U beware! Brother Jed is returning

Funny, the long term forecast indicates partly sunny skies with a chance of showers for the next few months. But even a half-baked prophet can see it raining hellfire and brimstone at the University of Minnesota. Even though your calendar says it’s spring, just as the arrival of robins signal the beginning of the season, so does the return of the Northrop Mall preachers.
For those first-year students who have not yet been condemned by a wild network of Midwestern campus fundamentalists, get ready. Regardless of your religious beliefs, these guys — there’s a woman, Sister Pat, making the rounds too — are going to raise a huge ruckus while you’re on your way to class. They do it every year once it’s warm enough and there are enough people out and about to attract a crowd.
Most students would reasonably say that the campus would be better off without this annual migration. Yet, in making such assertions, we must face up to the reality that this contradicts every principle of the First Amendment. At the very least, these guys and their detractors provide a daily supply of humor. Responding to them with shouts and jeers doesn’t solve anything; it simply makes you look like an idiot.
What this amounts to, whether you like it or not, includes both guaranteed exposure to how the First Amendment, of course, provides for plenty healthy debates, but also for some far flung discussions that belong in a comedy of the absurd. Impassioned pleas for repentance are going to solicit a hell of a lot of hate and, in running the risk of sounding a little blasphemous, I’ll play the prophet and predict that the kind of brimstone we’re going to see is really just fighting fire with fire.
Jason Malacko, a member of Maranatha Christian Fellowship, a registered student group whose members adhere to a strict interpretation of the Bible, is prepared to meet the legal and doctrinal challenges. He plans to minister on the Mall this quarter, just as he has done in past years. He believes that he and other preachers are bound to attract students that will resist their teachings.
However, Malacko adds, “Many students will come to hear biblical Christianity preached.” In doing so, he says they’ll be getting something other than the “watered down” kinds of doctrine that is common both on and off campus.
Some of the preachers will milk extreme interpretations of the Good Book for all they are worth. Past revelations have included “You dirty little masturbators: God is watching you!” “Women in skirts are whores and witches!” “Earring wearers and all fags are condemned to hell!” and not so coincidentally — the credo that binds all of the preachers together — “Jesus loves you!”
Christians and non-Christians alike have voiced concerns over the abrasive methods that the preachers use. Yet nearly everyone concedes that they are within the boundaries of the First Amendment. Because the University has been built on a land grant, which is public property, the Mall is a free-for-all space, a public forum.
Therefore, the only legal responses students have include ignoring the messages, listening to them, or as some have attempted, arguing against them. In past confrontations, such reactions have run along the lines of: “No, you’re going to hell, you hate-mongering fascist!” “This is a free thinking University; we don’t want your kind here!” Or the usual, “Just shut up, you stupid S.O.B.!”
Both presentations of doctrine and student reactions have subsequently had little to do with the stuff that an educated discussion of any topic is ever made.
Malacko says that he hasn’t ever been able to prepare for the reactions of students, but in the past he has seen “knee jerk reactions, the same old arguments over and over again.” One such argument asks: “If your God is so big, then why doesn’t he come down right now and move that rock?”
At this point, when students and preachers issue the most ridiculous challenges and threats to each other, any kind of rational discussion will break down over and over again.
An incident from May 1994 shows the breakdown of reason that can occur. Preacher Paul Stamm was arrested for disorderly conduct while voicing opinions that some found disruptive and inflammatory. Supporters of First Amendment rights, even those who disagreed with Stamm the most, were appalled by the arrest.
The charges against Stamm were thrown out by a local judge, but only after he gained a martyr-like status that continues to today. It has made subsequent attempts to discuss doctrines and legal rights on a common ground all the more difficult. Opponents of hatred must look for rational solutions beyond police interference.
Of course, alternatives to this Jerry-Springer-like freak show do exist. Jeff Ballantyne, campus pastor for Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship has been in the ministry for 10 years. He does not endorse the methods of the mall preachers and insists, “People need to be respected. Some of the preachers have attracted a crowd, but they aren’t very effective in conveying the truth.”
Ballantyne says he’s encouraged by signs that “there is a climate of spirituality on campuses around the country in which people are more open to discussion.” It’s the kind of climate many mainstream Christians believe should be appreciated — and not abused — by ministers wishing to present Christian doctrine.
However, Malacko suggests that students need to realize that the kinds of statements which some people have taken offense to are more or less “sound bites” and don’t necessarily reflect the beliefs of all Christians. Such teachings, he says, are “ultimately for show” and have proved most useful in simply attracting more listeners.
Malacko emphasizes that even though he hasn’t necessarily agreed with the teachings of some of the preachers, they agree on the core doctrine of Christ leading to salvation. Strip away the rough packaging of the message, we’re told, and students will find teachings of love and forgiveness.
Ballantyne disagrees, however, maintaining that reaching students with Biblical messages is done most effectively by “looking to see if they’re open and responsive to the message.” He asks permission before ministering to students. If they’re not interested in the message, he treats them with respect, regardless.
Obviously, finding reconciliation between interests in keeping the campus both peaceful and free is no piece of cake. But if this spring quarter is going to be any different from those of the past, mall veterans — especially students who are the greatest believers in free speech — need to go out of their way to present real responses to the most offensive statements we are going to hear.
Mall preachers, meanwhile, need to be reminded that the only success they’ll really obtain in developing a crowd of listeners — and presumably converts — is through reaching out with substance that their audiences can embrace instead of spitting back hatred. Otherwise, the notion of the Gospel as “Good News” is going to turn into a sad, campus wide joke of springtime.
Instead of taking the time to make a stink over an annual right of spring — one that’s already messy — students and the mall preachers will have to review a lesson we should have learned in kindergarten, to simply respect each other. The University environment might be less confrontational with such an understanding. And unless someone rewrites the Constitution, whether we like it or not, the preachers will be here to stay.

— Greg Borchard’s column appears every Thursday. He can be reached with comments via e-mail at [email protected]