If I were to give a show of fingers for the number of times that people have asked me, upon hearing I went to Trinity Western University (TWU), “oh don’t you have to sign that weird contract?” I would need at least four more sets of hands. And that is just for the straight people that ask. How I feel about the Community Covenant has changed a lot in the years since I first set foot on TWU’s campus. As a somewhat sheltered 18-year-old entering adulthood, I initially found comfort in it. Finishing a ski season where I lived with coke-snorting Jezebel-spirit housemates who came coming home drunk at 4 a.m. is what drove me to seek Christian education. The thought of being in an environment where people were held to high moral standards was the perfect juxtaposition to feed my then ravenous Evangelical appetite, which I later realized was really my indoctrinated religious superiority complex. TWU seemed like the perfect bootcamp to prepare me for a life of “living in the world, but not being of it.” But after integrating to campus life, and hearing the umpteenth prayer request to magically have better time-management skills, and seeing through the facade of Christ-likeness in the community, the Covenant just felt like virtue signaling.
As a former leader of One TWU, I had issues with the Covenant’s overt anti-queer tenets. Now that I have been out of TWU for a couple years now, undergone a faith deconstruction, and enrolled in public education (*gasp*), I cannot help but wonder if the Community Covenant taught us anything valuable, or if it simply upholds a respectable image of TWU by forcing its students to follow a set of rules, which, let's be honest, very few abide by anyway.
The Community Covenant asks its students to be truthful, which first requires self-honesty. It states that “Biblical [and TWU] ideals” include the traditional definition of marriage, which poses a unique challenge entirely for queer students whose sexual or gender identity is not honoured by TWU’s Covenant, or major iterations of Christianity at large. Second, these ideals are problematic because not all of them necessitate Biblical “truth” in the first place. For example, the word “homosexual” was not even in the Bible until 1946 and its root word referred to a cultural practice of pedophilia, so to say that “the Bible condemns same-sex unions” is not truthful. There is a difference between choosing to live an honouring life of integrity in the name of Jesus, and creating a set of rules and expectations by which only specific people can conform. That is not “God’s best”––it is both religious and straight supremacy.
And no, making it optional to sign the Community Covenant does not magically make things better. In doing so, the Covenant now operates as a function of social stratification, creating groups of students that are set apart from the already “set apart.” As if the pre-existing social hierarchies at TWU were not enough, requiring student leaders to sign the Covenant not only places those who sign it on a moral-social pedestal, but it demands that some students, not just queer, must go against their values to get a stipend. Further, it also makes it impossible for queer students with queer-affirming theology to fully serve their community. If not obvious enough, this is the equivalent to telling a gay person they cannot serve in church or get a job simply because they are gay and in a relationship. TWU loves to market itself as a place where all students belong, but belonging does not mean forcing someone to go against their values to fit in. As Dr. Brené Brown writes in her book Daring Greatly, asking people to “distance themselves from another group of people as a condition of 'belonging' is always about control and power.”
As a student, I not only had concerns about signing the Covenant, but I felt its impact reflected in the TWU community and the barrier it created for students to be vulnerable. The subliminal message I received through the community was that my belonging was dependent on my ability to conform to TWU norms, including being straight, which was not doable for me who was then grappling with my sexual identity. Had the Covenant held its students to a standard in which they are encouraged to live their lives in accordance with their theology and conviction, and not TWU’s vision of God, I can only wonder how my experience might have been different. And that maybe––just maybe––it would not have physically hurt to breathe some days.
- Nathan Froehlich