For less than one week every year, Tech students go to great lengths to avoid South Patio (now Centennial Plaza). We glimpse the large crowd clustered around a central figure and turn in the other direction, deciding to take the scenic route to our next class. We hear a voice blasting through a megaphone, and we close our ears to avoid hearing something we may wish to forget. We shudder as we recognize the public demonstrators have come again to inhabit the heart of campus.
Since before my freshman year, these outspoken religious speakers have been paying annual visits to Tennessee Tech’s campus, and to be frank, I am rather tired of it. Now I profess to be a Christian, but I do not agree with their methods of evangelism. I have been taught to love those whose beliefs differ from mine. Respect and kindness are a much better representation of your belief system than contempt and superciliousness. Yet these public figures seem to work tirelessly to damage the reputation of Christianity in the few short days they are here.
The banners they carry leave no doubts as to their message: Ask me why you are going to hell. Etc.etc. They call out to passersby as they hurry to class, labeling perfect strangers simply by appearance. In general, they drive the public away. The only people bold enough to linger nearby the speakers seem to be either intent on engaging in verbal combat or curious to watch the aforementioned debate. This is the sum of their effect on campus; either you rush away with your head down and avoid eye contact or you openly confront them and “stir up the pot.”
And then there are the rumors surrounding these traveling evangelists. Some say they have been diligent in their demonstrations for years because they are attempting to goad the campus public into physical violence. This line of gossip claims they are looking for an excuse to sue the university and collect financial compensation. According to one rumor, they once did sue Tennessee Tech after being relocated to a more remote corner of the campus. They claimed this impeded their freedom of speech. Apparently, Tech wrote them a check for $1 and moved their location to the more central South Patio location. A more heartwarming tale describes one Greek organization forming a giant air hug around the speaker. As one faculty member stated, “If anyone needs a hug, it’s those guys.”
Now, I do not know if any of those tales are true. Whatever rumors you choose to believe, the fact remains that these activists are legally permitted to demonstrate on a public college campus. According to university policy, their freedom of expression allows them to share their message as long as any controversial stance is clearly stated on any advertising and they are located in an area that would allow attendance to be completely voluntary. While I can guarantee that avoiding Centennial Plaza is about as inconvenient as taking the back roads home from a Nashville shopping trip, it is possible to avoid the commotion if you so desire. These speakers are technically acting within their civil rights; so what is the harm in their presence?
I can only speak for myself. I don’t know how other Christians feel about the group, but I know that I don’t approve of them nor do I agree completely with them. They preach judgment and tough love. Sometimes tough love is good, but it sure doesn’t work without the love part. The God I know doesn’t walk around in a T-shirt saying, “Ask me why you are going to hell.” Ever heard of catching flies with vinegar? Yeah, me neither.
Speaking as one who seeks a career in Public Relations, these people have some serious PR issues. A college campus as diverse and multicultural as ours is bound to host groups which did not grow up steeped in America’s Bible Belt, and I hate to think of them graduating from our university with these Bible Bangers as their primary impression of Christianity in the South.
As a Christian, I believe I am supposed to be an ambassador for my faith. If these spokespeople were representing my country, I would demote them in a heartbeat. No, we cannot banish them from campus. But perhaps we can counter their destructive tactics. Maybe we can show them what real love looks like. What would happen if we bought these people a couple of pumpkin spice lattes? After all, what is love if not a pumpkin spice latte? Humor me. Could we truly witness change by simple acts of kindness? Now for the million-dollar question: would anyone be bold enough to be kind?