Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Last spring, I tried something new—something way outside my comfort zone. I set up an A-frame sign with the words, “Rant to Me About Religion and I’ll Listen,” in front of the City Union on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Campus. I put down two folding chairs next to the sign, opened a book and waited.
I should add that there is nothing neutral about this particular space, especially when a Christian preacher inhabits it, and I am a Christian preacher. The space is called a free-speech zone. It’s a place where anyone can come and speak—or yell—their mind.
And often it has been the Christian preachers who have chosen to take advantage of this free-speech zone. Sometimes they’ll talk about the assumed lascivious nature of college students, although not in so many words. Sometimes they make bold pronouncements about eternal destinations of passersby they’ve never seen, let alone met. Sometimes their message turns more overtly political calling out politicians and policies by name.
As I sat waiting, I wondered if I was just one more Christian preacher in front of the Union. It had been about five minutes when I looked up from my book. A student was approaching me.
He asked, “What do you think about John Calvin?” So we talked about John Calvin for forty minutes. Others gathered to listen.
After the would-be Calvin scholar left and the crowd dispersed, another student shyly asked, “Pastor, I want to tell you about my boyfriend. I’m Christian and he’s not…”
I quickly decided I needed to do this weekly.
There was the day a T.A. from the Philosophy department asked me if Christians were allowed to think. There was the morning an Atheist student vehemently expressed frustrations with religions in general. “They all just lead to violence,” he said. There was the time an international student from Argentina found a listening ear with me after one of the other Christian preachers said that people from other nations were ruining the United States.
Week after week they’d come. I wouldn’t get defensive. I’d comment. I’d question. I’d give a little advice here and there if that was what was requested. But mostly I just listened.
Of all the stories over the course of the semester one stuck out. I listened, but this particular day I preached, too.
There was another Christian preacher in front of the Union, and he was ranting. He was saying disparaging things about immigrants, about other religions. And off to my left I saw a student said down—not in the chair next to mine, but close enough to ask me a question.
“Are you Christian,” he asked.
What do you preach?”
I thought for a second. And then, I responded, “I try to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
He answered, “I believe in the gospel of Jesus; I’m Muslim.”
For an hour we talked about Jesus. He told me what he believed about Jesus, and then he listened intently when I told him what I believed. By the end of that conversation other students—both Muslim and Christian had gathered—providing a sonic barrier to the ranting going on behind us.
Another student spoke, “As a Muslim, every time I speak to Christians they tell me I’m their enemy, am I your enemy?”
“No. No you’re not my enemy,” I said.
I am a Christian preacher. It was the best sermon I preached all year.
Adam White is Campus Pastor at the Lutheran Center, the ELCA Campus Ministry at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. He received his D.Min. from Luther Seminary and is an Adjunct Instructor of Religion at UNL. Prior to coming to Lincoln Adam served as Associate Pastor and Director of Youth and Family Ministries at First St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Hastings, Nebraska. Adam is a frequent contributor to www.workingpreacher.org and has written for Word and World. The host of Things That Matter, a weekly podcast available at www.wedomission.org/things, Adam lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with his wife, Amanda, and 2 daughters, Sophia and Olivia.
at 8:56 AM