THE GORDON CONTROVERSY: OUTSIDE THE BUBBLE

A story about the Gordon controversy and how it has affected the surrounding communities of Hamilton and Wenham

BY SHANNON PETERSEN

One signature changed so much. President D. Michael Lindsay of Gordon College signed a letter to President Obama intensifying a community wide discussion about homosexuality in the Church, which affected local high schools, towns, and churches.

Take a right out of the Gordon College entrance, take a few turns, and only six miles away rests Hamilton-Wenham high school. Throughout the cold winter months, there have been rumblings in the school of “The Gordon Controversy.” With many ties to Gordon College’s facilities, the Hamilton-Wenham administration has started to take a stand against using the campus for student wide events and activities.

Only a short walking distance from the high school, on Meyer Road, lays the Peppler residence. Holding on to their traditional Christian views, the Pepplers have been especially affected by the Gordon controversy and how it has trickled down into the school system. The Pepplers have three female students in the school system and one who has graduated.

Walking into the front door, you are commonly greeted by the Peppler’s huge black lab, followed by a tall, golden haired mother, Kristen Peppler. After being beckoned into the kitchen for a nice piping hot cup of tea, it is not uncommon to hear the Peppler family begin to talk about the debates within the school.

After finishing her many college applications, high school senior, Grace Peppler (’15), is often found thinking about how the controversy has affected her. The signature became especially personal when the location of Hamilton-Wenham’s graduation was moved from the Gordon chapel to another location.

Above: Gordon College Chapel

“There were mixed feelings among the community,” Grace says. “Some people were upset that we would no longer have such a good place for the ceremony. Others felt that this was a civil rights issue.”

On March 5, all the stirrings came to a climax at the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School Committee meeting. Six committee members and over 100 other community members made their way into the cafeteria to determine the fate of graduation. Everyone from the community was encouraged to attend. Kristen Peppler was present along with President D. Michael Lindsay.

Views were presented from both sides. There were speeches in favor of keeping graduation in the chapel and others in support of moving it. Lindsay spoke at the occasion as well.

Kristen was blown away by how diplomatic the meeting was. “Everyone was so respectful and lovely. Everything I wanted to say was said,” says Kristin.

Above: Eve Peppler (left) stands with fellow high schooler

Remi Beauregard (’15) was one of the students who stood up at the counsel meeting and advocated for keeping graduation in the chapel. “He’s an atheist and is gay. He works at Gordon in the summer and he told me that he doesn’t have any problem with graduation being in the chapel,” says Eve Peppler (’17), one of the Peppler sisters.

Remi’s mother also encouraged the school administration to look at the Hamilton-Wenham Facebook page created by the students on this issue. “There were lots of thoughtful comments and a respectful give-and-take from the students,” says Remie’s mother, Jenny Beauregard.

However, even though the committee meeting with supposedly “diplomatic,” the vote was still directed to move graduation from the chapel.

Ever since the counsel meeting, there has been a huge question mark on where graduation will convene. “Rumor has it that other options are the football field and the gym,” says current high school senior. “Assuming the field will be impractical with weather, it is almost certain that it would be in the gym. It is very hot in there!”

Complaints continue to rise; many say graduation at the Gordon chapel is tradition. In addition, families of senior students agree the gym is sub-par for such an event.

Since the counsel meeting, there has been tremendous response, including over 35 emails to the school administration complaining about the decision. Many were from current students, and others from parents.

Many families of current seniors feel that their voices are being drowned out by the cry of a few. “I often am concerned that minimal voices, which are the loudest, can inflict a change that effect many. There seem to be a minimal number at six complaining. This does not give ground to moving the event,” says Lisa Fibbe, mother of a current senior.

Many people have called for a paper vote among the students. This has started to happen, but families and students continue to complain due to the unofficial nature of the count. “I have heard that senior homerooms are being polled, but my student has said that her homeroom was not officially polled,” says Kim Aalfs, another Hamilton-Wenham parent.

Hamilton-Wenham is also known for their huge art department. Various times throughout the year, many students and their families gather to hear their fellow students join hands and hearts in song. Choralfest is one of the school’s biggest performances.

For the past 10 years the Gordon Chapel has served as a great location for the event…until now. This year’s Choralfest met in the Hamilton-Wenham auditorium.

“Why weren’t we asked?” Kristen said during a conversation about the turn of events. Kristen and Grace were left wondering why neither parents nor students were surveyed about the change in location. “We were just told this is where it was going to be,” says Kristen.

After getting kickback for the change of location, “the school blamed the relocation on bad acoustics in the Chapel,” says Kristen.

There have also been motions from the school board to all cut ties with Gordon College’s facilities, including using Gordon’s pool. This will be the last year the swim team will practice and meet at Gordon.

Above: Gordon College Bennett Center, home of Gordon College pool

“We need the Gordon pool!” said Jane Powers, parent of swim team athlete. “Manchester-Essex cut ties with Gordon and their practices are spread over a few pools at different times and their meets are in Gloucester.” Many fear that cutting ties with the Gordon pool will cause a tremendous impact with available pool time. “If our school is added to the mix, our kids will be without a pool,” says Powers.

Gordon College continues to be in close communication with the high school, asking them to reconsider. Resident directors, past alumni, and current employees of the college are deeply saddened by the high school’s decision.

“At Gordon we teach our students to respect others’ points of view,” says Gordon College provost, Janel Curry. Curry further encourages the school to rethink its decision and encourages them to consider the repercussions within the town of cutting ties with a fellow community member.

Changes in venue are one thing, but what about the Christians in Hamilton-Wenham? Since Gordon is inherently linked with Christianity, Christian students are now also viewed differently due to the controversy. Eve Peppler agrees that there has been a lot of pressure and judgment. “When you stick up for having graduation in the chapel then people are like ‘Are you kidding me? You hate gay people!’” says Eve.

But Grace Peppler doesn’t agree. “There were a few people who got really defensive about the subject, but they would listen to what I had to say and I was able to have a lot of sensible conversations,” Grace reports.

Even though Grace doesn’t condone the signature, she thinks that the controversy has opened the door to a greater conversation between Christians and non-Christians at Hamilton-Wenham. “I kind of like how this topic has given our school a chance to explore people’s different opinions, and has opened up a discussion about the balance between freedom of expression and freedom of religion,” says Grace.

It seems that the controversy has also sparked conversations among the other underclassmen as well as the seniors. Within a group of girls from Hamilton-Wenham, some would agree that the signature changed their peers’ views of Christians.

“Hamilton is such a judgmental town. You hear something and you just judge that person,” says Brynne O’Connor (’17). The school administration further increased the sensitivity of the topic due to event relocations. “It’s a loaded gun on other sides. No one really wants to bring it up, but you have to since it’s a relevant topic,” says Celia Cronan (’17).

So where does this leave Gordon students? “If people are uninformed about the topic, they might have some initial bias toward Gordon students. But I don’t think someone would look at them differently if they knew a lot about the topic,” says Cronan.

However, other students have seen how their parents have reacted to Gordon students. “My dad originally judged Gordon students because of the controversy,” says Lauren White (’17). “He was very hesitant to let me spend time with anyone who goes to the school because of that.”

It is clear that many families in the surrounding town have been affected by the Gordon controversy, including the Peppler family. Even with the opposing views on the matter, there is no denying that things are changing. Some fear the change, others combat it, but through all the mixed feelings Grace Peppler is able to see the redemptive quality in it all, appreciating the signature as a way to open conversation.

Through it all, Gordon and their students will continue on, hoping conversations will open up rather than close.

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