Yet these students, all seminarians at Union Theological Seminary & Presbyterian School of Christian Education, look to the future with a degree of trepidation.
They're all members of the seminary's gay-straight alliance group, A Safe Space. Of the group's 24 members, three are gay or lesbian, members say. Who those three are remains unspoken.
If they declare their sexuality, they will likely never be ordained as Presbyterian ministers. If they keep quiet, they will have to remain so all their lives. The prevailing message, says group member David Paul, is "if you keep your mouth shut, you can get through."
But in two weeks, all the rules may change.
On June 15, the 217th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) will meet to discuss issues facing the church. Primary among them the matter of ordaining gays and lesbians.
The Book of Order, the church's governing document, says church officers must practice either "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."
A provision added in 1978 says that "self-affirming, practicing homosexuals" are not eligible for ordination.
Five years ago, the assembly created a Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, which then released a report advising that individual presbyteries should be given a degree of freedom in deciding whether to ordain noncelibate lesbian and gay ministers. Presbyteries are local governing bodies for example, Richmond lies in the Presbytery of the James, one of 14 in the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic.
The Presbyterian assembly must now decide if it wants to adopt the task force's recommendation. If accepted, some more conservative presbyteries have alluded to the possibility of schism in the church. Meanwhile, some of the more liberal presbyteries have urged the assembly to drop the fidelity-or-chastity requirement altogether. "There's people making threats on both sides," Safe Space member Ashley Scruggs says.
In the meantime, it's don't ask, don't tell.
Scruggs, who just graduated with a master of arts degree in theological studies, recalls the interview process with Old Donation Episcopal Church in Virginia Beach, where she will become director of Christian formation. She sensed the curiosity about her, she says, an unmarried woman of 26 with no engagement ring.
"They will not come out and ask you that about sexual orientation," says Scruggs, an outspoken redhead who wears a touch of gold glitter on her cheeks. "But it's on their minds."
When she mentioned her boyfriend, she says, "it's almost like this audible sigh of relief in the room 'Oh good, she's not a lesbian.'"
Lindsey Phillips, a second-year student from Buffalo, N.Y., fears the church she's belonged to since she was baptized as an infant, the church she is "under care of" as she goes through seminary, will split from the main Presbyterian Church if the assembly allows local decisions on ordaining gays and lesbians.
Phillips is straight, but the pending decision still affects her, she says. Her best friend, a seminarian in the Methodist Church, recently told her he was gay.
"So I've had to think about what my options are, if my church pulls out," Phillips says. She wonders, "Am I going to find a church that knows me?"
While Phillips, Scruggs and the others wait to hear what the church assembly will say, they've tried to advance the cause of gay and lesbian acceptance at Union PSCE.
A Safe Space was founded in 2003 as a quiet advocacy group, a place where gay, lesbian and bisexual students would not have to "constantly prove their legitimacy and their right to be here," third-year student Esta Jarrett says.
Mostly, members like to talk. "Get a group of seminarians in a bar," Jarrett says, "and all we talk about is "
" God," Scruggs fills in. "God and politics."
Recently, members donated several books on "queer theology" to the school's William Smith Morton Library and sponsored an art exhibit on the same topic. Artist Julie Crowder's clay sculptures and watercolors explore the suppression of women in the church. The central piece shows a row of women kneeling and praying rosaries; the last figure in the row has faded away and disappeared.
Queer theology is a view of God and Scripture that affirms the sexual orientations of lesbian and gay Christians, Safe Space President Andrew Troutman says. Safe Space members describe it as a process of exegesis "a drawing out of a text."
Take John 9, they say, in which Jesus heals a blind man and his disciples ask, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he should be born blind?" Neither one sinned, Jesus answers. This passage resonates with Safe Space members, they say, because the same question is often asked of people who are gay or lesbian.
Studying the Bible helps the students figure out where people of different sexual orientations fit into God's plan, they say. "And how do we live together in community with people who totally disagree with us?" Jarrett asks.
The answer is prayer, she says.
"Mutual forbearance," adds Dean John T. Carroll.
At the group's end-of-the-year cookout May 23, members read a liturgy that Troutman wrote, based in part on the texts the group bought for the library.
"We are wonderfully made!" Jarrett reads in a decisive voice.
"We are wonderfully made," the group repeats. S Click here for more News and Features