By David Busboom
art copyright Josh Chambers
The thing began as a five-word text message: COME TO THE DOUDNA STEPS. I was down in Thomas Hall, working on a very tense and depressing one-act play for class, and after a week or so on the project I needed some excuse to get away from my laptop. This message offered me an escape, so I set out at once for the west quad side of the Doudna Fine Arts Center. I found my contact in the midst of a heavy crowd of step-sitting students who looked like they wouldn’t need much of an excuse to fight.
In the hot afternoon sun a woman chopped the air with her hands and told us shrilly to surrender our lives to Jesus Christ, while a man and another, older woman sat over in the shade—away but near, like bodyguards. The man held a sign: YOU DESERVE HELL. I sat down while the woman wigged out about repentance; it was like being at a Greek theater or maybe caught in a protest riot. The militant ministress took the position that most of the young women present would go to Hell if they weren’t more proper and self-controlled, and she related stories of her own sexual sins: “pre-marital kissing right on the lips!” and other unnatural crimes. She confessed that she’d “wanted to be the next Barbara Walters.” And then came the most shocking revelation: “Let me tell you, boys and girls, Barbara Walters is a whore!” The students openly agreed, for the only time.
It went on like this, only getting worse. Talk of evil boozehounds, marijuana-sorcerers, and rabid homosexuals roaming the campus. One of these last—a friend of mine—sat directly behind me, calmly sewing. Was he a monster? I understood my peers’ rage, even shared it. I was fine with the Jesus Christ stuff, more than fine, but the unfriendly woman was now talking about orgasms and child-bearing and her marriage with Brother Jed—the man with the sign, I gathered from her gestures. I felt misrepresented as a person of faith by these fiends, and more than a few of the students’ jokes at their expense were also indirectly at mine. This seemed like a good excuse to get out of writing for a few minutes, though, and I took the ride.
Just about then Brother Jed rose and relieved his wife, handing her his sign as she took his place in the beach chair. I realized a number of students had made signs of their own: THEY DON’T EVEN GO HERE and I LOVE TO SUCK COCK, among others. So I pulled out my notebook and wrote big in black marker to fill two pages: “AS A CHRISTIAN, I AM OFFENDED”—directed at Jed and gang. I was ready to do the “campus protest” thing.
There is no point in running down the details of Jed’s preaching. It was more or less the essence of his wife’s: distasteful appeals to our consciences in crazy pseudo-intellectual terms and promises of eternal torture. Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll endangering immortal souls. But the students’ toxic style of “rebuttal” was no better, yelling that the preachers “had no right,” that they were “imposing” their beliefs, and giving them colorful new nicknames. Two or three young women harshly singled out as “sluts” responded with disruptive outbursts of artificial bravado, aggressively owning up to the accusation with false pride. Attention-seeking students stood before their audience, coolly holding their signs, making jokes, or trying to shout Jed down. A Daily Eastern News writer arrived and collected student opinions, mine included. Things were getting heavy, and I’d made up my mind that meaty combat was near when a big male student emerged wearing a wig and dark robe and wielding a comically large gavel like a war hammer. This he held aloft in one hand next to Brother Jed and said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged!”
Applause. Jed shook his head and held up a rejecting hand. It was a weird scene. My mind told me to record the whole thing in my notebook or on my phone’s camera as it happened, but that would’ve meant putting down my sign.
“That doesn’t apply to me,” Jed said when the noise rolled back. I couldn’t quite believe that I’d heard him, and before I could sort it out the slow-building tension broke and everyone ran wild. I was lost in that swarm—no more amusement at their buggy delivery; just hard anger at Jed’s double-dealing. Then things got grim. I saw some students passing around a Bible—the same that Jed had been thumping earlier in his talk—and ripping out pages by the fistful. There was no real reason for it except the pure human pleasure of unbridled rebellion. I wanted to hide, to escape, despite the strangely sweet outrage that flashed and swelled in my head. I knew I couldn’t confront them without taking Jed’s side in the eyes of my peers; a dangerous tactic. The treacherous reality of that scene made me feel feverish and nasty.
I stayed until the bitter end, though for a while there was no end in sight. By the time it was winding down the students had cooled off and formed a loose circle around Jed and his followers with jangled pages of Genesis rustling around their feet. It was strange and ugly, and I felt like a bastard. I’d failed to defend my faith when it was knocked, not to mention Jed’s right to make whatever lunatic claims he wanted. When the crowd had pushed too far I hadn’t pushed back, and that made me as hypocritical as everyone else.