Inside Higher Ed: Answering an uninvited preacher

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

November 1, 2010

At many campuses, the visits of itinerant preachers infuriate some students, while others are entertained or perhaps inspired. These preachers generally set themselves up somewhere central on a campus and shout their views to passers-by, typically attracting crowds with fire-and-brimstone theology. At many campuses, these appearances are known for the anti-gay rhetoric of the preachers. While private colleges have the legal latitude to regulate who may preach on their campuses, public colleges do not, and those that try to keep these preachers off campuses have frequently been reprimanded by the federal courts.

At Minnesota State University at Mankato this autumn, a preacher who periodically appears there has set off a debate over the appropriate way to respond to speech that some find offensive – but no one has tried to keep the preacher off campus.

Rather, students followed his most recent visit to the campus by going to the service at which he preaches on Sundays (at a YMCA), where they walked to the front of the room and held up signs with the names and photographs of gay youth who have killed themselves this year after bullying incidents. While the students and their supporters say that they have found a way to stand up to the preacher without violating the First Amendment, the preacher is accusing a professor who advised the students of engaging in anti-Christian activity – and those statements have left the professor facing a barrage of hate e-mail messages.

Despite that, the professor said he would gladly help them again. And he said that it is important for colleges and universities that, for good reason, cannot bar someone from campus to still answer anti-gay rhetoric in some way.

“The answer to speech you don’t like isn’t to suppress it. The remedy is to speak back,” said James P. Dimock, associate professor of communications at Mankato State. “That is what those kids did and why I am proud of them. They could have gone to the university administration and fought to keep this guy off campus – a fight they would probably have lost. But instead they answered speech with speech. I support what they did 100 per cent and I think that they should be a model for how people should respond to these preachers everywhere.”

The visiting preacher in question is Rev. John Chisham, known as “John the Baptist”, of the River of Life Alliance Church. He appears not just at Mankato State, but at other colleges and universities in Minnesota. Students describe his campus diatribes as rude and hurtful, especially in his comments about gay people facing eternity in hell, and in his comments on women’s clothing. Students say he tells women dressed in typical college attire that they are dressed like prostitutes.

Chisham said in an interview that when he goes to campuses, he does not want to single out gay people in any way and that he thinks many people are facing eternity in hell, not just gay people. But he said that students inevitably ask about his views on gay people, and that he answers that “homosexual relations are a sin” and that anyone who engages in gay sex will go to hell unless the person repents and receives God’s help. This doesn’t mean, however, that he is anti-gay, he said. “I have dear homosexual friends. I believe if they die with their sins, they are going to go to hell,” he said, but that fate can be avoided, and that’s why he preaches.

“With God’s help, it’s possible. God has to give them a new heart,” he said. “It’s like with an alcoholic or an adulterous man or woman. They need new hearts,” he said, and with a new heart from God, a gay person can stop being gay. He said that because he and other Christians love gay people and want to help them find God and not be gay, it is wrong to come to his church and link his preaching to the suicides of gay youth. “The only bullies in my church were the people holding signs,” he said.

In his campus appearances, Chisham repeatedly invites students to attend his services. And those who went to his service to protest relied on that “invitation” to get into the service.

But Chisham said that was unfair. “If a professor said ‘Why don’t you come and attend my class?’ I would take that to mean I’m going to go into the class and sit, and listen respectfully, and I would expect the same kind of decorum.” (Both Chisham and those who protested agree that although the students held signs in front of the room, making it impossible for the congregation members to see their pastor without seeing images of gay youth who have killed themselves, the protest was a silent one and did not stop the prayers or any other part of the service.)

Chisham said he has filed a complaint with the university, asking it to impose sanctions on Dimock who attended the service with the students. But Chisham said he does not believe the professor is being punished. “I think there should be sanctions,” he said, “unless Mankato State doesn’t mind being associated with someone disrupting a service of worship.”

Tara Mitchell, a sophomore studying gender and women’s studies at Mankato, said that she was inspired to organise the protest after hearing Chisham on his most recent campus visit. Mitchell, a lesbian who is involved in gay rights advocacy at the university, said that “he was saying nasty things” about gay people “going to hell” and that he was verbally attacking women who were dressed in ways he thought inappropriate.

She said the idea of the protest was that “if he can come to our campus, we should be able to go to his church”.

Mitchell also said that there is a link between rhetoric about gay people going to hell and the rash of suicides. “He preaches this message, which is hatred of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, children hear that message and are told it is correct, they go to school and see a gay kid and they say hateful things to young gay kids.”

If Chisham comes back to Mankato, Mitchell said, she will organise more students to go back to his service. “I will be there for every moment he is here,” she said. (For his part, Chisham said he “absolutely” plans to go back to campus.)

Dimock said he was motivated to get involved after he had two students – both in tears – visit his office after a previous campus visit by Chisham. One student was gay and struggling with his sexuality. The other was a Christian, who was struggling with realising that she had been raised to believe gay people were bad, and that she was now meeting some and finding “that they are not evil”. Dimock said he is concerned that the recent press coverage of the way many young gay people are treated is suggesting that this autumn is somehow unusual in the number of suicides. “The anomaly is the press coverage,” he said. “People have been dying.”

For Dimock, whose research and teaching focus in part on activism, advising the protesters was something he was happy to do. He said that he strongly supports Mankato State’s policy of allowing people such as Chisham to speak on campus. But he said he loved the idea of the students “giving him a taste of his own medicine”.

The students involved were gay or gay rights’ supporters, and although Dimock has received many email messages that accuse him of being gay or anti-Christian, he said that he’s in fact straight, married to a woman, and a Sunday school teacher at the Lutheran church he attends. As a scholar who has studied protest movements and First Amendment rights, Dimock said he realises that a church has a right to kick people out in a way that a public university does not. But he noted that the church’s leaders never asked the student protesters to leave, that Chisham had made a point of inviting them to his services and that the students did not try to speak during the service.

Some websites that support Chisham have reported on the dispute online, with headlines such as this one on World Net Daily: “Prof, protesters punish pastor for speaking on campus”. With this type of coverage, emails have come in from everywhere, Dimock said. “Most of my friends would consider it an honour to be hated by World Net Daily, but psychologically, it is disturbing that every time you open your inbox, you get email from people who really really hate you, or from telling you that you will burn in hell with sodomites.”

Dimock said he doesn’t respond to the emails, but he was tempted with one message. Someone wrote to him saying “if you think gays are so weak, you should teach them to stand up for themselves”. He said that when gay students went peacefully into Chisham’s church, “that’s exactly what they were doing”.

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