Barred from schools in Oklahoma, New Orleans, Soulforce bus tour of conservative colleges should get warmer welcome here next week


LONESOME ROAD | Equality Riders Zachary Pullin of Spokane, Wash., left, and Crystal Cheatham of Philadelphia demonstrate at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Okla., recently after the group was banned from the campus. (Photo courtesy of Makenzie Marineau)

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer

As part of its two-month cross-country trip to preach safety for LGBT students on Christian college campuses, the Soulforce Equality Ride will be in Dallas on April 10-13.  Rider J.D. Melendez, 30, organized the Dallas stops.

Melendez is the oldest of the 17 riders and said he decided to join the Equality Ride to reconcile his religious faith with his sexual orientation.

When he was 13, a youth pastor outed Melendez to his parents, who threw him out of the house.

“I grew up in a fundamentalist, born-again family in the Bronx,” Melendez said. “I spent years as a homeless teen in New York City.”

But Melendez was resourceful and received help from an organization in Greenwich Village. He got his high school equivalency diploma earlier than his classmates and the agency helped him get into college. He said they wouldn’t ever let him give up.


J. D. Melendez

He applied for and won a James Baldwin Scholarship for talented students from underserved communities at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. After graduating, he returned to New York to work with homeless LGBT youth.

This trip marks the first time in his life, other than his four years in college, he’s been out of the New York City area.

The Equality Ride left Philadelphia on March 3 and will arrive in San Francisco on May 3. This is the fifth Equality Ride since 2006 sponsored by Abilene-based Soulforce.

Last week, the riders stopped at Oklahoma Baptist University. In 2006, riders were arrested at the school for trying to attend a service in the chapel. This year, they were asked to leave the campus.

The week before, they visited Lipscomb University in Nashville.

“They invited us for a 2½ -day conversation,” Melendez said. “My host had never met an LGBT person.”

He said they spent the time together sharing stories.

“He looked me in the eye and saw I’m not a danger,” he said. “We’re never going to learn if we don’t stand in front of each other and talk.”

From there, the ride headed to New Orleans.

“New Orleans Theological Seminary did not let us on campus,” he said.

Equality Ride will spend three days in Dallas next week. The highlight of the week is a visit to Dallas Baptist University, a school with 3,500 students on its Mountain Creek Lake location west of Oak Cliff.

DBU Dean of Students and Spiritual Life Jay Harley said that they have had Equality Riders on campus before and looked forward to the afternoon.

“They posed a lot of questions,” Harley said. “We don’t shy away from that.”

Riders will have lunch with administrators and staff followed by a session with faculty and administrators. Then students will join a two-hour discussion.

“We’re looking forward to meeting and having a positive discussion,” Harley said.

The DBU stop is not open to the public, but other stops are.

On Monday, riders meet at Southern Methodist University. At Perkins School of Theology, they will meet with Randy Roberts Potts, gay grandson of Oral Roberts, followed by a screening of Love Free or Die, a film about Bishop Gene Robinson that ran at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The address for the event is 5915 Bishop Blvd.

On Tuesday, the group meets at Metropolitan Community Church of Greater Dallas at 6:30 p.m. Later that evening, they will share a Bible study with three area branches of United Methodist Campus Ministry.

On Wednesday evening, riders will have dinner and attend a service at Cathedral of Hope beginning at 5 p.m.

After leaving DBU on Thursday, riders will go to Midway Hills Christian Church for dinner and a service that begins at 5:30 p.m.

On Friday, the bus leaves for Abilene, where Soulforce Executive Director the Rev. Cindi Love lives.

This year, 17 riders are traveling across the country on the Equality Ride ranging in age from 18 to 30. Several are college students incorporating the experience into their semester and receiving credit for the experience.

Melendez isn’t sure what he will do once the ride ends.

He’s enjoying exploring the country and weighing his opportunities. But he said he’s sure of one thing.

“After the ride, I want to stay involved with Soulforce,” he said.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 6, 2012.