Thou shalt value Library Walk activism

    A 2002 ABC News poll informed that, “Eighty-three percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians. Thirty-seven percent of all Christians describe themselves as born-again or evangelical.” Should it be a surprise, then, to come into contact with evangelism at UCSD while strolling down Library Walk? For some students, evangelism has come to represent an annoying and even offending presence. Being condemned to hell for disagreeing with another’s belief or being shunned for not taking part in a popular/zealous cause is valid basis for grievance, but examination shows that all evangelism is not inherently bad or in-your-face extremist, and that it undoubtedly has its place on a college campus.

    Evangelism can be loosely defined as “militant zeal for a cause,” but is primarily used in a religious context with a more specific meaning. By authority of Dictionary.com, it is the “zealous preaching and dissemination of the gospel, as through missionary work” or “conversion resulting from the zeal of crusading advocacy of the gospel.” Two general characteristics of this more widely used and more specific definition of evangelism are the beliefs that: the Bible is authoritative, binding and must be obeyed; and the Gospel is for everyone, and thus the job of every Christian is to let others know about the good of Jesus Christ.

    To presume that one religious teaching is the path for everyone is an ambitious goal (good luck trying to convert the globe) and, more so, would provide humanity with a horribly homogenized perspective (the spice of world cultures is owed in no small part to the variety of religions, each with contrasting and overlapping ideologies, practices and nuances). Yet, even proselytizing has its place in this world for a simple and compelling reason: the need for a free marketplace of ideas.

    The ability to champion or shun any ideology or cause is dependent on knowing about it. A person can’t defend or refute what they don’t know about. Evangelism, like atheism, or socialism or environmentalism, should not be denied a place in the marketplace of ideas, where people can freely discuss what it means and what its pros and cons are. This process of free exchange births new philosophies with, presumably, improvements upon the older ideas.

    Chris Hiestand, a student at Eleanor Roosevelt College who is a double major in the Study of Religions and Electrical Engineering, said, “Even though I don’t like what they’re preaching, I like debating with them.”

    Via interactions with evangelists on campus, Chris felt he “made headway” by introducing them to the documentary hypothesis (of the Hebrew Bible), while he also learned that Jehovah’s Witnesses are conscientious objectors and pacifists. (Note: There are differences in doctrine between the Jehovah’s Witnesses and evangelical Christians, but both engage in evangelizing.) There is no better place than a university for the exchange of diverse teachings and perspectives. If not here, then where? Probably not in the middle of Whole Foods or the New York Stock Exchange. How refreshing that people willingly engage in this sort of exchange independent of classrooms or office walls.

    It just so happens that humans are social beings, dependent on communities and a sense of connection to others. Religious evangelist groups are often effective because they take the initiative to reach out to people and offer a potential crowd to be a part of, while also offering free services, food or more. People, especially alienated college students, need some satellite community when away from home and should be trusted as fully able to check out all the groups that are out there and decide which one suits them best. The ones that reach out will of course be more effective, but this is so for any group, religious and zealous or not.

    During third week this quarter, a Christian group on campus offered free baked goods, haircuts, massages, care packages, test materials and rides to school. Some would argue all the kindness comes with strings attached. But so what if someone or some group does something kind expecting something in return? The fact is that in this society and in our times, anyone can walk up, take advantage of the freebies, say “thank you” and walk away. Ideally, kindness is altruistic and asks for nothing in return, but in the meantime, kind actions are still kind actions, regardless of whether their intent makes good things happen. Habitat for Humanity happens to be evangelical, but in the meantime builds homes all over the world for those who can’t afford a place to live. Another fact is that everyone, from professors to politicians to parents to children, has motives and everyone acts rationally in order to balance their interests with the interests of others. Why should the motives of a religious group be treated any differently then those of a political or social group?

    Evangelist groups on campus also take part in sharing testimonies about personal experiences with the divine, either by walking up to people individually or via loudspeaker on Library Walk. Some will complain this is intrusive or not worth hearing. While those uninterested can politely decline or walk away, they will have given up the opportunity, in the “repressed” climate of UCSD, to witness students speaking openly about issues in life that affect everyone — family, love, drugs, stress and so on. One doesn’t have to share someone’s beliefs or lifestyle in order to learn from their basic experiences.

    Admittedly, there are extremist evangelical groups, of the religious and not-so-religious kind, that cross boundaries of basic respect, personal space and even safety.

    Last year, a non-UCSD-affiliated religious group came to campus with graphic posters 150 feet tall of aborted fetuses and placed them in front of Geisel Library. This was viewed by quite a few as somewhat distasteful, but the answer was not to make the group leave. In response, VOX, the Planned Parenthood group, brought out large posters verging on pornographic. Conversations were started, dialogue exchanged.

    But, there are those who cross the line. Brother Jeb, a free-floating proselyte in his late 50s, used to come to Library Walk a few years back and perch on the cement blocks, preaching chastity to “college girls trying to seduce me,” and stressing that their bosoms were intended to “feed thirsty babies” and not for public display. Many students found Brother Jeb amusing but some also found his additional hostile words about Asians and Jews offensive.

    The kinds of groups that make disrespectful moral judgments about others and cannot respect the beauty of diversity are an unfortunate part of reality, but they have a right to voice their views. Others will then have the opportunity to respond and challenge their ideas. Some groups may spout seemingly ominous ideology, like the Cyborg Collective’s message that “All is cyborg, cyborg is all. Resistance is futile.” But chances are, your life will not be overtaken by cyborgs and your resistance is not futile.

    The point is, there is something to learn from everyone. Evangelists, whether in the context of religion or in the context of a student group protesting budget cuts, offer something to, at the very least, think about. Exploring thought is something college students should not be afraid of.

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