By Matt Enloe
Friday October 10th, Shawn the Baptist and Keith Darrell visited my campus, Oregon State University. We’re no stranger to the ways of the street preachers, but having them visit is never anything short of an ordeal. There are a hundred different ways to react to the situation, and the tensions are usually high. Much like the issue of religion itself, everyone seems to have an opinion about how to deal with them.
Many students on campus share the idea that the best way to deal with these kinds of situations is to simply ignore them – that a lack of attention will keep the preachers from coming back. However, these people are paid to make these visits and their preaching is as sponsored as the Red Bull car or Yik Yak mascot. Even though they’re not as well-received as other ventures, they’re going to keep coming back. So if ignoring them doesn’t do what it claims to, what are we left to do? How should we respond to this disturbance of our daily life?
Well, we can play our pragmatist and community organizing cards. If we have a situation that’s unavoidable, we can change the frame of it and make sure the hateful language isn’t the only thing being heard. These things take preparation, though – it’s much harder to get an opposing group (or groups) organized if you can’t see the problem coming ahead of time. Per a request that I had made of him last time he visited, Shawn emailed me to let me know they were coming. Optimally, I would have liked to organize the spiritual life groups on campus to all table in the MU Quad so we could vastly outnumber him and keep the attention of the students on positive messages. I only had three days’ notice though, so I had to act quickly. Again, the key here is to work with what you’ve got, not to give up.
To make sure that there would be a peaceful, nonviolent resistance to the street preachers, I emailed our spiritual-life listserv with information about their visiting and my advice on how to interact with them. I also urged them to send representatives from their clubs and organizations if possible, and I personally texted my contact within CRU (Campus Crusade for Christ) to make sure they had someone there as well. This creates an interfaith opportunity for clubs to show that they respect the diversity of opinions and validate everyone present – the Christians who agree with the preachers, the Christians who don’t, members of other religions who often don’t have representation, and of course secularly-identifying individuals. Part of creating a positive image for people who are openly secular is showing that (contrary to some media depictions) we don’t hate religious individuals at all – we are in fact committed to doing our part to providing safe and fair discussion environments.
So the faith groups sent their representatives, I brought my club (Advocates for Freethought and Skepticism – our campus affiliate of the Secular Student Alliance), and we had a brief huddle about everybody’s plans. Humans vs Zombies even showed up with great “Free Hugs” signs! We all had a primary goal of paying attention to distraught students so we could offer them comfort and advice. We even cross-promoted, referring people looking for a certain experience to the appropriate group. I made custom “Shawn the Baptist Preacher Bingo” cards with candy for anyone who got a bingo. I showed them to Shawn before we got started and he loved them! He even kept one to take home and asked me to explain what some of the fallacies listed on it were.
Street preachers come to spread their message, and to do this they have their own end goal – a crowd. Whenever they visit, I have a quick conversation and explain that if they can promise to avoid targeting individuals and lean towards civility over violence, I’ll help them make their message more effective and get a bigger crowd. After all, if their message is as ridiculous as we think it is, even when peaceful it won’t be an issue – what we’re trying to avoid is violence and students being picked out for hateful accusations. Shawn has visited OSU before and I’ve had that conversation with him; he was actually rather decent, and I was pleasantly surprised. Keith, though, was new to our scene and opened the day with a colorful tirade of shouting and decrying what he believes to be the standard behavior of college students.
I arrived as Keith was about to use his twisted understanding of logic to attempt to legitimize racism and homophobia. When he said “discrimination is necessary” was when I started recording, and he said it again shortly into the conversation. I saw this going nowhere quickly and redirected his commentary to a discourse about his understanding of logic and God in general. True to form, after about 2 minutes he compared me to ISIS. I’ll give him points for being up on popular culture, and I don’t mind having those attacks hurled against me because I’m experienced with them. However, that sort of personal attack is not one that I am okay with being made against others. This was the point at which I introduced myself and explained my position.
Many of us forget that street preachers are still people. If we humanize them, we force them to also see us as humans. I pointed out that the combination of his method and his message – importantly, either can be acceptable on their own – could be causing harm to students. It took a while to get this across to him, but shortly after I stopped recording Shawn tagged him out and I had a quite side conversation with him. Here’s the part you might find amazing – he listened to me and thanked me for the advice!
At the end of the day, the environment was peaceful. A few students were left listening to Shawn as he spoke in lower and less aggressive styles with more positive messages. A few spoke to me and people from my club to thank us for what we did. Some of the faith group representatives also came to thank me for letting them know that the street preachers were visiting, and for being such a great leader in organizing a response. I gave away over 200 bingo cards and got back over 30 with filled-out bingos – even more students asked to keep the cards for themselves. I even got to teach a bit of philosophy by explaining the fallacies.
So, not only can we change the environment by creating our own setting rather than allowing the preachers to do it for us, but we can actually intervene and change the way that they communicate simply by recognizing and acting on the fact that they are people too. Handling any negative scenario on campus is about building community and setting up positive alternatives – but what we can do as well is work to turn those negative scenarios into positive ones. If we resign ourselves to the idea that we can’t or shouldn’t interact with street preachers or other bad actors, we allow the problem to continue at best. At worst, we allow it to grow by giving them the power. Interacting with our communities and the people who stand to threaten them can let us take the power back and change the mood completely. What we can learn from street preachers is that they are opportunities to bring people together, not to tear them apart. If you’re faced with a similar situation in the future, be it street preachers or otherwise, I would encourage you to be the one to stand up and take action. I know it can be intimidating, but you can make a real difference in your community, and with your help things can get better.
Matt Enloe is a student at Oregon State University.