How Not to Treat the Service Workers in Your Life

Originally seen in The Collegian, published here for a few who wanted to read it who did not have access to the paper.


This past weekend while I was working off-campus, a middle-aged man gruffly asked me “Are you gay?” while I was serving him. It was clear by his attitude that he wasn’t expecting the answer he wanted, and with a large group of customers eagerly waiting in line behind him, I knew I had to measure my response.

My mind flashed back to my years in the closet, when my survival depended on steering people away from this topic. The critical intonation woven into “Mason, are you…?” could instantly freeze my spine and twist my stomach into a knot that wouldn’t unravel for days at a time. Perception precedes suspicion, and I knew that those who asked already saw me as gay. Affirmation left me exposed, denial made me a liar. What could I do?

A lot has changed in the last five years, but my internal reaction still echoed that experience. I paused, locked eyes with the customer, took a moment to let him think, and said “Yes.” My controlled persona was the antithesis of the panic I felt inside. Here I am, standing against a wall with a growing audience staring at me as we all contemplated my sexuality. Great, life as normal.

The incident has left me more confused than anything else, but I think it’s a strong example of a simple rule: who not to be. Respect and empathy will elevate any relationship, and in the service industry where interactions can be reduced to transactions, a double-dose of intentional appreciation is probably apropos. Here’s to you, baristas, waiters, The Express-ers, Caf workers, Oregon gas station attendants, barbers, and more, y’all rock my world.

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Lessons to Be Learned From the Haystack

This piece was originally published in a special issue of the Whitman Wire written by the staff of  The Collegian.


Many Adventists would agree that the most stereotypical Seventh-day Adventist food is the haystack, which roughly resembles a taco salad but has many different interpretations. In my family, a haystack consisted of a base layer of corn chips (Fritos), chili (made vegetarian, because the good Lord told us to), cheese sprinkled on top, various chopped veggies (onions, tomatoes, olives, peppers, lettuce, avocado, etc.), salsa, sour cream, and guacamole. Though each person makes their haystack differently, there are a few important things that can be learned from this humble dish.

  1. Be Inclusive

The Adventist church recently took a major step backward when it approved a statement on “trangenderism” that ignores the experiences of trans individuals and disregards their needs in favor of “biblical principles” on gender.[1] Unfortunately, the statement continued an already long history of LGBT alienation from the SDA church.

The haystack, on the other hand, is an inclusive endeavor. There is no set recipe or method to creating the haystack, and it is designed to include a whole array of ingredients. When the ingredients are mixed together, they create a food dish that is even more delicious than if you only enjoyed each ingredient on its own. Excluding an ingredient from the haystack, or excluding a demographic from the church, will only weaken your entrée and make your congregation increasingly bland.

  1. Be Adaptable

Seventh-day Adventism is a global religion, and appropriately the haystack is a global food. It can easily be adapted to whatever foods are more common in a region. While chips and beans may be more popular in the US, other regions may opt for a rice- and beans-based combination. The analogy is simple: the haystack adapts to whatever is available and accessible. The recent rules created by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists that limit women’s ordination and LGBT church membership shows an intense interest on the part of a small group of individuals in controlling the lives of a much larger group of people. While the General Conference says “abide by our rules and we’ll let you in,” the haystack says “show me what you got and we’ll make the best of it.”

It’s a simple metaphor that may seem funny, but the principles should not be hastily ignored. The SDA church has the opportunity of deciding whether it is going to be an organization of inclusivity and support or of exclusivity and degradation. Unfortunately, it appears church leadership is currently more interested in shutting doors than opening them.

[1] https://news.adventist.org/en/all-news/news/go/2017-04-11/seventh-day-adventist-world-church-vote-statement-on-transgender/   

The LGBT Experience at WWU

I wrote this piece for my university’s paper The Collegian. It highlights the emotional experience of an LGBT individual attending a middle-of-the-road Christian school. My feelings on this topic are intense and invested, and this paper has seen its fair share of softening and rearticulation. I share it here so that those who may not live near the WWU campus will have easier access to it.


In my experience, college is a time when many students are first beginning to figure out their identity. Learning who you are can be a challenging process, and it’s a time when many young adults need support and mentorship from those around them. Being LGBT adds a new dimension to this experience, and can be extremely isolating. For many, the knowledge of being LGBT comes before they are able to talk about it with anyone or find any role models to look up to. Not having the proper resources can be damaging, especially at the pivotal adolescent and young adult stage.

According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness, LGBT individuals are more than three times more likely to experience a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety.[1] The experience of coming out has also been documented to lead to PTSD, thoughts of suicide, and substance abuse.[2] The mental distress results from not having an environment where one feels safe to express their identity, as well as not having adequate resources. Young adults who identify as LGBT need quality support not only from their peers, but also from their superiors.

Because of the policies that address LGBT issues at WWU on a case-by-case basis, many LGBT individuals at Walla Walla do not feel safe or represented. It may be confusing about what it means for WWU to be a physically and an emotionally safe place for minority groups, and why it is necessary. Consider this: in recent years, we have had several incidents of LGBT students being mistreated and receiving physical threats. In those situations, because WWU policy can be unclear or difficult to understand in regards to LGBT support, the students involved are afraid to seek help and do not feel safe in disclosing what is happening to them.

In approaching this article, I interviewed six LGBT individuals who are currently or have previously attended or worked for WWU to find out what their experience has been like. The recurring theme throughout all the interviews has been the need to be cautious about who you opened up to, as many students and staff members are not adequately prepared to be supportive and safe.

One student, who spent more than six years at WWU, stated that they had difficulty in finding a staff or faculty member who they could talk to without fear of rejection. Several of the people I talked with remarked that they noticed a negative difference in the way they were treated by some staff and faculty members when they opened up to them. This is unfortunate, but because the university has few policies to support LGBT individuals, it is challenging for students to speak up and confront this sort of prejudice.

The lack of policy and stance from the university also affects non-LGBT students. One faculty member remarked that she has had students in her classrooms use the term gay in a derogatory way. Upon confronting these students, she had to explain to them why using the term gay in such a manner was hurtful and damaging to those who identified as LGBT. These students had not had to think about the meaning of their words, and university leadership and proper training in spaces such as JumpStart or in the dorms could have avoided the incident altogether.

One problem that many LGBT students face at WWU is finding peers who are also LGBT. WWU makes it very challenging for LGBT support groups to meet up and put on events. Many non-religious and some religious schools often have an official group called a GSA, or Gay-Straight Alliance. At WWU, we have a group called SFE, or Students for Equality. This group has not been able to become an official club, despite several attempts in the past to receive official recognition from the university. While this group still operates and puts on events, not being official makes it hard to find spaces to host meetings as well as advertise.

In one case, the school chose to approve a poster for an LGBT-oriented event but chose not to stamp the posters because they wanted individual staff members to still be able to take down posters if they were uncomfortable. This actively prioritizes the comfort of staff and faculty over the young adults on campus who desperately need support and community. In an event I planned myself, the event’s posters were taken down after miscommunication about prior event approval. When I asked what was wrong, I was told that some faculty feared the film we were to be showing was pornographic in nature and would cause miscommunication. The film is called Pride (2014), and I encourage you to watch it and find where the pornographic material is. You may be disappointed.

Several years ago, ASWWU had a program called Pods that allowed any sizable group of students who met regularly for one purpose to receive funding from ASWWU. This allowed many diverse interest groups to form on campus, one of which was an LGBT discussion group. When some leaders learned that there was an active LGBT Pod, the ASWWU Social VP for the year was pressured by a faculty member to get rid of that specific group. However, the Social VP refused. For unrelated reasons the Pods program was ended soon after.

The problem of protection and support extends also to staff and faculty. WWU does employ LGBT individuals, but those individuals are not able to openly express their sexual orientation. One former staff member stated that working at WWU means prioritizing a career over having a family. “At another school—like the CC or Whitman—you go home and that’s your life. But working for the university, that becomes everything. It becomes every part of your life.” It is important to recognize that WWU is unique from other public schools since it is a religious institution. As such, the university wants to ensure that their employees uphold the Adventist perspective in every aspect of their life. Thus, the experience of working at WWU as an LGBT individual could mean prioritizing work over personal life, which I think could potentially open doors for mental health concerns. Having a fulfilled personal life should not be restricted to heterosexual individuals. The current treatment of LGBT individuals by many SDA employers harkens back to the days of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

I understand that hearing these incidents of prejudice can be hurtful and embarrassing to those who are connected with WWU. My goal is not to shame anyone into “doing better” or to attack any specific group. I simply want to show the pain experienced by many students due to the university’s lack of policy and support. While it can be hard to hear these things, it is important to recognize that the shame and fear experienced by the students directly affected by these events is much greater, and needs to be urgently addressed.

I believe that the way LGBT students are treated and responded to at WWU teaches them to be sheepish and to live in fear of their own identity. It is in the university’s interest to create safe places for these students so that we can openly discuss our experiences and begin forming a community of allies and LGBT individuals. Everyone benefits from diversity, and this will not only show support to our LGBT students, but unite and strengthen the campus as a whole.

If you are a student at WWU and need help finding resources for yourself or another LGBT individual, please feel free to email me at mason.neil@wallawalla.edu or contact the WWU Students for Equality group at wwu.sfe@gmail.com.

[1] https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/LGBTQ

[2] Ibid.

Three Books for the White Savior

Three Books for the White Savior

By some slim chance the last three books I have read have all touched on a similar theme that has been in my mind for a while. With the situation in Aleppo as well as the rest of Syria heating up, I think of the US’s role as a first-world country in international human rights work, and especially the role of those here in the United States who are financially privileged. I attend a school that places a lot of pressure on serving abroad as a student missionary, with almost all posts located in third-world countries. I see the value in this program and recognize that it helps rather isolated students experience a different culture while also bringing important help to the location. However, I think sometimes in the effort to be helpful, people or organizations may lose sight of what’s most important in a region, and priorities can get mixed up. If I were to be called to be a student missionary, the most important question I would have to ask myself is “What is my motive?”

I won’t try to find an answer to this dilemma. It’s been around for quite some time, and I don’t think there’s a simple conclusion. Each of these books explores situations with people from both the United States and England trying to give aid to people who they perceived to need their help. In each story the social intricacies of the situation are explored in a way that helped give my mind a better understanding of how my presence or aid in a foreign country can affect more than I may intend it to. In the hope that they help someone else to think, too, here they are:

71yzyd54wtlSwing Time

Zadie Smith

Swing Time follows a young woman who works as a personal assistant to a well-off pop star. In the latter half of the story, the celebrity decides that she’d like to build a school for girls in western Africa. The protagonist then spends time living in the town where the school is built and sees how it affects the social situation in the surrounding area. The pop star also adopts one of the African babies with less-than-legal privilege. It’s a real trip, and raises interesting questions about the effectiveness of rapidly-introduced foreign education.

9781408834671State of Wonder: A Novel

Ann Patchett

State of Wonder follows a woman who works for a pharmaceutical company funding a research project in the Amazon jungle in Brazil. When their first liaison dies after going to report on the drug being researched, the company sends Marina to find out why he died and how much progress is being made. During her stay, she sees the effect the researchers have had on the native tribe, as well as how inter-tribal relations are affected by the pharmaceutical companies’s presence. It’s a fast-paced story with a strong mystery plot, but reads like a literary novel. It left me mildly uncomfortable, and was deeply stirring.

81qzmyqka8lWhite Teeth: A Novel

Zadie Smith

White Teeth was written by Zadie Smith prior to when she wrote Swing Time. The two books share many of the same themes, but where Swing Time took the reader abroad, White Teeth looks at the legacy of “white aid” in domestic Britain. A well-meaning WASP-y middle class family takes several muslim kids under their wing and begin raising them as their own kids. In the process, the kids’s parents feel their children have let go of their native culture at the cost of receiving a private education. White Teeth is much more complex than the previous two books, but gives a greater reward in return.