Christian Berkeley Senator Isabella Chow: ‘God’s Really Been Reminding Me What It Means to Love Unconditionally’

'I don't regret saying what I said, because I know that — before God and before my community — these words were spoken in love.'

By Aliya Kuykendall Published on November 27, 2018

There’s more to this story than meets the eye. Isabella Chow, a Christian student senator from the University of California, Berkeley, has faced major backlash for her Biblical stance on LGBTQ activism. Her vote in the student senate drew national attention. And lots of blame and condemnation.

I spoke with her over the phone earlier this week. She told me about her experience and her motivation. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Loving When Rejected, Loving the Rejected

This is not just the story of a Christian student being silenced by a liberal majority. This is a story of love in the face of rejection, and a desire for the Church to love and serve the LGBTQ community. Chow’s story shows us what the silencing of conservatism looks like at a liberal university. But it’s also a call to look at ourselves as a Church and see how God would purify our love for those around us ­— especially those who misunderstand us.

Stream contributor Alex Chediak tells the story here. Chow abstained from a symbolic bill that condemned Trump’s proposed Title IX’s changes regarding the definition of sexual discrimination. The bill endorsed specific pro-LGBTQ-agenda organizations.

The senate voted on October 31. Chow read a statement before the vote explaining why she had chosen to abstain. Her statement is published in its entirety on her Senator Chow Facebook page. Here is an excerpt:

My God is one who assigns immeasurable value to and desires to love each and every human being. In God’s eyes and therefore my own, everyone of you here today and in the LGBTQ+ community as a whole is significant, valid, wanted, and loved — even if and when our views differ. Jesus only had the deepest love and compassion for all who came to him.

But, she explained,

I cannot vote for this bill without compromising my values and my responsibility to the community who elected me to them. As a Christian, I personally do believe that certain acts and lifestyles conflict with what is good, right, and true. […] For me, to love another person does not mean that I silently concur when, at the bottom of my heart, I do not believe that your choices are right or the best for you as an individual.

The following are excerpts from our interview, slightly edited for clarity and length.

Her Stance

‘I Don’t Regret Saying What I Said’

I asked Isabella how the controversy affected her work as a senator. She said her office is now about half the size it was. “I had to let go of staff because the organizations that we were working with no longer want to work with us. And, of course, there is petty political drama that is thinly veiled, but aimed at me, essentially. I guess it definitely does affect my work as a senator going forward, and it affects my life as a student.”

Isabella said she is still going to serve as a senator and fulfill her duties to the best of her ability. “I’m still going to be working for the Christian community. My role as a Christian senator hasn’t changed, in the sense that my office is still in charge of putting on events, and managing resources for the Christian community here, and serving as a liaison between the Christian community and administration, and working to foster unity among fellowships and churches here.”

“At the end of the day,” she said, “I don’t regret saying what I said, because I know that, before God and before my community, these words were spoken in love, and spoken in what I, in my community, believe to be the truth.”

She added: “And what is outside of my control, I still trust it’s in God’s control, and I still trust that he has a plan, and that he’s working out everything for our good.”

— Aliya Kuykendall

Aliya Kuykendall: Were you required to give a statement about why you were abstaining or is that a choice you made?

Isabella Chow: So the reason why I chose to make a statement — because I didn’t have to — was because I was ousted by my political party the night before the vote, and —

Aliya: Why did they oust you?

Isabella: Because they knew I wouldn’t vote for the bill.

Aliya: Oh. You had already told them.

Isabella: Yeah. I told them at caucus, and then it was a lengthy internal process of, “Will Isabella change her views?” Or “Do we still accept her in the party?” “What do we as a party believe?”, etc.

I had a copy of the press release from Student Action, which is the name of my political party. And I didn’t fully agree with how Student Action characterized me. For example, they said that I disagree with legal protections for survivors of sexual assault, and I think that’s completely false. I will at any time support legal protections for survivors of sexual assault. That’s just common sense to me, right. So I felt compelled to make a statement to make clear what I did and what I didn’t believe.

A Nasty Protest

Aliya: Can you tell what the protest was like?

Isabella: Essentially, the Queer Alliance Resource Center organized a protest just to call for my resignation. And people were chanting outside the building and everything, before the senate meeting on Nov. 7. This is the regular weekly senate meeting, so it was a week after my vote. And because people can make public comments for up to two minutes, around 300 people came, and around 100 to 150 people made public comments for around three hours, like three hours straight, and essentially telling me to resign. I mean, I’ve been called the eff word so many times, I can’t tell you.

Aliya: Oh my gosh.

Isabella: Yeah. And other slurs.

Isabella Wasn’t Alone

Aliya: What have been your sources of support, or inspiration, or motivation, as you’ve been formulating your response?

Isabella: The Christian community here at Berkeley has been really supportive. I mean, without their encouragement and prayers, I would have buckled in on day one. Like the night of the protest, I was sitting there and listening to people yell at me for three hours and essentially saying, “Eff Isabella. Just resign,” but the same night, my roommate and the lead chair of Unity in Christ called an emergency prayer meeting to pray, not just for me, but for the LGBTQ community. And even as I was sitting there, I was reminded that there were prayers behind me, and that God was also there to give me grace to love when I am not respected or understood.

Impact of the Backlash

Aliya: How are things going for you now on campus, as a senator? I read that you’ve been cut off from your party. Can you tell me more about how your experience on campus has been affected?

Isabella: Yes. So essentially, now, I’m an independent senator. We have two main parties here on campus. I’ve also been pretty much disaffiliated with every organization I had a working relationship with. Whether that’s publications and media organizations, or other organizations that I had worked with as a senator. And all of the other organizations that I was part of, I’ve been voted out of these.

‘People Feel Unsafe Around You’

Isabella: Essentially, it’s just difficult for people to reconcile how I can say, “I love, and I accept, and I validate you. And yet, I still, as a Christian, cannot fully promote your sexual identity and lifestyle.” And when they hear that, because they see that as a fundamental conflict, they say, “Well, your words about loving and accepting us are completely worthless. You cannot endorse this bill, therefore you are a bigot, a hater, a transphobic, a queerphobic senator.”

And so because of that, the organizations that I was part of have now said, “People feel unsafe around you. Even though we’ve known you for so long, even though we’ve worked with you” — some of these since freshman year. “Now that you’ve come out publicly with this stance, it doesn’t matter that we’ve observed your character over the last few years. It doesn’t matter that you say and you try to show that you love us. People feel unsafe around you, and therefore you cannot hold a position of leadership or any position in the club.” And, yeah, I mean, one of these was the Berkeley Political Review, which is supposed to be a nonpartisan political journal.

Aliya: How do you feel about that?

Isabella: Honestly, it’s really difficult. It’s very difficult to be misrepresented and mischaracterized.

What It Means to Love Unconditionally

Isabella: But at the same time, God’s really been reminding me what it means to love unconditionally, right. Because it’s one thing to say I love, and accept, and validate you, before all the backlash happened. But it’s another thing to stand by these words, and to really wrestle with what it means to love a community that has been calling me all these names. I’ve been called the eff word and so many other slurs I don’t want to say.

But Christ’s love is not conditional on people accepting him. And in the same way, people don’t accept me, it doesn’t mean that I need to love them any less. In fact, it means that I, as a representative of the Christian community here and the church in general, need to wrestle with what it means to love and to speak the truth in love, especially on a campus like Berkeley.

Aliya: That’s really hard.

Isabella: Yeah. I’m definitely growing a lot. But the Christian community here has been so supportive and so encouraging. What I’ve told them is that we don’t need to agree 100% theologically or practically. But we do need to talk about this issue. And especially if you disagree with me, I need to learn your perspective and hear your opinions, right.

The Church’s Response to the LGBTQ Community So Far

Isabella: For the Christian community here, we’re really wrestling and praying about how to respond to this, and how to move forward. Because I don’t want this to just happen and then for the splash to ripple away. I want the church to really wrestle with how to serve a community — the LGBTQ community — that frankly, has been ignored by the church for too long. And I don’t think that we can stay silent on this issue, and I don’t think that we can stay inactive on this issue.

Aliya: And what do you see the church needing to do, to appropriately respond to the LGBTQ community?

Isabella: Yeah. I think we need to… I think it’s a very nuanced conversation that I, personally, have seen taken in two directions. One direction is saying, “This is such a crucial issue and nobody’s talking about it, therefore we’re going to preach about it. And homosexuality is a sin. Homosexuality is a sin,” and saying that over and over. But that doesn’t really address people who come in seeking answers, right.

If I have same-sex attraction, and I come into the church, and all I hear is that homosexuality is a sin, I’m not sure how much that would draw me to the truth of the gospel, or to an answer for what I might feel like is an immutable part of my being, right.

I don’t want this to just happen and then for the splash to ripple away. I want the church to really wrestle with how to serve a community — the LGBTQ community — that frankly, has been ignored by the church for too long.

The other response that I’ve seen is churches saying, “Well, this is such a sensitive issue, therefore we won’t talk about it.” And I don’t think that’s an answer either, because if I have same sex attraction and I’m coming into the church, then I’m not really hearing the full truth of the gospel, and yet, I don’t know how to wrestle with this.

Nuanced Conversations

Isabella: And I’ve talked with two friends who came out to me after this incident happened. And I was quite surprised, because one of them is the lead chair of Unity in Christ, which is a parachurch organization here in Berkeley. He is one of the most godly and devout Christians that I have ever respected and admired. And he’s made his stance on the LGBTQ issue very clear in our conversations. And yet, for him to come out in that week was quite surprising, because he was like, “Look, I know I’ve made my stance clear, but I actually have been wrestling with same-sex attraction for several years.”

And to hear his first-hand journey of how he’s wrestled with that before the Lord, and how he distinguishes between inherently feeling like “I am attracted to somebody of the same gender” is not wrong. But, like Jesus said, it’s the lust and the actual act of adultery that is wrong. And for him, that’s where he draws the line between the temptation and the sin. And that’s why I’ve realized it’s just such a nuanced issue, right. For him, he doesn’t see a conflict between a part of his being that has been corrupted by the presence of sin. This is the imperfect nature of this world, essentially. And yet, he talked about being able to live in the sanctification and the justification that Jesus came to bring.

So, I mean, I don’t have answers. But as a church, it’s these nuanced conversations that we need to have, that will guide us towards how to best shine the light and the love of Christ.

Compelled to Make a Statement

Aliya: It seems like a very big thing that the church is dealing with right now. So what advice do you have for believers who are facing these kind of questions in their own lives? Like when is it good to make a statement? And along with that, what motivated you to make the statement?

Isabella: For advice, I think, one, is just to be wise about the battles that you pick, to be wise about following the Holy Spirit’s timing. I don’t think Christians should go around, trumpeting, “This is what I believe,” or, “I’m going to judge you for your sin. And not just any sin, but specifically if you are an LGBTQ sinner, this is the biggest sin of all time.” That’s just not Christ-like. And I think that we need to follow Jesus’ model, and hang out with the tax collectors and the worst sinners of his time. Just by his presence, people were convicted and saved, right.

But then, this decision was different, in the sense that I was asked to make a public decision that I considered to be a moral judgment and a value decision. And because of that, I felt compelled to make a statement and to vote the way I did.

I also don’t think that it’s possible to separate your worldview from your political decisions. Because either way, a vote for or against the LGBTQ bill would have espoused a certain worldview, right. A political decision itself is a statement of certain beliefs. And, for me, as a representative of the Christian community, I knew I represented a minority belief at Berkeley, but I had to represent that belief anyway.

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