Missouri Baptists at odds with college over issues

Friday, February 14, 2003

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- For Amber Davisson, the issue is clear: She wanted to use her senior theater project at William Jewell College to make a difference in the world. Staging "The Vagina Monologues" was her way to highlight violence against women.

But for officials at the Missouri Baptist Convention, which helps fund the college, it's not that simple. They say the production, which is scheduled for performances today and Saturday, is inappropriate venture for any college that teaches biblical standards.

During the play, cast members discuss homosexuality and other sexually related issues. Broadly, the play focuses on women and how they view their bodies.

Davisson, a theater and philosophy major from Nevada, Mo., and college officials disagree with the church's stance. William Jewell president David Sallee says he understands the play may offend some people, but that the issue of violence against woman deserves an airing.

"It seems to me that the issue ... whether it's in a play that has explicit language involved or not, is not in itself a Christian issue. But our response is. Our response to violence against women and other issues is where we demonstrate our Christianity," he said.

Davisson said she believes Christ addressed a wide variety of issues because until you address those issues, it becomes very hard to address issues of religion.

"When people are dealing with issues of sexuality, sometimes it can become a major wall between you and God," she said. "But when you communicate with God about them, you break down the wall and your Christianity becomes stronger."

Ninety percent of ticket sales from the play will go to a fund to support women in Afghanistan, Davisson said.

It's not the first time William Jewell administrators and the Missouri Baptist Convention have taken opposite sides on controversial issues.

Last year, the college's student Senate considered a proposal to add sexual orientation to the anti-discrimination portion of the student bill of rights. Though the move would not change the college's policy, Baptist convention officials asked the administration to oppose the idea. Administrators refused. The measure eventually was defeated.

Though William Jewell functions as an independent college, it gets about $861,000 a year from the Missouri Baptist Convention, said college spokesman Rob Eisele. That's about 3 percent of its annual operating budget, he said.

Baptist officials think the college should have some accountability to the convention.

"We would like to see the administration take a very clear stand on biblical moral issues," said David Clippard, the Missouri Baptist Convention's executive director.

Clippard said that along with the student debate about sexual orientation, there should have been "a very clear biblical message taught to give the basis for making a moral decision."

Though William Jewell functions as an independent college, it gets about $861,000 a year from the Missouri Baptist Convention, said college spokesman Rob Eisele. That's about 3 percent of its annual operating budget, he said.

The Missouri Baptist Convention says it is looking into campus life.

A committee comprised of members of the convention's executive board will visit William Jewell this semester. The inquiry will include a meeting with Sallee, and the committee will report to the convention's executive board April 15, Clippard said.

"The Vagina Monologues, I find totally inappropriate humor for a Christian college," Clippard said.

Baptist officials think the college should have some accountability to the convention.

"We're trusting that the administration will give solid biblical leadership here. We would like to see them take a very clear moral stand and not have potty humor like the Vagina Monologues and to teach a clear biblically based moral code," Clippard said.

At least one group, the American Family Association of Missouri, has urged the Baptist convention to cut off funding. Its executive director, R.L. Beasley, calls the play "primarily pornographic and laced with profanity.

"I don't believe Southern Baptists would want their cooperative giving to help support a college that chooses to engage in vulgar productions," Beasley said in a prepared statement.

Eisele says losing the funding "would be a short-term hit, but we're confident we could go on from there."

Sallee rejects the idea that the college has a role of making moral decisions for students. Rather, he says the college challenges students to explore ideas and reach their own conclusions.

Clippard said he doesn't know how MBC will respond to the administration's decision to allow the play. He did say, however, he's sure the MBC's members will address the issue at its annual meeting in November.

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On the Net:

Missouri Baptist Convention: www.mobaptist.org

William Jewell College: www.jewell.edu

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