Just a four minute drive from Skyline college, first-year Trojan Sheryll Estipona peered down at the required text for 8th grade Bible class — six baby chicks innocently glanced back underneath the bolded title “Love Your Neighbor.” The teacher promptly instructed her to turn to Chapter 14: Homosexual Sin.
Estipona’s alma mater, Highlands Christian School, sits proudly on the hilltop overlooking the Skyline community. The K-8 school strives to embed evangelical values into their students through their curriculum. Evangelical Christianity is characterized by its fundamentalist approach to the bible, meaning the text is interpreted in the literal sense.
Each chapter of “Love Your Neighbor” introduces a social issue through a spiritual and secular lense, ranging from euthanasia to cloning to pornography. At the end of these chapters resides a short “Christian Response” to the issue. The Chapter 14 response states: “The Bible condemns homosexual sin. Homosexuality is a perversion of God’s gift of sex.”
“Why be bothered by someone’s own sexuality?” said Estipona in response. “The literal name of the book is ‘Love Your Neighbor.’ If you love your neighbor, wouldn’t you respect who they’re attracted to? I feel like some Christians just blindly believe everything in the Bible.”
For Michelina Ng Solano, a student at CSM and Highlands Christian Schools graduate, the impact of this mindset shook her family indefinitely.
“My half-brother was gay, and he was raised in a Catholic household. He passed away 16 years ago from HIV and AIDS,” said Ng Solano. “It wasn’t until my brother was on his deathbed when my dad just accepted the fact that homosexuality is valid … [The stigma is] exactly the reason why he didn’t reach out for help. I think by the time he came out, it was already too late. He was already very sick.”
But not every HCS alumni perceives its curriculum to be harmful or sanctimonious. Skyline student Marion Fuller believes Highlands Christian Schools and “Love Your Neighbor” gave him the necessary foundation to extend love and respect to others in his personal life.
“Highlands was definitely a place where I grew a lot as a Christian. I’m proud to say that. … A takeaway from Highlands I really emphasized in my life is loving your neighbor as your friend or as yourself. Especially today, there’s a lot of hate going around. Stop hate, you just gotta love,” said Fuller.
Highlands integrates its fundamentalist viewpoints into every aspect of its curriculum, not just Bible class. In music class, students sing hymns and songs with biblical messaging. In geometry class, students write papers on biconditional statements in the Bible. The history textbook is written through the Christian lense. However, Estipona remembers something missing from science class.
“In our science textbook, there was an evolution chapter. We would go through every chapter in that science book except the evolution one,” Estipona said. “The teacher wouldn’t really tell us the reason why.”
For Estipona’s developing mind, this meant accepting the evangelical belief of creation at face value and without scrutiny.
“My friends and I were in a science museum for our DC trip. We were in the evolution section and we were making fun of the entire idea. We were like, ‘oh my god, we came from chickens, we came from gorillas,’” Estipona said nostalgically. We were so close minded. We were against whatever Highlands said.”
Ng Solano also feels the environment created a feedback loop not conducive to an open marketplace of ideas.
“They say if you say these words you go to hell. If you don’t believe in this, you go to hell. It’s to the book with them. I do believe that there is a God, but there are some flaws in trying to tell someone what to believe in.”
While Estipona still remains spiritual, she carries deep guilt and shame for straying from the evangelical interpretation of faith.
“Every time I would forget to pray, I thought I would die that night. I would convince myself that ‘oh my god, I’m gonna die tonight because I didn’t pray to God that much today,’” Estipona said. “I still fear that I’m going to hell.”
Alternatively, Fuller credits Highlands’ emphasis on scripture for his ability to lead a well-rounded life, whether that be in relationships or within himself. Initially, he viewed memorizing long Bible verses as boring.
“As I got older, I realized that these Bible verses have more meaning,” Fuller said. “It makes it easier for me to understand what is actually being said in the Bible verse and why we analyze what we read.”
While the Highlands alumni may not share the same beliefs, they all agree that keeping an open mind is imperative.
“I had friends who canceled me for being Christian and believing what I believe in, because I was everything that they were against, you know, and that’s just life,” Fuller said. “But why can’t we just accept that everyone has their own opinion?”
This article has been edited to revise the spelling of a name.