Gary Birdsong always manages to stir up a crowd.
Known as the Pit Preacher because he used to preach at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s main space, the Pit, Birdsong has been coming to campus for years.
Dressed in a suit and armed with the kind of folding chair parents take to their children’s soccer games, Birdsong sits in the middle of the quad and waits for the first attack.
“Do you think I am going to hell?” asks one of the students.
Birdsong responds by asking if the student attends a “gay church.”
The crowd erupts in laughter, mock and counter arguments.
This type of scenario is not exclusive to UNC-Chapel Hill.
Campus preachers like Birdsong have become notorious on college campuses all around the nation for their frequent visits aimed at getting students to accept Jesus. With today marking another doomsday — according to the predictions of Family Radio Network preacher Harold Camping, who mistakenly said the world would end on May 21, 2011 — the issue of radical Christian preachers on college campuses are being increasingly questioned by students.
Smock said he was inspired to become a preacher 38 years ago as a result of watching the legendary Hubert Lindsey, also known as Holy Hubert, preach at the University of California Berkeley. Smock has written five books and preached at almost 20 different universities in the last three months alone, including University of Kansas, University of Iowa and University of Colorado.
“I have a real busy schedule as you can see,” he said.
The campus is the marketplace of ideas and young people are determining their views and their values that will affect their entire future
Known by students as Brother Jed, Smock describes his approach as confrontational Christianity: When speaking at a university, Smock says he will talk to about 75 to 100 students, many of whom are there to argue with him.
“I want them to understand that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation,” he said.
As future leaders, college students are the perfect targets for this message of salvation, the preachers said.
Short thinks college is also a good time to preach to students, as they are in the process of finding themselves.
“The campus is the marketplace of ideas and young people are determining their views and their values that will affect their entire future,” the campus preacher said.
Short began preaching in 1980 after becoming “concerned with a general lack of spiritual interest” while working as a pastor at a campus church in College Park, Maryland. He said his ministry is different.
“Some of the other campus preachers don’t seem to convert other people,” he said. “They are only announcing that these people are condemned.”
Even so, Short believes people should not be opposed to being told that that they are sinful.
“I feel like if a doctor says to a patient you have cancer they shouldn’t take it personally,” he said.
But students often do.
“It’s very hard to look at these things in a positive light,” said David Dzien, a fifth-year senior at the University of South Florida. “You have to be able to discuss your side without calling people sinners.”
Yet whether or not students want to listen, for preachers, speaking at most public universities is relatively easy thanks to free speech protectios. Often all they have to do is show up. Some universities, such as the University of Maryland, have designated free speech areas open to the public.
And even a lack of free speech protections is not enough to stop preachers from speaking to students at private colleges. To reach these students, Smock said he sometimes stands on a public sidewalk near the university.
Yet some students question whether the preacher’s should be protected by the first amendment, as some say things that could be considered hate speech.
“I think their frustration leads to very derogatory speech,” Dzien said of the countless preachers who visit the University of South Florida. “So I definitely think you can call it hate speech because more often than not it does end there.”
Despite being viewed negatively by many students, Smock, Birdsong and Short said they were certain they are making a difference in students’ lives.
Where they stand
The views of three prominent campus preachers on selected topics:
“I get emails from students on a regular basis informing me that their lives have been changed,” Smock said.
In order to do this work, Smock, Birdsong and Short said they depend on donations from churches and individuals who support their ministries. They did not disclose who those churches and individuals were.
One thing is certain, students are interested in these preachers, and platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Youtube serve as evidence.
A recent YouTube search for “campus preacher” returned nearly 950 results. A query for “Gary Birdsong” produced 133 results, while “Brother Jed” produced 989 results.
One of the videos about Birdsong is a short documentary made by University of North Carolina student Ross Maloney as part of a class assignment.
“I wanted to show him as a human being and not just this crazy fundamentalist monster,” he said.
In the video, UNC students can be seen mocking Birdsong.
Birdsong is also the subject of a fake Twitter account, @thepitpreacher. The account’s description reads “You’re going to hell! Repent now!” and at this time of this writing had 105 followers.
Birdsong isn’t the only one who is being parodied on social media outlets. Smock is the inspiration behind the account @FakeBrotherJed, which tweets quotes jokingly attributed to Smock. The tweets are usually related to University of Missouri news and make fun of Smock’s strict religious views. The account had 1,687 followers at the time of this writing, more than twice the 500 followers it had last May.
“It kind of skyrocketed this summer,” said Dan Sheehan, the University of Missouri Junior who started the account in spring 2010.
The twenty-year-old Sheehan, who is on an improv comedy team on campus and has been doing stand-up comedy since he was 18, said he got the idea for the account after watching Smock preach several times.
“I think he’s definitely like an interesting character,” he said. “It definitely takes a lot of guts to go out there and tell students they are going to hell.”
Though Smock said he did not know enough about the account to comment, he said it was evidence that his ministry was working.
“To me that is evidence that people are hearing my message,” he said. “I am an issue in their lives, I think that’s good, I am encouraged by that.”
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