"Because of the hiding they had to do, I sometimes see an even greater harm in them years after leaving campus"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland, 

I graduated from Samford University in 2006 with a degree in journalism and mass communication and a hope that I would proudly represent the school I loved. I also hoped that the same commitment would be made on the university's part to represent its students and alumni. 

One of the best pieces of feedback I got from a Samford professor came while I was working on The Samford Crimson. Dr. Dan (as he was lovingly called) looked at me while we were trying to come up with a headline in the wee hours of another Tuesday morning. With slight affection but more so exhaustion, he said "ya know, if there's a complicated way to say something, Melissa, that's how you word it." 

In my professional and personal life, I think of that line often. So without cluttering this letter up with a lot of rambling, I'll get to the point. I believe that denying a board vote to the Samford Together group was wrong. I know that by denying that opportunity, as it was promised to them, it creates even more fear, frustration and displacement. I can say with certainty that for every traditional conservative you pacified, a group of students were harmed. 

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Brit Blalock
"maybe feelings of low self-worth, isolation and the general depression that I dealt with would have been avoided"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland,

I graduated from Samford in 2010. I was involved with the SGA as a senator, served on a search committee to name a new Dean of Students, was president of my fraternity and served as an orientation leader for two years. Every moment of my undergrad is a moment I cherish and would not take back for anything. I have given back financially and through my thoughts to my school, my fraternity and the orientation program as an alumnus as religiously as I give to any organization I am proud to be a part of. I have always been proud to be a Bulldog.

That feeling was strengthened when I came to Homecoming a few years ago, and I saw some rainbow flags and an organization that supported the LGBTQ+ community at Samford. I actually teared up. If that would have been there earlier, maybe feelings of low self-worth, isolation and general depression I dealt with would have been avoided. I never knew there was someone else like me at Samford. To see a group of people willing to come together and not be alone…was simply, sweet. 

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Brit Blalock
"Please don’t turn this university...into a place in which we more liberal Christians know that we are not welcome"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland,

Until I was given a platform to write anonymously, I was hesitant to send you this letter.  I am a current faculty member. I have spent most of my career here, and I love Samford. When people who know me - who know that I vote progressively, and that I am an LGBTQ ally – ask me why I work here and why I love this place, I have said:

·       I love the rigorous coursework that happens at Samford. Samford is a true university environment in which ideas are explored without fear for anyone’s faith. Or,

·       I love the way the administration at Samford cares about the students and their individual needs. Or,

·       I love the freedom Christians (of all types as well as those of other religions) feel at Samford to explore science, philosophy, art, literature, whatever they choose.

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Brit Blalock
"They knew that being openly gay and fully included in the Samford community was just out of the question"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland,

I received much from Samford, and for many years I attempted to give back. Mindful of the important role Samford played in my own educational journey as a first-generation college student, I served as an admissions counselor and later helped bring the Fellows Program to life. Over time, though, I became increasingly aware that I no longer “fit” at Samford. It wasn’t just that I leaned too far to the left politically.

The longer I spent at Samford, the less faith I had.

There are many reasons why my time at Samford led to a crisis of faith -- among them was the university’s response to homosexuality. I was raised in fairly conservative churches, but I also had an insatiable desire to learn, so I came to Samford with many questions. That’s why I loved Biblical Perspectives. My professor, a local pastor, welcomed and encouraged my questions. No matter what I asked, he responded thoughtfully and with great care. He was unwavering in his faith in Christ. At the same time, he had an appropriate sense of humility about his own capacity to fully comprehend the mind of God, so he never hesitated to consider other perspectives or interpretations or to admit that he was wrestling with an answer himself.

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Brit Blalock
"please help Samford to unite despite these 'smaller differences' and embrace all of God’s children as equals"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland,

I write to you today, as so many others have already done, to urge you to reconsider your decision regarding Samford Together. I have read each of the letters written to you by faculty, staff, alumni, and current students. As an alumnus from the class of 1997, I fully support this initiative and I hope that, in time, you will be able to lend your support to this student organization as well.

Like so many who have already written you, I too, loved my time at Samford. I had an educational experience that was unparalleled, and my time at Samford literally changed the course of my life, both personally and professionally. For this, I am forever grateful.

However, I have always held my alma mater at “arm’s length” knowing that Samford, and many of my peers, did not understand the journey of an LGBT student on her campus. I suspect that I am not the only student who arrived at Samford as a freshman not knowing they were gay, but in time, came to learn this truth. On one hand, Samford was a tough place to figure out this life lesson. On the other hand, I had some of the greatest times of my life during my four years on campus, and would not trade my Samford experience for anything in the world.

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Brit Blalock
"historically, the majority has used calls for solidarity as a tool to quiet already marginalized people"

Dr. Westmoreland,

I hope that you have read each word in each letter submitted here. They are heartfelt pleas to your humanity embedded in deeply personal, and often deeply painful, experiences. These stories are touching and transformative.

My approach here is different. I am a researcher by trade, and it is in that vein that I offer this account. I watched the video message that you released on July 7, 2017 several times in an effort to understand your decision. Your reasons for keeping Samford Together from going before the Board of Trustees were twofold: (1) that the group would be focused on advocacy work rather than discussion and (2) that the group is polarizing. I will address each of these in turn.

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Brit Blalock
"I am a young trans student at Samford...there are quite a few of us"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland,

I am a young trans student at Samford. You might be surprised to hear this, as trans students are often even more closeted than gay and lesbian students at Samford, but there are quite a few of us.

I am extremely disheartened by your decision to block Samford Together. The group wasn't even presented as an advocacy group, just a group where LGBT students could discuss their lives without fear on a campus that stifles that conversation. Suicide rates among LGBT youth are very high, being especially high among trans youth. In opening up to my peers about my gender dysphoria at Samford, I have lost a lot of friends. I believe that a student body often reflects its administration. An administration is supposed to lead by example, and the current position held by Samford's administration is only further engraining many students' hatred and intolerance for people who different from them.
 

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Brit Blalock
"This is not an action that shows the love that the Samford family has for everyone in the Samford family"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland,

I am writing this email to extend my regrets that you felt you had to deny Samford Together a vote before the Board of Trustees, despite support from every level of campus previously. I do understand that you serve at the pleasure of the Board and that you must do what you believe is necessary to keep the University open and safe from a split that could tear it apart. However, I certainly feel that if you had allowed many faculty who spoke in the faculty meeting a chance to talk with the trustees in a low key atmosphere, that we could have helped them see that this group is not an advocacy group and is the lowest-key group to talk about LBGTQ questions I've ever heard of, much less encountered.
 

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Brit Blalock
"I was surrounded by students facing the same uncertainties and the same fears in the same silence"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland,

Before I composed this letter, I read through so many others from students, faculty and fellow alumni. Each one is beautiful, each one a wonderfully human piece of truth. As I read, I was struck again by a reality that I have stumbled on over and over again since I graduated: so many of us struggled silently with our identities while at Samford and only came to terms with who we are after leaving. As silly as it sounds now, I thought I was the only one--or at least one of a very, very few. I thought my uncertainties and fears were unique. I've come to learn over the past few years that, entirely unbeknownst to me, I was surrounded by students facing the same uncertainties and the same fears in the same silence. The group leader I had a crush on under the guise of "admiration for her leadership;" the guy in one of my classes who constantly made me laugh; the girl a few years younger than me that I passed in the hall so many times; even one of my close friends, with whom I had innumerable philosophical and theological conversations--we were all just trying to figure out how to reconcile what we believed and what we felt. 

It would be funny if it weren't so sad. 

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Brit Blalock
"you cannot compromise when it comes to the well-being of your brothers and sisters in Christ"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland, 

Even before I chose to attend Samford, I knew you were a university president who cared deeply about the welfare of his students. On Scholars Day, I was bedridden with a 104 degree temperature and distraught that I couldn’t make my scholarship interview. That afternoon, Samford’s admissions office called to tell me they had all been praying for me. Two days later, I received a copy of Leading by Design that you had signed to me. That event set Samford apart from every other university I was considering. When I made my decision—which involved turning down a full scholarship and $20,000 stipend at another liberal arts college—I remember telling my parents, “You can learn at any university, but this is a place that cares.” 

During my time at Samford, my peers and I referred to you as a “president of the people.” We felt that, even though the university experienced the typical friction between students and administration, you personally listened to and valued the opinions of your student body. From the day of the freshman ice cream social to the day you graciously allowed my social psych group to film you for an Inception parody to the day you handed me the President’s Cup at my graduation, I had the utmost respect for you. I still do respect you, and I know that I can only partly comprehend the tremendous amount of pressure you must feel on all sides regarding the issue of Samford Together.

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Brit Blalock
"they have fought depression, lived in fear, and felt isolated and hopeless"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland,

I write as an alumna from the class of 2006. I was active in Student Ministries, Residence Life, and Step Sing, studied Sociology and German, learned to swim for exercise, and loved my experience at Samford until major depression pushed me into a very dark place and almost derailed my degree completion.

Before choosing to attend Samford, I was already aware that I was attracted to women. As someone who was raised in a conservative, Southern Baptist household in Alabama, this attraction was distressing to say the least. In fact, it was so upsetting that I changed my mind about attending Judson College (where I would be surrounded entirely by women) and selected Samford instead.

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Brit Blalock
"All people, let alone students you lead and serve, deserve to have a voice in the light"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland,

I would like to discuss the phrase that I have been told too many times to count and that has defined my past year as a student at your school. I have wrestled with this phrase and the underlying idea it represents for a while, though most critically since you announced your decision last month.

It’s just too polarizing.

I agree, it seems like almost every conversation, idea, and person was polarizing to someone in some aspect this year. From the 2016 election to the topic of LGBTQ+ rights on our campus, I am sure you have felt the pressure of this word as much as I have. I know you too have felt a strong need to make peace and bring people together; to ease the polarization present in our community and our society. Moreover, I approve and I agree with your desire to unite Samford students, faculty, administration, alumni, and trustees, and I understand why such intense polarization is difficult and daunting.

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Brit Blalock
"I ask that you welcome LGBTQ students as who they are: children of God, students of Samford, who deserve equal treatment"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland,

Samford taught me about silence. At Samford I was introduced to the reality that, even if a thought interested me, it didn’t necessarily need to fly off my tongue. While I’ve yet to fully internalize this lesson, Samford’s rigorous academics (thanks, Dr. Borden and Dr. Bass!) taught me to cull my verbosity, and Samford’s contemplative worship (thanks, Brennan Manning and Shiloh!) helped me slow down, listen, and appreciate silence’s value.

My mother often speaks of the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit. While we don’t always agree theologically, my mom and I do agree that much can be learned from listening for that Spirit’s guidance. Indeed, it was in contemplative silence on a University Ministries retreat that I first named the realization that I was queer.

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Brit Blalock
"Samford Together is the best first step towards giving LGBT students a safe place"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland,

I know you feel that you are choosing the best road for Samford and it students by denying Samford Together. However, I still worry deeply about individuals who will be affected by this ruling. I am talking about the Samford students who are going through this experience with their heads down and their hearts guarded in a closet, trying to just make their way through the difficulties ahead while many of them feel that have to pretend to be someone they’re not.

I had a friend in high school who was a strong and intelligent woman, but she suffered from the pressure of trying to deny her identity as a lesbian. All this suffering pushed her away from joy, kindness, love, and it eventually took her life through overdose. I have a way too familiar understanding of the price of this pain now: seeing my friend’s mother grieve over her child so horrifically lost to her and seeing how our friends fell into chasms of hopelessness after her death. I see this story reflected in every Samford student who does not fit the mold of Samford perfectly. I see them struggling, I see them fighting, and I see them trying to do their best. I also see my friend’s face in theirs, and I know all too well the very real risk that they could one day become too overwhelmed.

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Brit Blalock
"there is and will continue to be a huge population of LGBTQ students at Samford looking for a place to belong"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland,

Let me begin by saying that I have spent a great deal of time imagining all of this from your perspective. What a difficult place you are in. You must feel a great deal of pressure from every direction, and it can't be easy. I respect the time and thought you have put into wrestling with this issue, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I was a student at Samford when you first arrived and, although we had limited interaction, I remember observing your words and actions and feeling proud to have such a wise and thoughtful leader like yourself at the helm of our great university. Samford is incredibly blessed to have your stewardship and vision guiding them each day.

I would like to ask for a brief moment of your time to let me share my story so that you too may have a chance to let another perspective bring you the opportunity to exercise empathy and compassion. Please know that it is difficult for me to recount some of this, but I believe it is important and I trust that you will receive it with an open heart and an open mind.
 

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Brit Blalock
"Confused and saddened, I responded, I just want to exist"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland,

You and I had the pleasure of first meeting in person when you graciously gave me $5 at the Senior Leadership Honoree Banquet in 2009. I had been asked by one of the trustees to speak publicly about the fortunate timeliness of my arrival to narrate the Advent Service earlier that evening and my subsequent need for new tights. You see, (as you may remember), traffic was not budging on Hwy 31, and rather than miss the event I had been nominated by faculty to narrate, I parked on the side of the highway, took off my high heels, and sprinted to the service in my dress. The bottoms of my tights were in shreds from the journey, but I made it. One of the trustees requested I share the story at the banquet, which resulted in your gracious and much-needed donation. You and I spoke again briefly following my speech at Samford's Baccalaureate my senior year, though no $5 tight donation followed this brief exchange.

Needless to say, I think highly of you and remain grateful for your leadership at Samford. I daresay few other universities of our size have presidents who handwrite cards of encouragement to each Samford student on their birthday as you do. You clearly care about the faculty and students under your leadership, and that matters to us more than you will ever know.

In knowing and trusting your leadership, I want to be brave in disclosing to you formative aspects of my time at Samford that did not involve banquets with the deans and trustees or speaking in front of my senior class.

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Brit Blalock
"every single student at Samford deserves equal respect and dignity"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland,

When I first chose Samford University to be my collegiate home, I was a fairly conservative Christian, raised in an evangelical denomination and a firm believer of most of the views that the university espouses with respects to sexual orientation and gender identity. I thought that I could be compassionate toward people while silently judging their identities. I thought I could be accepting of people while rejecting core parts of their selves. I thought that my interpretation of the Bible (which had been handed down to me by generations of tradition) was the only standard for “Christian” living. By the time I walked across the stage to receive my diploma, I was a radically different person, with radically different beliefs, and a radically different perspective. I am more proud of the person I am now than I ever was of the person I used to be, and I have my experience at Samford to thank for that.

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Brit Blalock
"I was desperate for a space on campus where I could have taken my questions and fears"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland,

During my senior year at Samford, I lived in a large house that was owned by the university. My roommates and I were enthusiastic students, high achievers, and campus leaders. Shortly after your arrival at Samford, we invited you, your wife, and your daughter to dine with us in that home. We were very excited and honored that you accepted the invitation to share a meal with us.

Unfortunately, my memories of the evening are somewhat hazy as I was going through a particularly difficult time. I had known that I’m gay for about 2 years when you came to our house that night and sat down for food and conversation. I had been living in a closet of fear for far too long, and it had taken a serious toll on me. The thing I remember most about my senior year at Samford isn’t graduation day, getting excited about my bright future, or enjoying the final months with my friends on campus. The thing I remember most was feeling like I no longer wanted to live. I remember thinking that dying must be less painful than living hidden away, clutching this secret to my chest.

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Brit Blalock
"I learned to give everything I have with no conditions attached"

Dear Dr. Westmorland,

I hope this letter finds you well and in good spirits. My name is Paige Van de Vuurst, and though you probably don’t remember me, I am a recent graduate of Samford University’s Howard College of Arts and Science. I graduated in 2016; not so long ago even though it feels like an eternity, and have since been working in Tanzania. I’m currently working as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a little village called Itulahumba as a secondary school teacher. I’ve been teaching biology and English here for about a year, and I can honestly say that it’s the most rewarding and simultaneously most difficult job I’ve ever had. I’m not writing to you today, however, as a Peace Corps Volunteer but as member of the Samford family. Today I write to you as a former student and current alumni. I’m writing to you as a humble member of the elite group of individuals that Samford at its core is and as a fellow compassionate human being; and I pray that these words reach you over the oceans they have traveled from my humble home in a country far from 800 Lakeshore Drive.

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Brit Blalock
"defend the obvious good character of the students and faculty who support Samford Together"

Dear Dr. Westmoreland:

I must address you anonymously because although you have expressed a desire for dialogue, many faculty and staff are officially gagged in this matter and threatened, professionally, for our principled dissent. Meanwhile, multiple internal and external sources have claimed that we support your anti-equality political views (you can’t credibly attribute them to “a Christian worldview” when most of the Christians in this community stand in passionate opposition). There will be no progress in this matter while you threaten your employees. With a single email message to the entire community, you could remove the gags, condemn the threats, and solicit the free exchange of ideas any legitimate university represents.

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Brit Blalock