You’re about to read a partial transcript from a private phone conversation between a college senior and her mother. The call took place just a couple weeks ago from the campus where I teach. It began like this:

“Mom, do you promise me that you will still talk to me and still love me if I tell you this?”

“I’m your mother. I just want to understand what’s made you so distant over the past few years?”

(Deep breath) “Mom, I’m gay. (Deep breath) I have a girlfriend. (Deep breath) And I’m really scared you will never talk to me again.”

“Why would I abandon you? You’re my creation and I love you and I trust you. You’re loved by a Heavenly Father and forces far greater than just me.”

The student and her mother gave me permission to tell this story as long as I don’t divulge the student’s name. I’ll refer to her simply as Maddie.

Four months ago Maddie showed up at the first Sunday dinner my wife and I hosted at our home for LGBT students at Southern Virginia University. Like other LGBT students who came, Maddie was afraid.

“My reservations were that I didn’t know if anyone there would report my name or put my name on a list or let some administrator at the school know that I was there,” she later told me. “I didn’t want to be identified.”

I can relate to being identified. Earlier this semester I was singled out at a faculty meeting for my so-called “liberal” views on homosexuality. That’s another story, for another day. For now, I’ll just say that I’m not afraid of being singled out, but I understand why LGBT students are – they’re vulnerable, which is precisely why my wife and I opened our home to them.

“So what convinced you to come to dinner that first time?” I asked Maddie. “What got you over the fear?”

“Colin was a big factor,” she said.

Colin Smith is one of my students.


Two years ago Colin had a gay roommate who withdrew from school. I relied on Colin and his fiancé Lauren Hafen to reach out to LGBT students and invite them to our home.


“Colin made me feel it was going to be safe,” Maddie said. “He said he wouldn’t let anything bad happen to me.”

I’ve always defined great men by how they treat the vulnerable.

There was another reason Maddie got over her fear and came to dinner. “I was in a such a bad place that I needed to be around people,” she told me. “I was ready to leave school. I was barely hanging on. I was trying to keep myself here.”

Most of the students who came to our first dinner are not gay, but they came to show solidarity with those who are. YOU ARE NOT ALONE is a powerful message.

The dinners were held in a building that we refer to as “the barn.” It’s the ideal family setting with big double doors that lead to a warm, safe place.

3 Rockspring Barn Interior

It has a big kitchen for serving food to lots of people.


After each dinner, someone shares an inspirational message. I spoke at our first dinner. Among other things, I talked about some lessons learned from the Salem witch trials. In 1692 the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft. Girls as young as five and women as old as 81 were were accused of being witches. I told our dinner guests that all of this hysteria happened for a simple reason: “A set of unanswerable questions met a set of unquestioned answers.”

That’s often how extreme right ends up leading to extreme wrong. I closed by assuring the LGBT students that they were amongst friends.

“I was excited after that first night,” Maddie said. “I was excited that other people knew that what I was going through was an issue, and people wanted to give support.”

Maddie showed up at the next dinner. So did more students from SVU, along with a few from the University of Virginia and Washington & Lee University. We’ve been going strong for four months.

At the same time, my family’s life has been sheer chaos. Professionally, I’ve never been busier. It’s not a figure of speech to say I worked myself sick these past couple of months, ending up in bed on antibiotics after far too many consecutive nights of four to five hours of sleep.

At the same time, my wife has been flying back and forth to Seattle to be with her parents. One Sunday Lydia and I were both on the west coast and I flew back hours before people arrived for the Sunday dinner.

The point is that we don’t have time for these dinners. Yet we can’t afford to miss them.

Others feel the same way we do. A member of the university administration and a member of the university’s board of trustees attends these dinners. Married students do most of the heavy lifting. My family just provides the safe house.

Last Sunday was our final dinner for the semester. Maddie was our inspirational speaker. Seated on our couch, she pulled out a folded piece of paper and read from it. She began by telling everyone how nervous she was to come the first time. She talked about unanswerable questions and unquestioned answers.

“I think it’s helpful to remember that you are who you’ve always been,” she told the group. “You get to decide how much of your identity is taken up by who you love and how people view it. Other people can reduce you down to one particular trait, but you’re not required to see yourself that way. You can be completely in control of your relationship with the church, with your family, and with the people you love.”

Then she shared the phone conversation she had with her mother. Everyone had tears in their eyes as Maddie shared her mother’s reaction. “My mother said she just wants to be there for me and honor my journey,” Maddie said. “She loves me and we’ll figure out a path forward together. I’m so glad I told her and so lucky to have her support.”

Maddie is graduating from Southern Virginia next week. Yesterday she sent my family a note: “Thank you so much for hosting these meetings throughout the semester.”

Thank you for coming, Maddie.

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