The power of Christ compels you
by Ethan Cutler; photos by Charles Meyer
On October 26th, 2015, four members of The Campus Ministry USA stood on the sidewalk in the middle of Colorado College, waving Bibles and loudly informing students that—and I quote: "YOU'RE ALL GOIN' TO HELL." If you weren't there and you didn't have the privilege of being reminded that even your shorts are a sin, maybe a description of the cast will jog your memory: There was Brother Jed, who wore an unforgettable combination of cowboy hat, spiffy tan suit, and a wooden staff depicting Christ’s crucifixion. Then there was Jed’s younger and louder fellow preacher named Joshua (Jed told me he’s “sort of an intern”). Joshua donned a tux and usually carried a sign that said “JESUS SAVES.” Kiersten, also somewhat young, waved a skull with a gay pride flag wrapped around it. When someone asked, "what does it mean?" She said, "Honey, it means the forecast ain't looking too hot for the gays." Of course, the show would have been woefully incomplete without Cindy. She’s also known as “The Bloody Tampon Lady”—an appropriate epithet, considering her habit of waving around bloody tampons while preaching (see above).
All this weirdness is not, however, as unusual as it seems. The Campus Ministry USA (CMUSA) has been coming to Colorado College once every year for about a decade. In fact, CMUSA travels to hundreds of college campuses every year. Brother Jed, who leads the ministry, has been practicing what he calls “confrontational evangelism” since the ‘70s. The earliest accounts I’ve found describe Jed at large universities in the South, where he would be best received. Jed told me he started as a full-time college campus preacher in 1974. He first encountered confrontational evangelism while studying religion in Morocco in his twenties, when he was "actually planning on going to India to become Hindu." One day, a Moroccan preacher came up to him and his friends while they were “reveling” and, unprompted, began to preach the word of Christ to Jed. Though he was raised by Methodist parents, it was only then that Jed realized he had never truly been listening to the word of God. Jed flew back to the United States and within a few years he had founded the CMUSA.
Since then, he’s become infamous among professors, students, and other evangelists. There is even some folklore about Jed (whose real name is George) and his followers. At The University of Florida, Jed is said to have met the woman now known as Sister Cindy. According to the story as recounted by Jed, Cindy was a self-proclaimed “evil disco queen” sent to interview Jed for the school’s newspaper. But before she could finish her interview, she was converted on her knees in a restaurant parking lot across the street from campus. A few years later, Cindy and Jed were married. They now have five daughters who occasionally accompany them on their preaching excursions.
Last year there was even an attempt to make a reality TV show about Jed and his family. In the first and only episode, when Jed’s daughter’s car breaks down, Jed’s disciple Mikhail steps in to fix the car because, as Jed says, “you girls don’t know anything about cars.” It turns out that the car is unfixable, so Jed tries to buy a car from his neighbor. In what came as a huge surprise to Jed, the neighbor refuses to sell him the car because, as the neighbor says to the cameraman, “Jed called my daughter a whore.” Mikhail tries to buy the car now, using Russian to bond with the neighbor. In the end, he wins both the car for Jed’s daughter and Jed’s deep affection. While all this is going on, Priscillia (another daughter) brings an atheist (!!) to dinner. Jed swiftly denies this filthy atheist’s attempt to court his daughter, but, in an act of tremendous Christian charity, allows their strictly platonic friendship to continue.
The beliefs that hold Jed and his followers together are numerous and obscure. Brother Jed himself holds a view called “sinless perfection.” That is, he believes that he is entirely free of sin. This is a view that hasn't popular since the time of Pelagius, a monk living in the fourth century. Pelagius' views, sinless perfection included, have been widely renounced by virtually all Christians since the Protestant Reformation. Jed rapid-fire told me the names of lots of his other beliefs, many of which sound like standard evangelical talking points taken to their logical extremes. For example, "the short-shorts, the way the girls wear them now is not alright. It's gonna send them to hell faster than they could put on a pair of pants."
During this most recent visit, a few CC students sat down at the feet of these preachers. On some large pieces of paper the students wrote snippets of the Bible that espouse love and acceptance. The students sometimes stood up to shout at the preachers, insisting they were misrepresenting Christianity. John Williams ‘19 was the first that day to challenge the CMUSA in a sustained manner. He stood right in front of the preachers and began counter-preaching. John soon attracted a group of students who sat with him in protest. After almost three hours of both students and CMUSA members rotating preachers and fighting for crowds, voices were hoarse and rain began to fall from a sunny sky (that was the part of the day that felt most religious). In a drizzle, the already dwindling crowd dispersed. It was just me, John Williams, and three angry evangelicals preaching at no one. A few minutes later, the Campus Ministry preachers packed up their “God Hates You” signs and left CC. They had been shouting, waving and exhorting for almost four hours.
Every time the Campus Ministry (or another fanatic of some sort) comes to CC, students react in one of four ways: ignore them entirely, get angry, laugh at them, or try to have a conversation with them.
I’ve been asking myself how I should be interacting with people like the Campus Ministry. On the CMUSA’s most recent visit, I tried all of the above responses, laughing and jeering included. I began by joining the crowd, lobbing a few attempts at a witty insult and laughing hysterically when someone waved a crudely drawn penis around in a preacher’s face. Eventually, I started to think all this was just a way of giving the CMUSA the attention they want. Lykkefry Bonde ‘17, who stopped by the scene, put it aptly: “We shouldn’t turn a one-way street of ignorance and hatred into a two-way street. That’s what happens when we just shout and laugh at them in return.”
I was bored anyway, so I wandered off to do some homework that the CMUSA would surely have found heretical. But it felt wrong to just ignore people who were literally screaming at students, calling them whores and sinners. Once I worked up the resolve to sit down and talk to the CMUSA’s members, I was surprised, horrified and touched. I’m not certain that my approach proved to be any better than ignoring them entirely, but at least I tried.
My first conversation was with Joshua (the young tuxedoed guy). After some small talk, we started to get serious. When I asked what he thinks of gay people, he perked up and cheerily said, “I say I love gays! Just not in a gay way. But my love is a hopeful love. We all have to change to go to heaven. The drunkard has to stop getting drunk. The homosexual has to stop being a homosexual.” This seemed practiced.
“Do you hate anyone?”
“I hate the gays’ character, in the same way that you hate the pedophile’s character, the murderer’s character. I hate their character, but I’m loving in that I want the best for them. So I hate them and love them at the same time.”
“But aren’t they their characters?”
“Yes, that’s a good question. That’s a good point. Because Psalms 5:5 says, ‘God hates all workers of iniquity.’ So God doesn’t really separate the character from the person. The common saying in Christianity is ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’ But that’s nowhere found in the Bible. Yes, so God hates the character. He’s not going to throw the sin into Hell. He’s going to throw the sinner into Hell.”
I felt like an idiot once Josh was forced to inhale and give me a moment to think. What did I expect to get out of this conversation with Joshua besides a personally tailored version of what he had just been shouting? He was parroting the same trope I’d heard him shout emphatically just five minutes ago, his eyes glazed over the whole time. The removed certainty made it sound almost like he was reading from a teleprompter or something. And the content revealed the kind of hatred that's usually taught at a very young age. So I asked if his parents are Christian.
“Yes” he said, “my dad was involved in the pro-life movement. Operation Rescue. My dad’s probably more radical than I am.”
Joshua went on to tell me about how his parents had influenced him. It soon became clear that they heavily shaped his religious, moral, and social views. He still works for his dad’s company part-time. I started looking at him differently. The hatred that he radiated no longer seemed like his own. Maybe it was what he’d been taught, so it was what he was preaching.
This got me thinking. I started to think that the people who spread hatred on our campus are not evil. They are products of their environments, just like we are products of ours. Our beliefs are often in line with those of our parents and our peers. Often, we haven’t crafted our own ideologies much more than the CMUSA members have crafted theirs. Just like Joshua’s parents and peers shaped his beliefs, your peers probably shaped yours. So who are we to shout hatred in response to their hatred, knowing that they are only preaching what they’ve been taught? I’m not saying we should give the CMUSA members a free pass, but we might at least separate the people from the ideas they hold. The CMUSA members are, after all, not just physical embodiments of the beliefs they were brought up with.
David McRaney, author and psychologist, has much to say on how we end up unwilling to hear the other side: “Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. When someone tries to correct you, it backfires and strengthens those misconceptions instead.” Certainly, the CMUSA is guilty of this sort of thinking. But couldn’t CC students too be guilty of the backfire effect?
Later in the day, I talked to a CMUSA member named Kierstan. I asked Kierstan what her objective is in coming to CC and other college campuses. She echoed an answer Jed had given me earlier: “to change people’s minds and hearts.” I asked Kierstan if she thought they had actually changed anyone’s mind.
“Yes, maybe a few. But in general, no. These people are never going to change their minds. They will never see God, probably.”
“It’s sad when people are so entrenched in beliefs that they can’t change their minds.”
Kiersten nodded, “Yes, it is.” After a moment of silence she said, “I’ve been thinking about this a lot, actually. This really gets me thinking.”
I was ecstatic when she paused to think. I felt like we were breaking through the divide. I decided to take a chance. I asked, “Do you think someone could ever change your mind about what you believe?”
“Um, if I wanted them to. If I was open to it. But I’ve already found the truth, so I’m not seeking the truth because I’ve already found it.”
“So, you’re not open to changing your mind about things?”
“Yeah, I’m not open to changing my mind about things because I’ve already found what I’m looking for.”
I presented a situation for Kiersten: “What if someone else believes, like you believe, that she’s found what she’s been looking for, but really she hasn’t? Wouldn’t that person be in the same position as you are?”
“Yeah, that is a hard situation. I’ve been thinking about that as well.”
I rephrased the question to try to get a real answer. I asked about other religions, specifically. She said, “So, let’s take Islam—that religion is based off of fear and not love.”
The rest of her response was no more relevant to the question. Kiersten avoided my question entirely and ranted about Islam instead. I left soon after, again feeling like talking to the CMUSA was no more productive than ignoring them. I had learned a lot by talking to them, but I didn’t really learn anything from them. But I saw one more person I hadn’t interviewed. I marched over determined to change this guy’s mind about something.
Solomon, I found out, is not affiliated with the CMUSA, but they preach at his church in Colorado Springs, and he wanted to come to CC with them to support them. He’s a burly, intimidating guy at first sight. His shaved head and goatee don’t make him any more approachable. But Solomon, who I expected to lambast me about my agnosticism, revealed far more empathy and kindness than I’ve seen in years.
I started out by asking why he came out to CC. He paused for a few seconds before answering: “I just come out here to proclaim Christ. And to share what Christ has done in my life…You know, about four and a half years ago I was living my own life. You know what’s crazy? I used to come out here and I used to party with some guys I knew out here. I used to sell cocaine. I used to party out there with the frats and stuff. I used to live my life just for me.”
He seemed to be waiting for me to say something, so I asked what changed.
“Then God found me. I was…my life was a mess. I was in and out of jail. I didn’t have any thought of God in my life. It was just me. Sex, drugs, making money—that’s just what it was about. I was a loser. That’s the way I look at it.”
He looked at his nephew, who came with him to CC, and started shaking his head, visibly mad at himself. “I was raised with my grandmother always telling me about how Jesus is coming and you’re gonna go to Hell. But it didn’t really bother me. I was just like, ‘So I’m going to Hell, whatever.’ And I’m not saying Christianity is even right, but you can’t just ignore the ideas. That’s what I did. I didn’t even really try to hear.”
“But eventually you did?”
“Yeah, and I ended up getting saved. I heard the gospel. Jesus said you gotta be born again. Something just spoke to me—told me it was true. And it’s funny, I started going to church back then for the wrong reasons. I was going because of this cute girl. I was thinking, ‘Yeah I’m moving my status up. I’ve got a church girl now.’ But God took a hold of me in there. I started going for the right reasons. And guess what, that church girl is my wife now. In about the three and half years I’ve been serving God, I was transformed. God set me free from addictions, from [drug] dealing, from sleeping around with women. Only God could do that, bro. I couldn’t do that.”
“You don’t think it’s possible for someone to do that without God?”
“Yeah, somebody could do it. But I needed God.”
He continued, “It wasn’t about religion. Religion couldn’t change me. Church couldn’t change me. It was having that encounter with the Lord…And when you come to the realization that Jesus loves you, you see that everyone carries a burden with them. And you come to see that everyone needs to be understood. I’m telling you, man, I see the value of straight up kindness like I never did before. That’s what the experience with God is about.”
Solomon shocked me into what now seems obvious: religion is only what you make it. You can contort Christianity to a doctrine of hatred and exclusion, or you can cherry-pick it for the bits that espouse love and acceptance. Religion doesn’t create hatred—it reflects hatred. And the same goes for kindness.
But leaving religion aside, Solomon said something profound there: “everyone carries a burden with them.” He spoke that sentence with quiet passion, stressing, “everyone.” He was telling me all this just as Joshua shouted something that must have been particularly offensive, because the crowd began screaming and booing ferociously. I could hardly hear what Solomon was saying.