On Wednesday evening, in a third floor meeting room in the Student Union, there was a great deal of chatter on a topic often characterized by silence: the relationship between religion and sexuality.
The facilitated conversation was the latest installment of RockyTopics, a series created by Dean of Students Dr. Shea Kidd Houze last spring, and it attracted more students than expected. The start of the discussion was delayed by the need to fetch more chairs for students who were standing on the edges of the room, sipping free hot cocoa and cookies.
Intended to create dialogue on challenging issues, RockyTopics is a unique blend of faculty-led discussion and small group activities and occurs only a few times per semester.
As a ground rule for the controversial discussion at hand — one with the potential to delve into the deepest parts of a student’s identity — the large group of students decided to make Room 377A not only a safe space, but a “brave space” as well.
To junior Madison Woods, who serves as the president of the Multicultural Mentoring Program, this term is about having the courage to engage with a variety of beliefs.
“For me, being at all the RockyTopics, it’s a room for growth, but you can’t grow without challenging yourself, which is what a brave space is meant to be,” Woods said.
Alongside Kidd Houze were professor of psychology Dr. Joe Miles, who has helped with previous RockyTopics, and Dr. Tina Shepardson, the head of the Department of Religious Studies.
After laying the ground rules, Miles and Shepardson familiarized students with the theories of their respective fields that would aid the discussion, such as the diversity within religions and the spectrum of sexuality and gender.
And then the faculty asked themselves and the students before them a basic question: what brought you into this conversation? For Shepardson, the answer was about the universality of religion and sexuality in the modern experience.
“I’m interested in the intersections of religion and sexuality because I find that it’s all around me in the world,” Shepardson said, “I have students who come in wanting to talk about it...I turn on the news or read the news feeds and the conversations are relevant there.”
For many of the students in attendance, the answer had to do with their personal identities. Some had grown up in Christian homes and felt that they needed to expand their understanding of sexual minorities. Others identify as LGBTQ+ and wanted to better understand the religious ideas that had been used against them.
And still others identified both with religion and with queer and trans communities and voiced their desire to learn how better to participate in both groups.
After a breakout session with small groups, closing remarks and a photo to close out the event, students were encouraged to take a short survey, which asked whether or not growth and learning had occurred.
On a campus marked by increasing religious and sexual diversity, RockyTopics are one way to facilitate engagement and interaction that leads to such positive change.
Kidd Houze explained the value of connecting with those different from oneself.
“All it takes is a relationship with someone to change your perspective,” Kidd Houze said. “You really organically change in a good way, I think.”
The next RockyTopics conversation will take place on Jan. 22, 2020 with the theme “Disability and Visibility.” Because of the increased interest in the series, the event will be moved to a larger venue yet to be determined.