Club faces intolerance charge

by Ithan Peltan | 7/13/01 5:00am

The Summer Christian Fellowship faces a College investigation after group leaders decided to deny a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- adherents of which are commonly referred to as Mormons -- a leadership role in the organization.

While a series of miscommunications appears to have been a major factor leading to the conflict between member of the Mormon Church Meredith Brooks '03 and the SCF, the group's decision that the theology of Brooks' church disqualified her from helping to run the organization has led to some allegations of intolerance.

"I went away from [my meeting with SCF leader Alex Jordan '03] knowing that I wouldn't really be accepted as a Christian member of that organization," Brooks said.

SCF leaders said they were unaware of the problems Brooks had with the group's structure prior to receiving a copy of an email Brooks wrote saying she felt SCF actions indicated a belief on the organization's part that being a Mormon meant she was not a Christian.

"I have no doubt in the wide world that I am indeed a Christian. It's rather bigoted of the SCF to be exclusionary based on their fundamentally wrong and naive categorization of my religion," Brooks wrote in the email.

Dean of the Tucker Foundation Stuart Lord said Tuesday evening he would be investigating the specifics of the contact between Brooks and the SCF, but would not comment on where such an investigation might lead.

"If a student of this community feels that they haven't been respected or honored, we must pay attention to that. We must seize this as an opportunity to learn," Lord said, emphasizing that he had "publicly" learned of the case only Monday and was unfamiliar at the time with the specifics of the incident.

Brooks declined to further discuss events surrounding her interaction with the SCF except to say, "As an idealist and as a Latter-day Saint, I believe in forgiving and moving on."

SCF leaders said Jordan and Brooks reached "an understanding" at a meeting earlier this term. Meetings scheduled before she wrote the message were cancelled by both parties due to various conflicts.

They also pointed out that the fellowship's status as a "non-denominational, evangelical" organization sponsored by the Tucker Foundation was approved in June by campus ministers, including the adviser to student members of the Mormon Church, Patricia Crossett.

Crossett previously decided not to accept an invitation to be involved in sponsoring SCF sent to campus Christian ministries during the group's Spring term organizational phase. Crossett said she "saw no reason to change" her practice of leading her study groups year-round.

Brooks' attempts to contact the SCF organizers earlier in the term via acquaintances already involved in the group did not reach the fellowship's leaders, Ann Chang '03, one of six members of the SCF leadership team, said.

While, according to Jordan, the "very delicate" and "painful" issue has been settled he said, "I am upset that she (Brooks) is upset."

However, he and other SCF leaders did not back down from their stance that Mormon beliefs are so fundamentally different from the "traditional evangelical" views held by most SCF members that they would blur the group's message.

"We're welcoming of all people to be part of our fellowship, but as an organization, we want to be true to the things that we believe and consistent in our theology," SCF leader Joel Wickre '03 said.

"Believing that Jesus is our savior who saved us by grace and believing in the Holy Trinity, by prescribing to those beliefs and holding onto that is not intolerant because that is truth," SCF leadership team member Kari Limmer '03 said.

"But I can understand ... that is was perceived as intolerance, and I think it wasn't handled well by all of us," Limmer continued.

Professor of Religion Charles Stinson said deep doctrinal differences exist between Protestant churches and the Mormon Church, including divergent beliefs about what "revealed scripture" encompasses as well as the validity of ongoing divine revelation.

Theology about the nature of God -- from the more traditional three-in-one trinity conception to the Mormon understanding of the father, son and holy ghost as more independent beings -- also is a point of stark contrast.

Those differences, Stinson said, have resulted in an ongoing debate among some evangelical Christians as to "whether the Mormons are a type of Christian church or whether they are an outside-the-fold kind of religion."

An email counseling the group's leaders on how to respond to Brooks written by Craig Parker, one of SCF's three advisers, listed some of the primary theological differences often cited by evangelical and others why Mormons are not considered "traditional" Christians. The message eventually found its way into Brooks' BlitzMail inbox.

Parker's email also contained a reference to verses in the biblical book Galatians. The cited verses read, "But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed."

Also the adviser to the Navigators Christian Fellowship, Parker said, "I meant that only as a statement against theological positions that try to misrepresent the gospel ... against what I would call theological undermining."

He emphasized repeatedly that the email was not directed at an individual nor was it intended to be seen by Brooks. "I regret that she ever received that," he said.

However, he stood by the distinctions outlined in the email as well as the citation and what he called its "very harsh language."

"What is at stake ... is the gospel," Parker wrote in an email, having said earlier, "I view myself as a steward to the gospel ... I feel a deep responsibility before god to be the best communicator of the gospel that I can be."

In her role as the adviser to Mormon students on campus, Crossett's reaction to the email was reserved.

"I'm sorry he would send an email like this to or about Meredith," Crossett said, but added, "Christian denominations don't seem to get along ... that's just the way it is. I'm a great believer that various groups can invite who they want to be a part of them."

In evangelical groups, membership boundaries are not denominational but instead cut along lines of belief, according to Religion Department Chair Ronald Green. Those beliefs include the sanctity of Scripture, the "born-again" experience and ethical values, he said.

Green noted, though, that in recent years the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been trying to emphasize the beliefs its members share with evangelical Protestants. Mormons of Brooks' age, he said, do not remember a time when their church was not as intent on being recognized as part of the mainstream.

SCF leaders said that they wished communication had been clearer on both sides.

"If I would go back to what happened in the Spring term, I wish that we would have contacted her and spoken with Meredith earlier on," Limmer said.

While that might have reduced the miscommunications that took place, however, SCF leader Christena Cleveland '03 said it was "hard to say" if Brooks would have been welcomed into the SCF leadership if she had approached the group earlier.

The theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was first laid out by its founder, Joseph Smith, in 1830. Mormons view Smith as a prophet and the church is felt by members to be a reincarnation of the "early church," the organization of followers of Jesus Christ that exited in the first centuries following his death.

Among the direct revelations to Smith that shaped the church was the Book of Mormon, which includes an account of a personal ministry among ancient inhabitants of the Americas by Jesus Christ after his resurrection and is used side by side with the traditional Christian Scriptures.

"It's probably the only major religion created on American soil" and picks up the "spirit of American optimism" dominant in the mid-19th century, Green noted. "It is wholly an American phenomenon."

SCF is a "non-denominational, evangelical" organization recognized -- but not funded -- by the Tucker Foundation. It is sponsored by five evangelical Christian fellowships and funded out of members' pockets.

Although in its third year of existence, the SCF was not formally Tucker-recognized in the past and was reconstituted from scratch this year. The group is not receiving College funding.

Sponsoring organizations are the Asian Christian Fellowship, Campus Crusade for Christ, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Navigators Christian Fellowship and a non-denominational Christian group called Provision.