Ah, it’s that time of year again: Tampa’s last winter chill is in the air, spring classes are underway and USF students are welcoming back their favorite sideshow act, the “street preachers” — a small band of sign-wielding, fire-and-brimstone-preaching evangelists who stand outside Cooper Hall and insult passersby in the name of the Lord.
Most students who have attended USF for a semester or more are familiar with the fundamentalist Christian preachers’ semiannual pilgrimage to the patch of grass in front of Cooper, as well as their incendiary, often discriminatory religious messages.
Some years they carry signs displaying a list of supposedly hell-bound people, including Muslims, homosexuals and feminists. Other years they wear sandwich boards emblazoned with catchy phrases about lakes of fire and god’s wrath while reading Bible passages outlining the insufferable punishment unrepentant sinners will endure.
This year, one of the preachers hollered choice phrases including “God hates because God is love” and “Girls that love God don’t show their bellybuttons.”
Regardless of the particulars of each sermon, the preachers can always count on one thing: As they shout the endless list of sins perpetrated by college students (Sex! Booze! Tomfoolery!), a sea of onlookers will gather to laugh and scoff at the spectacle. This semester is no different.
Luther Klinefelter, a junior who transferred to USF this spring and had never seen the preachers before, stopped his bicycle on a sidewalk near Cooper to listen to the arguments between one evangelist and a student standing defiantly on a bench.
“It’s comical,” Klinefelter said. “(The preacher) believes what he believes, and if he takes all this heckling, he must be pretty devout.”
Sophomore Kacie Colebrook and senior Joiya Smith were eating lunch outside Cooper during the sermon. Though Colebrook called the preachers “extremist,” both she and Smith agreed that students probably continue gathering to watch the preachers for sheer entertainment value.
“And there’s nothing better to do,” Smith said.
But sometimes the sermons go beyond mere comic relief.
In the past two years, USF faculty and staff have filed complaints against the evangelists, and several street sermons have resulted in eruptions of anger and violence from insulted members of the crowd.
University Police has responded to complaints of the preachers and their audiences blocking campus sidewalks and disrupting nearby classes.
Students have complained about preachers getting in their faces, spitting on their shoes and calling them names like “slut,” “whore,” “fag” and “homo” while preaching. (The term “homo” was thrown around generously by a preacher Monday afternoon.)
On Jan. 16, 2007, a member of USF’s rugby team broke preacher Micah Armstrong’s sign and was accused of trying to strangle him after the preacher called the student’s girlfriend a “loose sorority slut.”
On Oct. 31, 2007, a student filed a complaint with USF stating she felt threatened when street preacher John Kranert called her a whore, charged at her with his fist cocked, then stopped suddenly and pointed his finger at her face.
Even November’s Tunnel of Oppression, a diversity-awareness project organized by the Residence Hall Association, featured a skit mimicking the street preachers, in which a student donned a sandwich board full of discriminatory messages like the ones the preachers use to stimulate discussion about judging others.
Every semester, these flimsy vessels of God manage to rope in more pious apostles willing to stand at the altar by Cooper Hall and listen to the hateful discourse, waiting with bated breath for those students who will inevitably get angry and start arguments and altercations with the street preachers.
But instead of feeding the evangelists’ egos by crowding ’round for this semester’s service, students should serve them the most damning dose of judgment imaginable: indifference. Rallying a group of excitable students who are eager to make snide comments and shout back is something the evangelists are used to — having their dogmatic shock tactics ignored as totally unimportant is not.
Ultimately, when students participate in the banter, whether as angry dissidents or mum observers, they are endorsing the street preachers and providing a platform — and a reason — for them to spew the vitriol they stand for.
Renee Sessions is a senior double majoring in journalism and creative writing.