Preacher's visit to UCF prompts dialogue among students
An evangelist protesting near the library, whose words struck chords with some students, drew offended onlookers and curious bystanders.
Monday through Wednesday, the traveling evangelist and preacher Tom Short sat on a black stool in the Free Speech Zone with his worn Bible and a couple bottles of Mountain Dew nearby. Among his messages, Short taught that being an overall good person on the outside doesn't get you into heaven.
"Jesus said that God is interested in more than the outward action," Short said. "He's interested in the heart. So if in the depths of your heart you have a craving for evil, and yet you're smart enough to not do it, you're not qualified for heaven."
Short travels all over the nation going to various campuses spreading the word about Christianity. He said he hadn't been to UCF in about 10 years and was completely lost for the first 10 minutes.
"I believe UCF is the marketplace of ideas," Short said. "I also believe that Christianity is the truth and we need to spread the truth."
Perhaps it was his unrelenting voice or large displays full of facts and questions that enticed students. Whatever the reason, it was clear that tensions were as high as the temperature. The crowd was full of students expressing their viewpoints.
Jehovah's Witness Joyce Linsley said not all religious groups arrive at UCF with the same in-your-face strategies as Short, such as The Jehovah's Witness Organization that comes to UCF. Instead, its members set up small displays with pamphlets and other forms of literature and let students approach them.
"Jesus never did approach anybody as far as badger them," Linsley said. "So we leave it up to the individual whether they want to take something or not."
Fellow Jehovah's Witness Brenda Pough added they choose to come to UCF because they believe it's an open forum with different people from different backgrounds with fresh, young minds. They advocate that free will is important because people are often scared into religion.
"Scaring people into religion wasn't the approach that Christ or the disciples had," Pough said. "We all have free will. We can make choices. We hope that people will decide for themselves."
History major Michael Feldman was among those who disagreed with Short's messages. Feldman was raised Jewish but has since then turned away from Judaism and adopted atheism. He said that his passion for studying the Holocaust inspired him to become a history major but made him turn away from religion.
"I actually remember a particular line in the Old Testament that made me realize I didn't want to be a part of any type of organized religion anymore," Feldman said. "It's when God first orders the Israelites to take the land that will eventually become Israel.
"He orders them to kill every man, woman and child and that's just another form of the Holocaust being perpetrated. That's when I realized I couldn't believe in God anymore."
Feldman went on to say that he was frustrated with Short's tactics because, although he is less abrasive than most protesters who come to UCF, Feldman said Short is still aggressive and doesn't allow people of contrary beliefs to question him.
People of other religions weren't the only ones who disagreed with Short. Timothy Pierce, a full-time Christian missionary, didn't necessarily agree with the way Short delivered his message.
"Like the ancient skeptics used to say, the problem with dogmatism is that once you think you know the truth, you get stuck defending what you think you already know and you stop learning," Pierce said. "[Short] is not exactly wrong, but he's stopped asking questions and he's stopped accepting questions from other people."
Amid Short's messages were sermons comparing Christianity with other religions and mythology, sinning and the afterlife — which sparked a lot of questions and objections by UCF students in the crowd.
"I personally don't believe in any kind of afterlife," Feldman said. "That's one of the things that I think makes this life so precious. If you only get one and there's no afterlife waiting, this is the one where you've got to make it count. I find something oddly beautiful about that."
Among the crowd was a University of Georgia psychology professor Rich Suplita, who was an atheist and the faculty adviser for the Secular Student Association at UGA until he converted to Christianity in May 2011. Suplita said that although he was an atheist, he found himself starting to pray more often.
"Deep inside, I knew that atheism was an overly simplistic explanation," Suplita said.
Kyle Rankin, a Drake University student visiting UCF for a spring break trip with his Bible study group, listened in on Short's messages and also engaged in conversations with other students. He said that after hearing Short come to Drake University in the fall, he was inspired to get involved in Christianity.
"We're not trying to force anything down people's throats. We're not doing it out of self-interest," Rankin said. "Well, I guess there is some self-interest because it brings us joy to get somebody to realize that God loves them."
Shaquirah Jackson is a Contributing Writer for the Central Florida Future.