Friday, February 19, 2010

Extra! Extra! University Invaded by Insane Evangelist!

Every year this guy shows up. Every year, I can't help but hang around with the crowd watching him. He's hilarious. This year, I recorded my experiences. (The last two entries were written after the fact, and are much less detailed.)
Day 1
I couldn’t get here until 2:30 in the afternoon. The sun is already lower in the sky, and the afternoon light has a golden quality. The crowd in front of the Evangelist is small, at least in relation to crowds I have seen before. But it’s just Monday. So far, I have learned that designer jeans and red bras are a problem. And that the Evangelist was a repressed loner in high school. That’s a blatant judgment call on my part, but I think it fits.
Already, students have mustered a variety of protests. There are the Pride Alliance angels, of course – four of them this afternoon – but they are not alone. One undergraduate boy with shoulder-length dirty blond hair walks among the crowd, carrying a large poster depicting a pair of girls in each others’ arms. It is not an obscene picture in any sense of the word, but it is clear what is going on. A little ways off, several students have set up a table with a sign saying, “Ask an Atheist.” And of course, the usual gaggle of obnoxious (and proud of it) youth cluster close in, cheering or gasping where appropriate in mock reverence. Several convince the Evangelist to pose in a picture with them before running off to class.
More interesting, and something I had not noticed in previous years, is the heated theological debate taking place on the margins of the crowd. A group of young men try to explain to each other their own ideas of what is “sin” and what is not. I hear occasional raised voices, but there is too much background noise for me to hear clearly what they are saying. In this sense, then, the Evangelist is having a positive effect: Despite being opposed to intellectual inquiry in all forms, he is sparking an informed philosophical debate.
The Evangelist has started in on homosexuality. He becomes less coherent on this topic, yelling words with which he is clearly uncomfortable loudly but not crisply. Despite this change in rhetoric (or perhaps because of it), the crowd has noticeably thinned. Or perhaps, the crowd has thinned because a new hour has started and people have class, while the people coming out of class are not yet hooked. It takes time for word to spread about campus that this clot of people on the mall is something amusing, not simply people behaving strangely. (OK, it is, but it’s still funny.)
A few try, predictably, to engage the Evangelist in real debate. The Evangelist states that his authority on what God thinks and feels comes because he is filled with the Holy Ghost. I have always thought such rhetoric expressed repressed sexuality; no matter. The students are skeptical.

Day Two
Today, when I arrive, the Evangelist is telling a story about the debauchery of Greek life. Which, of course, we knew. Today, a pair of large undergraduate boys are standing with him, embellishing his statements, mockingly. The Evangelist is annoyed, and ducks away when one tries to hug him. Some frat boys take offense.
The crowd is larger today, and more rambunctious. Word is spreading. The atheist table is closer in. Pride Alliance has set up a bulletin board entitled “Free Speech” that invites passersby to write out what they think. However, they only have three angels out today.
Yesterday, before I left, I ended up in one of the fringe conversations. It is remarkable to me how very calm these people with wildly disparate opinions could be. The boy I was talking to was a devout Catholic, and I got into the conversation because he was asking what in the Constitution says anything about gay marriage. I got to talk about equal protection and due process. Through the course of the conversation, we discovered that although we are on complete opposite sides of a vast idealogical divide, we agreed on a great number of things.
Today appears to have had a number of prospective student tours scheduled. As each tour passes by, the crowd yells things such as, “Welcome to the U of A! Run away before [The Evangelist] gets you!” or “Don’t worry; we’re not always like this!” The Evangelist is not about to let this opportunity for teaching pass by. As one group passes, the Evangelist shouts, “The girls have probably already lost their virginity!” The girls, underage and innocent-looking, shoot him dismayed looks. The crowd leaps to their defense, complaining about him insulting people right in front of their parents. I agree…I think he crossed a line with that one. However, it does not fall under any of the 1st Amendment exceptions I know about, and there’s probably nothing illegal about it. I wish I had gotten that on film.
Several minutes later, the conversation has devolved into a political debate. The Evangelist has almost lost control – several of the louder hecklers have started a side debate about Sarah Palin. So The Evangelist switches over to his old standby: “The GAAAAAAYYSS!!!” Or maybe, “The JEEEWWWWSSSSS!!!” The largest of the hecklers, as it happens, is Jewish – and he is not pleased by this turn.
A choice quote: “If you don’t get the Holy Ghost, you’ll get the Holy Roast!”
He then invites his wife up to speak. He introduces her as someone who was a liberal when they met. Her shirt is red with silver letters saying “Hell awaits you” on the back and “You deserve Hell” on the front. Her lecture has to do with premarital sex, and the evils of it. ”How many good girls out there?” and you don’t qualify if you’ve had premarital sex. She also calls the boys “horny little devils.” It is, however, nice to not be a direct target of the lecture at the moment. I am married; I am bisexual; I am a law student. I think there is no hope for me, so they are not bothering.
After The Evangelist’s Wife (who told an amusing story about an unfortunate sorority girl who saw the Error Of Her Ways but who does not have The Evangelist’s stamina), The Evangelist’s Daughters sang a song. The older one was introduced as being an 18-year-old who knew she was not allowed to date. (I considered yelling something to her that legally, she has the right to do anything, but I figured that could potentially get me in trouble. She’s probably heard it before, anyway.) The girls sang fairly well. They look very sweet, and they do not yell at anyone. This is the “soft approach” after the hard one, but I still feel compelled to go talk to them. Not in the least because the older one – the one who is of age – is really pretty. But, knowing she would probably just try to convert me, I didn’t bother.
After the Daughters, The Evangelist pulls out a stool and sits, inviting the audience to “rap” with him. The loudest of the hecklers are eager. They start by asking about Haiti. The Evangelist, clearly a good follower of Pat Robertson, readily confirms that a 200-year-old witch doctor’s pact with the devil caused god to send an earthquake to kill a lot of innocent people. But – and here’s the important part – these people weren’t so innocent. They were homosexuals, fornicators, murderers, sinners of all types, and that’s why they were killed. The heckler – not heckling so much now – tries a rational approach. This gets nowhere.
I hear this particular heckler, a large person in a white shirt, telling some people that he wants to be a politician, and that this type of thing bothers him because people with beliefs similar to The Evangelist’s are setting policy for the country. I completely agree.
The Evangelist is stumped by this: Sin is allowed on Earth, because there is free will. Does that mean that in Heaven there is no free will? Or do people sin in heaven? After some hemming and hawing, The Evangelist decides that it’s simply a matter of there being no opportunity to sin in heaven. This answer is not satisfying.

Day Three
I can’t stay as long today, and that’s a bit disappointing. There is a definite party atmosphere today. The woman who was filming with her digital camera yesterday – being more obtrusive about it than I was – is doing the same thing today, but today, she is clad in only a halter top & short shorts. The “Ask an Atheist” people are out in greater numbers, cheerfully asking passersby, “Are you a critical thinker?!” and handing out flyers for the Skeptics Club. They say that The Evangelist is great publicity; their club is growing. A variety of young women are sunbathing, and many more bicyclists have stopped to watch, as I have, with their bikes propped up near them.
The Evangelist himself is in fine form, telling a story about his own youth. The story centers around an incident that happened in “My father’s 1954 chevrolet belair with leather seats!” – and every time he mentions the car, the crowd cheerfully chants along with him.
Two spectators chat about how sexy the 18-year-old Daughter is, in a wonderful girl-next-door way. One man has brought his dog. Someone blows up a condom and tosses it around like a beach ball at a concert. The university, bowing to the inevitable, has put temporary cardboard-box trash cans up around the square. The young man with the lesbians-kissing sign leads a cheer: “Gimme an A! Gimme an S! Gimme an S! What’s that spell? ASS!!” and the crowd joins in.
There are five angels today, and Pride Alliance has put up a new Free Speech board. Yesterday’s was full. Today’s is close to being full as well. The amazing thing is the short amount of time in which this happens; I was by a couple of times this morning and the square was empty.
The Evangelist has started in on global warming, of all things, as government control, and a means of establishing socialism. While I happen to agree that that particular theory has been blown way out of proportion, I strongly doubt the conspiracy-theory notion that the Evangelist relies upon today.
A man has shown up to try and get people to have signed a petition for putting medical marijuana to the vote. The boy with the lesbian sign interrupts The Evangelist to announce his presence and encourage people to sign, and leads another chant, this time spelling W-E-E-D.
I walked around to the front of the crowd for a different vantage point – and to check out the free speech board. Yesterday, there were a lot of messages about love and tolerance. Today, the masses are getting angry: the messages are mostly along the lines of “Fuck [The Evangelist]!” and “Satan Rules!” Standing in front of the board, almost – but not quite – blocking access are several men who I think are part of The Evangelist’s entourage, but I could be wrong on that. I have seen them at these gatherings before, but they could be like me, fascinated, obsessed spectators.
The man with the medical marijuana petition was joined by a man from the Green Party, asking people to sign in order to have Green Party candidates on the ballot. Several girl scouts came up with a wagon full of cookies. Students flocked around them, waving money, and soon, one of the girl scouts had to run back to their encampment on the Mall for more cookies. Another woman and I ruminated on how inappropriate this spectacle was for children.
The Evangelist’s Wife got up to talk. Today, she had a shirt saying “Read the Bible (while you are still able)!” on the back. I didn’t see the front. The crowd had less patience with her today: rather than allowing her to tell her story, they started right in with pointed questions. I know she has been doing this for a long time, but crowd control is not her talent. She allowed questions she could not give coherent answers to to be asked. The boy with the lesbian sign asked her (after she made him turn the sign around) whether she ever wore mixed-material fabrics. Of course, she said (which we knew – she’s wearing a poly/cotton shirt as we speak). Well, said the boy, did you know that is forbidden by the Bible? That commandment is not for me, she said.
Well, the crowd ate that up. “[The Evangelist’s Wife] picks and chooses what commandments to follow!” yelled one loud person at the front, and most others yelled variations on that. There was a moment of pandemonium, and the Wife looked anxiously around her. The boy with the sign went on to the real point, about how, then, do we know that the commandment against homosexuality is for us? She advised him to read the Bible. Apparently it’s implicit. But she had lost the crowd. Having a bad answer to a question like that, I think, is worse than having no answer at all.
During her mother’s speech, the older Daughter sat right in front of her, filming on her own digital camera. She looked depressed – these rambunctious college students were picking on her mother. Today, she was wearing the “You Deserve Hell” shirt, and her feet were bare. I was disappointed by the shirt, but I still felt sorry for her. I can’t imagine what it must be like to grow up being shoved in front of hostile crowds that, no matter how modestly you’re dressed, are going to be thinking of “corrupting” you as soon as you sprout breasts, and watching your parents get heckled and boo’d and made to look ridiculous by well-placed arguments.
Day Four
When I woke up, I felt miserable. Depressed. There was no reason for it I could see. I thought about what I was planning for the day, and I thought about going to see The Evangelist, and I just felt ugly. Moreover, I was starting to doubt myself. I was feeling the beginnings of guilt for my sexuality, my gender, my chosen profession – the things about which I usually feel proud.
I have read that continued exposure to ideas, even ones the listener disagrees with strenuously, will have the effect of imprinting the ideas on the listener. And suddenly, I knew why The Evangelist was so dangerous. I saw it yesterday, with the Free Speech board becoming increasingly hostile, and the crowd getting more vicious. Listening to negative ideas has the effect of making the listeners feel negative. I had deliberately exposed myself to vicious assaults on every part of my identity that matters to me, and this morning, the psychological effects were stacking up.
I stayed away from The Evangelist today. Instead, I bought a healthy lunch and took it to the Women’s Plaza of Honor. I have always thought having such a plaza was a little silly – after all, why should honoring women be restricted to one little plaza? – but today, I was grateful for it. It was a quiet space with sunlight filtering through the trees and many empty benches. A few people walked by, but few stayed. I watched the day-to-day life of a busy, happy campus and felt more like myself.
Day Five
This morning, before I went to the school, I went to the grocery store and bought several bunches of cut flowers. They are inexpensive this time of year.
The Evangelist showed up around noon. I didn’t listen to what he was lecturing about. I chatted with the Skeptics and waited until a sizeable crowd had gathered.
The Evangelist called the Skeptics up to the front to give them a signed copy of his book. That made them happy. I took a look at it; he's a lot more coherent in print but it's more of the same nonsense.
Then I started passing out flowers. People looked glad to get them. Several asked why I was doing that. I said something about counteracting negativity. One group thanked me for doing that. I even gave a flower to The Evangelist, who accepted it. He then said I reminded him of a hippie he used to know and who was going to hell. The crowd cheered.
I ran out of flowers way too fast.

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