Religious Speakers Draw Ire, Protests

Anna C Santoleri

Students and members of the Cambridge community protest the Social Transformation by the Power of God conference.Their signs and speeches particularly contended the conference’s alleged anti-gay and anti-Muslim views.

The controversial Social Transformation Conference—aimed at promoting “faith-based social transformation efforts,” according to its website—took place in the Northwest Science Building this weekend as a group of protestors rallied outside to criticize alleged homophobic and Islamophobic remarks made by two of the conference’s key speakers.

The two-day event—hosted by the Harvard Extension Service and Leadership Society—examined the incorporation of religious principles in societal reform, featuring panel discussions and speeches from numerous faith-based leaders.

Gay rights groups criticized the conference for the inclusion of speakers Os Hillman, a prominent Christian business leader, and Lance Wallnau, an expert in personal and organizational transformation, pointing to inflammatory remarks they have made in the past. On Friday evening, approximately 20 activists gathered outside the building to protest the event, and more joined them on Saturday.

“They’re trying to infiltrate Harvard and bring on the next level of Christendom,” said Sierra E. Fleenor, a Harvard Divinity School student and one of the organizers of the protest. “The message is hateful. It sets Christians as if there’s a homogeneous group called a ‘Christian group’ against Muslims, against gay people, and I think that that silences everyone who’s not that brand of Christian.”

Harvard College Queer Students and Allies Political Committee Chair Samuel J. Bakkila ’11-’12, who participated in the protest, said he felt the conference promoted “homophobia and hatred.”

“It does not send the message, to students and especially to incoming freshmen that were just admitted, that Harvard will be a safe space for them,” he added.

“If I had my way, Harvard wouldn’t welcome people like this here,” Fleenor said.

Conference attendees expressed a different perspective on the event.

“I think the purpose of this conference is to give perspective of ... God’s heart, that He wants to make things better in culture and make things better in general and that He loves people so His plan for them is good,” said Charis H. Brown, Hillman’s daughter.

One focus of the conference was on Harvard’s 1692 motto: “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae”—translated from Latin as “Truth for Christ and the Church”—in juxtaposition with the current perceived lack of spirituality at Harvard.

“If Harvard’s original purpose was that, then we want to help bring that framework to society,” Brown said. “I think we’re trying to bring that true disposition of Jesus into the world.”

Brown added that she disagreed with many of the claims made against her father.

“I don’t personally believe my dad wants to do harm to anybody,” she said. “He doesn’t hate gays and he doesn’t hate Muslims.”

Robert L. Wing, a volunteer at the event, said he supported the idea of a faith-based society.

“We’d just like to see a restoration, not only of Harvard, but every school, that would mix faith, relationship with God, with a way that we conduct ourselves,” he said.

Conference attendee Kobi A. Rex ’14 said he was interested in the topics of the conference.

“[Wallnau] is a powerful speaker, so I’m excited to hear what he has to say,” he added.

Some protesters attempted to enter the conference on Friday evening.

“We were just going to sit with our signs; just sit and listen to what’s going on,” said former QSA Co-Chair Marco Chan ’11.

But they were escorted back out into the drizzling rain by Harvard University police officers.