Street Preachers have a long and controversial history on college campuses. I sat down with two to find out why, exactly, they do what they do.
Featured image illustration by Elisabeth Oster
Street preachers have been a fixture on university campuses for as long as most students can remember. Signs wave in students’ faces denouncing drinking, smoking, and even rock music. These signs are a source of contention for most students, who may feel unsafe due to the strong and discriminatory language. The large banners that say members of the LGBTQ+ community are hell-bound evoke feelings of danger and uncertainty.
Street preaching is somewhat controversial in religious circles. Frequently quoted by those who support street preachers is bible verse Matthew 10:14: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.”
Well known street preachers, such as those who belong to the Westboro Baptist Church, have caused mountains of debate over their violent rhetoric towards LGBTQ+ people, Catholics, Muslim people, Jewish people, and more. For some religious people, such as author Neal Wooten, they believe street preaching turns people away from religion instead of toward it. In his article for Huffington Post, Wooten says “Yes, we are to share the Word and witness to others, but only when it’s productive.” But to others, street preaching (or “open-air preaching” as it is referred to occasionally) is the perfect way to spread the word of God.
My first experience with street preaching was my freshman year of college when I witnessed a group of girls get the word “slut” hurled at them by a street preacher who was angry at the length of their shorts. I was (and still am) horrified, yet also curious. The average person does not scream their convictions at strangers, yet here these street preachers stood, holding signs depicting fire, brimstone, and hell for all those who don’t follow their religious code. Was what I once perceived as a narcissistic need to feel better than the common citizen actually a genuine sense of duty that led them to these street corners?
According to them, they do it out of love.
I met with Cory and Vijay, whose last names are withheld for privacy and safety concerns, to discuss the reasoning behind what they do. They are nondenominational street preachers who are often seen on various corners of Iowa City passing out fliers. These fliers tell the reader what Jesus will punish them for in Hell, including but not limited to sexual immorality, sodomy, lying, drinking, immodesty, and watching porn. With such a bold belief system, I was admittedly a bit wary of our meeting. That feeling quickly changed when both men greeted me politely and answered my questions fully.
Both men have come out on the other side of many hardships. Cory began to use methamphetamine at 16-years-old. At 17, he overdosed. Besides meth, he was also a frequent user of LSD, cocaine, alcohol, and marijuana.
“Anything that would get me high, I did it,” he told me.
Vijay went through a divorce and lost his mother to breast cancer 15 years ago. His father now struggles with some degree of memory loss and cannot recognize Vijay when he travels home to visit him in India. Though their faith was tested through their struggles, both told me they still feel a strong duty to preach and owe that sense to their faith.
“We preach the message of love,” Vijay said, referring to students and residents of Iowa City. “People think that it’s a message of hate, [but]…The Bible [says] to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. That’s the first greatest Commandment Jesus said. The second greatest Commandment is love your neighbor as yourselves. If I love them, I don’t want them to go to Hell,” he said.
Cory and Vijay are aware that their methods are not always received well, but made it clear they vehemently disagree with the Westboro Baptist Church, as they say they use hateful methods to spread their message. For Cory and Vijay, they believe the work they do street preaching is for our own good. They believe this sort of “tough love” through their preaching has the potential to save souls.
Cory compares their preaching to when he was using heavily and his grandmother would confront him about his actions and behavior. She was his guardian during this time in which he was a minor, and Cory said a lot of what he went through during his adolescence is why he is so devoted to faith now.
“She would ask me questions and I would not want to answer those questions,” Cory said. “She would want me to look in the light when I got home to see if my eyes were bloodshot and those kinds of things, and at that time, all I could think about was ‘my grandmother hates my guts’… I didn’t realize how much she loved me. How much she cared about me.”
Here, Cory began to tear up, overwrought with emotion as he recalled the trauma of his past usage and addictions to escape from the world around him. He then went on to explain that “Love is not tolerance…Jeffree Dahmer, love was for him to go out and find a boy and get him high and then rape him and then kill him and then eat him…Love is subjective. But not with God.”
In their spare time, both men work jobs and spend time with their families. Vijay reads the Bible, plays tennis, spends time with his brother and kids, and even has a pilot’s license. He describes himself as a “fun-loving guy,” but urged me to not misrepresent him in this article.
“I will have all the fun in the world as long as it is not sinful,” Vijay said.
Cory has a wife of fifteen years and two sons, with whom he enjoys spending time with and praying with. Both tell me early on in the interview that even the music they listen to is “Godly.” They primarily listen to gospel music and hymns which are recorded from their church. They are both of the belief that there is no such thing as “Christian Rock” or “Christian Rap,” because its origins are not godly.
The thing that struck me most during our interview is that both men genuinely seemed to be fearful for our souls. They impressed upon me that Judgement Day is coming and that they do not want people to suffer unnecessarily.
“We do believe [people] are in grave danger, and we want to pull them from the road of judgement,” Cory says.
It is this fear for thy neighbor that drives Cory and Vijay to take to the streets, warning the general public of what may happen to us should we continue our “sinful” ways. When I set out to understand why Cory and Vijay do what they do, I was expecting to find hurtful intentions to put others down. Instead, I found an intention to help, despite their usage of an nontraditional practice.