Three religious demonstrators seeking to save the students of Shippensburg University assembled in the academic quad and preached what they considered the Word of God. And while many in the community believe the men did not further civil discourse at SU, some believe their presence can be used as a jumping point to discuss how society can approach handling personal differences.
Mike Stockwell of Cross Country Evangelism, Shawn Holes of Luke 10:2 Ministries and Don Karns of AppalachiaCry Ministries all stood in front of the Ezra Lehman Memorial Library shouting at students throughout the afternoon on Oct. 24.
Some clutched Bibles, while at other times they shook printed signs that read “YouAreSinners.com,” “National Sin Awareness Day” and “Evolution is a Lie.” They used a microphone and loudspeaker worn around their necks to amplify their volume, which echoed across the campus’ academic quad.
Members of the SU Police Department (SUPD) transported metal barriers on-scene to separate students from the demonstrators while they shouted. When they weren’t behind the barricade, the three spoke one-on-one with students and argued theology and ethics with them.
Mike Stockwell laid his beliefs out for all to hear:
“We are preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and we’re preaching how Jesus is the only way to salvation. The only way for forgiveness of sins is through the precious blood of the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world Jesus Christ,” Stockwell said. “We’re out here because of the love of Christ who compels us to come out here and preach his word and we’re praying that god will use this time to save people, that he will change hearts and give them new hope and desires.”
This is the second year Stockwell, Holes and Karns visited SU to “save” the lost souls there. Last year, the trio, joined by a fourth individual, shouted at students. In 2017, a separate man stood in the academic quad calling students slurs, and was eventually escorted off campus.
However, Stockwell sang a different tune when he preached in front of the library last year. According to an article posted to theslateonline.com Oct. 23, then-freshman Steven Matheson told Stockwell everyone sins. Stockwell disagreed and is quoted as saying “Some will be beaten with many strikes.”
SU senior Tatianna Purnell debated Stockwell over evolution for several minutes. Stockwell claimed that evolution was “not even good science” and reasoned that because nobody can travel back in time to test whether evolution was true, there is no empirical data to support the theory. Purnell eventually stole Stockwell’s sign and dashed to a nearby trashcan to put it where she believed it belonged.
“I felt like that was a sign from God saying that I need to take that sign and throw it in the trashcan. I get really passionate about this,” Purnell said. “I’m a biology major. I’ve taken a whole course about evolution. I know all the ins-and-outs of the science behind evolution and I know the truth of it.”
Shippensburg University is not unique. Religious demonstrators from many different organizations visit college campuses all over America. Two men and two boys visited the University of Maryland and shouted and taunted people as they passed by, according to The Diamondback, the student-run paper at the university. One of those men targeted the College Green at the University of Pennsylvania, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian.
Don Karns and Mike Stockwell visited University of Connecticut’s campus several days before they visited Shippensburg University, according to The Daily Campus.
SU United Campus Ministry’s the Rev. Jan Bye fell back on the word “problematic” when describing the three men who visited Shippensburg, because they instigate conflict by calling people names and telling them they are going to burn in hell.
“I think they believe what they're doing is right. I don't doubt their sincerity,” Bye said.
Bye said that Christian students oftentimes get upset when religious demonstrators arrive on campus. She said that they feel embarrassed and ashamed for their faith, even if they do not agree with the demonstrators.
“I always say to them, ‘this is your opportunity to talk about your faith in a way that is different from these people,’” Bye said. “People are going to be talking about faith more than any other time.”
SU political science professor Alison Dagnes said the demonstrators were not furthering the cause of open and civil discourse. She said on a university campus, professors try to encourage students to be open to new ideas and have a dialogue about ideas. But she also said the demonstrators did not want that.
“It’s hard to hear ‘you’re bad, you’re evil, I love you, I want to save you’ and make sense of that because they are very different ideas,” she said.
“People who are fervent adherents to any kind of belief system frequently do not want to discuss, they want to lecture and hecter and harang and yell at people,” Dagnes said. “When we can just relax a little bit and maybe lower the volume and see that if we disagree with one another, that doesn’t make us enemies, I think we’re more likely to maybe find some compromise and solve some problems that really do need to be solved.”
Bye said that UCM provides a place for individuals to unite despite differences, as opposed to dividing because of them.
“There may be somebody who’s really conservative and also somebody may be really liberal, but they could still find common ground,” Bye said. “We’re all trying to do the best we can to follow Christ in the best way we know how.”
This year, SU hosted a Week of Human Understanding, which emphasized the importance of courageous but civil conversations between those who may not agree.
The keynote speaker, Eli Saslow, is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who worked for the Washington Post. Saslow charted Derek Black’s turbulent journey from a white nationalist to an Islam scholar — a tale that emphasized Black very likely would have become the leader of the white nationalist movement had he not been saved by those who included him despite his prejudices against them.
Saslow, along with Bye and Dagnes, echoed thoughts expressed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during his 1967 Riverside church speech “Beyond Vietnam.”
“Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”
It is because of experiences with individuals such as Stockwell, Karns and Holes that students can learn to engage with others civilly. And at the end of the day, students have a chance to change the minds of the demonstrators with whom they disagree.
Free speech on campus
Whenever individuals make controversial demonstrations at college campuses, conversations quickly begin to spiral toward the role of free speech on college campuses. Last year, Holes screamed at a student for being against free speech.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), 6.4 million students are denied free speech by the top American colleges. “Red light”-rated campuses make up 25% of all colleges; “yellow light” colleges make up 64% of all surveyed; and only 11% qualify for the best “green light” rating in a study released Dec. 4, 2019.
In the same study, FIRE found the number of institutions earning a yellow light rating has tripled in recent years from 21% in 2009 to the 64% recorded today. The report describes its yellow light rating:
“While less restrictive than red light policies, yellow light policies still prohibit or have an impermissible chilling effect on constitutionally protected speech."
The report measured universities’ written policies against First Amendment standards. Shippensburg University qualified for the green light rating; however, other universities failed the test by having “poorly written policies governing internet usage, civility, event security fees, harassment and free speech zones."