A Different Type of Evangelist

Most mornings, there are only five or six of them, scattered across Library Walk and Warren Mall, standing next to cardboard boxes of pocket Bibles and rubbing their palms together to keep warm. They come early, before the sun rises, and wait patiently for UCSD students to wake.

The Gideons of San Diego first came to the UCSD campus Oct. 15, and are here to stay for the rest of the quarter. On many mornings, they share their space with the more vocal evangelists on Library Walk, who hold large neon posters and preach about fire and brimstone. Unlike these other Christian activists, the Gideons declined to be photographed for The Guardian.

“We don’t like drawing attention. And we don’t tell people they’re going to hell,” said Aaron, a Gideon who is 63 years old and retired. He refused to provide his last name. “We’re just worried they might not make it to heaven.”

This is the group’s first year at UCSD, but they have campaigned at San Diego State in previous years. Wherever they go, their task is simple: hand out Bibles and ask people if they think they’re going to Heaven.

“I wasn’t always saved,” Aaron said. “I wasn’t very religious at all, when I was young.”

Aaron said his wife had been more religious than he had been, at first: “But things changed when I lost my job. Those were hard times.”

Another Gideon named Dan identified himself as a UCSD graduate: class of ‘76 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

“I became a Christian right here. Well not exactly here — it was in Plaza Cafe.”

Dan said he was inspired to take religion more seriously after an interaction with the college Christian group, Campus Crusades. They were holding a recruitment event in the dining hall around lunchtime.

“I was eating a cheeseburger when one of them, a girl wearing a CC shirt came up to me and asked me, quite simply, if I knew whether I was going to Heaven or not.”

Dan said that when he confided that he wasn’t sure, the girl invited him to join CC, beginning what he calls half a lifetime of religious service.

Another Gideon named Samuel said he joined the Gideons when he was 33, when he moved to the San Diego area and faced work problems.

“We preach the same thing any other denomination,” Samuel said. “We just take preaching more seriously than most others.”

When they are campaigning simultaneously, the Gideons keep their distance from the other, more vocal Christian activists on campus. One such activist, a man who identified himself only as “Neil the Christian”, and who is pictured in the photograph for this article, said that the Gideons are unlike any other evangelical group he has encountered.

“It’s a very passive approach,” he said. “All the Gideons do is pass out the book — which is good — but it’s all they do. It allows them to avoid some of the confrontation that we have to put up with on a regular basis. When Jesus said to go out to the highways and the hedges, he didn’t mean for it to be that easy.”

However, various members of the Gideons group said they face significant opposition from students, in spite of the relative passivity of their approach.

“It’s unusual,” Aaron said about being asked for an interview. He expected harsh criticism, not questions. “Students don’t like us, normally. They shout things at us. Tell us to leave”

He said, however, that things had not always been difficult for Christian groups visiting the UCSD campus.

“When I was here, everyone was excited to learn about the Good News. But I guess things are different now.”