JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Like several other Christian colleges and universities, Milligan University now faces the prospect of a nonprofit led by alumni pressing for change to policies and practices they say discriminate against the LGBTQ community.

“MilliganforAll” is announcing itself publicly six months after News Channel 11 reported on the spring 2020 forced resignation of an LGBTQ Milligan professor.

Leaders say they want to support students, staff and others within the community who are members of the LGBTQ community. News Channel 11 interviewed three board members who said not enough has changed since their time at Milligan — even as some schools have eased their policies toward same sex relationships or even become completely affirming.

“What we hope for first and foremost is for LGBTQ students, faculty and staff to know that they are not alone in their existence on Milligan’s campus,” said Casey Lawhon Wagner, a board member and 2002 Milligan graduate.

“We intend to show solidarity … now and in the future for years to come until we can make a change at Milligan, and we want that community to know that alumni stand with them, the community stands with them and they’re not alone.”

Casey Wagner (in blue t-shirt) has a post on MilliganforAll’s Facebook page.

Like Wagner, board president Jessica Carter is a member of the LGBTQ community herself, though several board members are not.

“Paramount to our short-term goals is offering support and real care to the LGBTQ student population at Milligan currently,” Carter said. “We will continue to fiercely support and protect them as best we can from afar knowing that we’re not a formal organization recognized by the university.”

Carter graduated from Milligan in 2004 and worked with students there until 2009.

“You … shared life and walked alongside college students who were trying to figure out who they are, reconcile identity and faith, and it’s such a culture of secrecy and of shame and of harm and pain and I think as a young person, as a staff member I was not prepared,” Carter said.

Milligan has a campus group that is set up to help serve LGBTQ students, but its policies — rooted in a 2015 “Statement Concerning Human Sexuality” — remain strongly based in a traditional theological view of marriage as between a man and a woman.

That extends to prohibition of out same sex relationships, and in the case of the professor, to a parting of the ways with the university.

Carter and her fellow board members said they don’t consider Milligan’s non-affirming approach sufficient to make students or others in the LGBTQ community feel welcome there.

“I think that Milligan has a real opportunity here to actually prepare not just their staff members but their faculty to be having these conversations,” Carter said. “To know the resources and to be able to connect students with them if needed and again to affirm them, to support them, to protect them as they have some really big developmental moments around sexuality and spirituality.”

A newly formed non-profit aims to bring change to Milligan University’s policies regarding human sexuality and to support LGBTQ students and staff there.

Milligan President Bill Greer declined to be interviewed for this story, but he did provide this statement, which we provide in its entirety:

We are aware of recent and ongoing questions raised regarding Milligan University’s stance on human sexuality. Milligan strives to be a community that welcomes and exhibits Christ’s love and grace to all students, including our LGBTQ students, because it is central to our Christian mission.

While Milligan’s position supporting the traditional biblical understanding about human sexuality may run counter to trends in culture and society, we are committed to our interpretation of scripture and the protection of religious freedom that is provided by the First Amendment of the Constitution. 

Likewise, we remain committed to providing a safe, welcoming educational environment for everyone. We have engaged in recent conversations on campus to help us determine how we can do better to demonstrate love and establish trust with our LGBTQ students. We are working on several improvements on this front.

We recognize that not all members of the Milligan community will agree with every aspect of our understanding of human sexuality.  We welcome respectful dialogue and careful discernment as we work together to nurture a Milligan community that values both the authority of scripture and the needs of persons.

Group labels Milligan response so far ‘disingenuous’

MilliganforAll’s website refers to the university’s “Critical Conversations” — administration-sponsored efforts to engage in dialogue around the issue — as “disingenuous.” Asked why, Wagner said for one thing, there are no members of the LGBTQ community directly in the conversation.

“There has not been the inclusion of queer voices up to this point and we insist that those voices are critical to include for them to be called an actual conversation,” Wagner said.

But Rev. Wes Jamison, who graduated from Milligan 2001 and Emmanuel, its affiliated seminary, in 2005, said the group longs for a peaceful dialogue.

“We love Milligan,” Jamison said. “We’re frustrated with the situation and we are praying and working diligently to see a change. We know that Milligan’s leadership is resistant to the change, but we also know that Milligan has a history of taking time to make changes around the policies that are likely to create very heated emotions around them.”

Jamison cited Milligan’s eventual policy change allowing students of legal drinking age to consume alcohol off campus as an example.

But Jamison and the others spoke with passion about the pain that they say many people have endured at Milligan and other institutions where religious expectations intersect with human sexuality.

“There are lots of people who’ve been very deeply wounded by these policies and practices over many years,” Jamison said. “And there’s a real temptation to just wash your hands and walk away.

“But just like in any loving relationship you have to be willing to accept that change happens slowly, you have to be willing to hold onto the love that you have for an entity, even when that entity isn’t living up to its highest ideals, and that’s how we feel about Milligan.”

Adam’s story

Kristi Ebbinghaus is among more than 600 people who have signed on as supporters of Milligan for All. Her son, Adam Bisesi, graduated from Milligan in 2006 — at the time still keeping the fact he was gay almost completely to himself.

Bisesi came out to his mother in 2012. He had entered a ministry job after college but quit that before deciding to be more open about his sexuality.

In April 2019, Bisesi committed suicide. Ebbinghaus doesn’t blame Milligan for her son’s death, but she said that her lifelong theologically conservative stance on human sexuality changed after he came out.

Adam Bisesi

And Ebbinghaus did say she thinks things need to change at Milligan.

“It was the church in general, it’s Christianity in general and it’s the educational institutions like Milligan … that perpetuates the idea that being gay is not okay, that it’s sinful,” Ebbinghaus said.

Her son, she said, told her that a person in the church who mentored him and knew tried to get him to change — and that he prayed that he would as well.

Bisesi was still in the “process of coming out” when he died, Ebbinghaus said. Speaking to a couple of women he’d been friends with at Milligan, she realized that some people had learned he was gay but others hadn’t.

Ebbinghaus is in her mid-60s and grew up in a conservative Christian environment. She said she never suspected her son was gay because he didn’t exhibit the type of mannerisms she associated with it — but he told her he knew about the time he was entering adolescence.

She said she hopes Milligan for All succeeds in its objectives, which include meeting with Milligan’s administration to start a path toward its idea of positive change there.

“I don’t feel like it’s my mission to change the world,” she said. “But right now it’s my mission to say it’s not okay to keep perpetuating a lot of hurtful things that need to change and come with a cost — and my son was cost.” 

A national issue that won’t go away

LGBTQ issues and their relation to Christian higher education haven’t faded since News Channel 11’s fall 2020 report. If anything, they’ve intensified.

Just last week, more than two dozen current and former students at Christian colleges and universities sued the U.S. Department of Education. At issue is Title IX, a federal law that bars educational institutions from receiving federal funding if they discriminate on the basis of sex.

That law currently exempts religious schools if they claim that applying the law — which would have prohibited the forced resignation at Milligan — “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”

Many Christian schools are LGBTQ affirming, or at the very least non-discriminating. Emory & Henry College in Emory, Va. is among them.

Even some more conservative schools have made changes. Milligan for All’s Jamison pointed to Eastern Mennonite University as an example.

EMU, in Harrisonburg, Va., was non-affirming, including to the degree of not allowing openly same-sex faculty members who wouldn’t pledge to a celibate lifestyle. It was also a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), a relatively conservative organization to which Milligan belongs.

EMU went through several years of some internal and external pressure that culminated in a two-year period of meetings and listening. In the end, it changed its hiring practices in 2015.

Milligan for All’s medium-term goals include removal of Milligan’s Statement Concerning Human Sexuality from all publications and documents as well as an end to current limits on employment — student and employee — as they relate to human sexuality.

The group also expressly requests an official response to its requests by Milligan’s board of trustees and an amendment to Milligan’s non-discrimination language “to include the protection of employment, student and employee, on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation, and marital status.”

And Milligan for all requests that the school’s trustees develop a task force “of diverse Milligan students, faculty, staff and alumni” to review campus policies related to these issues. It asks that the task force be empowered to draft recommended alterations to current policies or new proposals.

Finally, the group asks for “an inclusive process of reconciliation where our community can adequately grieve, be heard, repent, and begin the ongoing process of healing this wound and engaging with this important aspect of human flourishing.”

Jamison is a pastor in the United Churches of Christ, which is an affirming denomination that shares some of its root theology with the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ — Milligan’s primary faith background.

He described enduring no small amount of emotional pain during his years at Milligan and Emmanuel — and said he’ll keep hoping.

“We are committed to seeing change happen and we know that change happens when we sit down and listen to one another and respect one another,” Jamison said. “We certainly do respect where folks are on the other side of … the issue. But we believe in having authentic dialogue and conversation because we believe that change can happen, especially as people get to know LGBT folks and come to read the biblical text in light of history and tradition and critical scholarship.”