Photo by Shawn Raymundo
Repent for your sins, whore! God hates homosexuals!
We hear it as we walk to classes on sunny afternoons, invading our earbuds and calm demeanors. Sometimes we stop to listen in shock. Sometimes we laugh.
Other times we simply pass by the Memorial Union and clutch our fists in exasperation.
Or at least I did.
The aggressive and controversial speeches given by non-ASU affiliated preachers often shock and upset newer students. Admittedly, when I heard a speech condemning homosexuality in Fall 2011, my first week on the Tempe campus, I was enraged at the injustice of their beliefs and its presence in my educational setting.
At the beginning of this year’s spring semester, a friend of mine called me nearly in tears. As she traversed the Tempe campus on her second day of classes, she passed by a preacher and his homophobic rant.
What she experienced came as no shock to me, though I empathized with her anger.
My friend said the man was surrounded by a large crowd of students taunting him. Later that day, I decided to check out the situation for myself. I was curious, like any other student.
I spoke briefly with this same young man, who had traveled from UA and was preaching by the fountains near the MU. At first glance, the young, blonde and scruffy man looked like an average college student. He was wet and told me that as he was preaching, a crowd of students grew roused, threw eggs at him and then pushed him into the fountain. It was late January and the water was likely freezing.
This experience early in the semester led me to ask some questions: Where is the line between expressing speech that provokes new ideas, and unjust speech that provokes aggression? Furthermore, how do we learn to deal with and humanize offensive ideas? Often, seeking insight from those who express hate toward minority groups won’t make a situation right, but it might shed light on how to curtail ideas may be harmful to a progressive society.
In 2011, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education noted ASU as one of the seven best universities for free speech enforcement. ASU’s free speech policy clearly states its commitment to promoting a hospitable, educational, residential and working environment for its students and employees to pursue their goals without substantial interference from harassment.
Ken Fleck, a young graduate of the University of Michigan, was preaching against the sins of young college students (such as premarital sex and drug use) near the MU one week in February as I rode past on my bike toward class. He says he read and studied the Bible on his own during college and has been preaching on the ASU campus for the last four years.
“ASU holds a special place in my heart. This is where God first called me to start preaching,” Fleck says.
Fleck identifies as a Christian, though specifically as a disciple of Jesus.
He says he travels to college campuses because all college students have sinned. Some students, he says, react to his speeches with anger, while others thank him.
“You get all types of reactions,” Fleck says. “People are going to get angry because this is a spiritual issue.”
He says he does not always agree with the other preachers on campus.
“I don’t know their motives, and I don’t know their hearts,” Fleck says.
Our conversation took a turn to freedom of speech when an older gentleman, whom I’ve seen hanging around many of the other preachers throughout the semester, pulled a chair between us and sat down. He scowled and requested that Fleck discontinue our discussion. He did not wish to identify himself, though Fleck admitted to knowing the man.
He growled angrily to Fleck that I was not interested in listening to his speech, and that Fleck had “better things to be doing,” and was “wasting his time” with me when he could be speaking with other students.
Fleck and I noted to each other and to the nameless man that both of our passions, Fleck’s in preaching, and mine in journalism, are protected under the same amendment. Fleck was respectful, and expressed sincerely to me his appreciation for the First Amendment and all that it protects, including freedom of the press.
Red-faced, the man scoffed in exasperation. He continued to try and interrupt, but Fleck remained calm. I, on the other hand, was forced to bottle my feelings of frustration as I felt my face grow hot. Fleck and I cut our conversation short amicably.
The identity of the man remained a mystery to me. I continued to see him slinking around campus, though never spoke to him again. I often wondered, however, whether he coordinates the activities of the younger, and perhaps more impressionable, traveling preachers. To my knowledge, he never preaches, though he often looms among the others.
The most infamous campus preacher goes by the name of Brother Jed, an Evangelist based out of Colombia, Miss., though a quick Google search identifies him as George Smock. Smock’s speeches are some of the more impassioned and draw the largest crowds of students because of their controversy involving homosexuality and women’s social issues. He used to teach U.S. history at the University of Wisconsin.
Dozens of students surrounded us as we spoke, and the nameless man’s scowl yet again lingered adjacent to where we held our conversation.
Smock was at first defensive when I asked to speak with him, shouting and repeating my questions to our audience before he answered them without looking me in the eyes.
After a few minutes of attempting to shame me away from our interview, he eventually lowered his voice and discussed his passion for preaching more intimately.
Smock says he was not always an Evangelist. While studying in college he identified as an atheist and a socialist and was involved with the radical drug movements of the 1960s. He gained his faith while living on a hippie commune in Africa, where he began reading the Bible, he says.
“In 1972, an Arab carrying a cross marched into the midst of our hippie den, planted the cross in the sand and began to preach,” Smock says. “His English was so broken that I had difficulty understanding what he was saying, but the symbolism is what impressed me.”
I asked him whether that story was not one he created to aid in converting college students who may live similar lifestyles. No, he says, that reawakening began his lifelong religious studies, as well as his eventual conversion to Evangelism. He now devotes his life to preaching on college campuses throughout the country. He begins his campus tour at the University of Florida, and then on to Louisiana State, all throughout Texas, onto UA, then stops at ASU, and then continues on through California.
He is funded to tour this way through donations, though he did not specify the identities of his donors.
Smock says students’ reactions toward his preaching vary.
“Many mock, others want to hear more on the matter, and even occasionally, we get some who believe,” Smock says.
He says his right to freedom of speech has always been honored at ASU.
“I’m a firm believer in the First Amendment, of course,” Smock says. “There are limitations. You can’t scream fire in a theater.”
Gabe Berry, a music composition sophomore, says he sees people preaching around campus about once a week.
He says he generally reacts to the preachers with laughter and tries to joke with them.
“I understand how really pointless it is to yell at a guy whose opinion you’re not going to change,” Berry says.
He says he believes the campus preachers have as much a right to their opinions as he has to his own.
Photo by Shawn Raymundo
“He has every right to tell us that my children are going to burn in Hell,” he says. “But I have every right myself to say otherwise and say, ‘You know what? That’s abuse that you’re telling my child to burn in Hell.’”
Berry say he would not spit at someone for his or her ideas, no matter how much he disagrees, but would react respectfully.
“I support you saying whatever crazy thing you want, as long as you don’t mind me saying whatever clever rebuttal I need,” Berry says.
Elizabeth Holden, a secondary English education junior, says she doesn’t think anyone can ever change the minds of the campus preachers, but that she finds them humorous.
“Most of these people go against everything they say,” Holden says. “It’s humorous to see how they change their mind about everything. They’ll say something one moment, and then they’ll say something completely different.”
She says the preachers are protected by freedom of speech, but that they should have to register with ASU to be able to preach on campus.
“They should have to go through the school because it’s almost as if the school doesn’t know about these people, and yet we all do,” Holden says. “It’s sort of like an underground thing.”
For those offended enough to take out his or her aggression on campus preachers by pelting them with eggs or otherwise, know that ASU’s freedom of speech policy clearly reads, “ASU is also strongly committed to academic freedom and free speech. Respect for these rights requires that it tolerate expressions of opinion that differ from its own or that it may find abhorrent."
Lastly, the policy states that harassment is a violation of the rights of any individual on any ASU property or any University-affiliated activity.
Rather than resorting to violence against ideas we may find “abhorrent,” which are equally protected under the First Amendment, maybe we can utilize peaceful discussion as another facet of our education and hone our critical thinking skills.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @kaharli