Zach Labutta thought his days at Wheaton College were over when he left the devoutly Christian school in the fall of 2009 after his sophomore year.
Having just come out as a gay man, he did not know how to reconcile his faith and his sexual orientation enough to return.
But he said a meeting with another gay Christian man near his Laytonsville, Md., home showed him being gay and being Christian are not mutually exclusive.
"It's a tragedy that people feel they have to choose between Christianity, which is a vibrant, living relationship with Christ, and their sexual orientation," Labutta said Tuesday. "I took time away from Wheaton and I eventually said, 'I have God and gay in my hands and I cannot deny either. I'll see you on Judgment Day and just live my life as best as I know how.'"
Labutta returned to the school last spring and will graduate Sunday, May 8, with a degree in sociology.
His perspective is shared by many members of OneWheaton, a self-described grass-roots organization of lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and questioning Wheaton College alumni and their supporters. Group members say they felt isolated when they were at the school and now they are trying to support current students who may feel that same isolation.
Labutta said he learned of the group last week, two days before it came on campus to hand out a letter after a chapel service.
"OneWheaton is doing an excellent job trying to promote a voice on Wheaton's campus that has been left out of the debate, and noticeably so," Labutta said.
Each year, Wheaton College sponsors a weeklong, theme-based lecture series at its three-times-a-week mandatory chapel service and this year chose the theme "Sexuality and Wholeness."
OneWheaton members said they were spurred to action, in part, because of the school's inclusion in the series of a Wheaton College alumnus, Wesley Hill, who says he has chosen celibacy over homosexuality.
Group members say they wanted to let students know there were other options that could be just as rewarding.
OneWheaton spokeswoman Kristin Winn, a 2007 graduate, says she came out about six months after finishing school and moving to Los Angeles. "We want to show those students there is a community of love and support they will have," she said.
OneWheaton's efforts appear to be paying off, at least when it comes to its profile. Winn said the group reached about 100 alumni when its website launched last weekend. But that number has quadrupled since the campus trip.
Winn stressed the group did not aim to take on the school and praised the way the college handled the speaker series.
"Our position is that the college is not intentionally trying to be malicious," she said. "They believe this is a way of loving homosexual students. I applaud them for talking about it." But she said the speaker series left out the possibility that their sexuality is not a sin and that they can still lead vibrant lives while "remaining true to who they are."
President Philip Ryken sent an email to the Wheaton College community in response to OneWheaton's appearance, saying he agreed with the group's underlying message of affirming "the full humanity and dignity of every human being." He said the school's covenant committed its followers to "loving our neighbors as ourselves."
However, he also said the needs of some individuals "present a particular challenge for institutions like Wheaton."
He said the school carries the burden for anyone who experiences same-sex attraction. "While we recognize that Wheaton's stance may be unsatisfying to some of our alumni, we remain resolved to respond with truth and grace."
Labutta, the student who graduates Sunday, said he was impressed with Ryken's response.
When he first arrived on campus, Labutta said he had not yet grappled with his sexuality. But now that he has, he said he hopes OneWheaton's message is understood by the rest of the community.
"I don't think gay Christians are asking for support," he said. "But we are asking to be part of the community and understood as part of the community. Not as a pathological part of the community that needs fixing or needs to abandon living out the gay lifestyle."