter, on April 6th, 2017, we made it official, and we've been together since. You know what I never expected to find at Liberty University? A husband.

It's true.

We're engaged.

Against all odds - against the institution, administration, my peers, student leadership, and the many personal conflicts of coming out - I learned to love and be loved at Liberty University.

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I'm getting married to the boy who, last February, accidentally hit "send" on a short text that read "I like you". I met my partner in a prayer group on East 73 at Liberty University, and I've never been happier.

My school took a lot from me, but it gave me more than I ever imagined. And for that, I'm grateful, even though there's much left to process. No, in the end, I found a life I never knew I wanted for myself, one wherein I am loved wholly, completely, and unconditionally for who I am, with the privilege to do the same for another.

I learned to love like Christ.

Liberty taught me what to do with my rage, the value of belonging, and it provided an opportunity to experience love against all odds.

The future is bright.