While not necessarily on a whim, it was a decision that came somewhat out of the blue. Tuesday of last week, while trying to decide how to spend my Wednesday, I thought of Augustana College. It dawned on me that in two more than two years of life and ministry in Iowa, I had never been to Augustana College for ministry.
Augustana College is a private, liberal arts college in Rock Island, IL. Rock Island is part of the Quad Cities metroplex and only about 15 minutes from my house, just on the opposite side of the Mississippi River. Augustana College has a student population of about 2,600. The institution has Lutheran roots. According to the school’s website:
“Augustana College, rooted in the liberal arts and sciences and a Lutheran expression of the Christian faith, is committed to offering a challenging education that develops qualities of mind, spirit and body necessary for a rewarding life of leadership and service in a diverse and changing world.”
Augustana is one of 28 colleges and universities associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). The ELCA is a very liberal denomination that has long-since strayed from a biblical gospel.
“What Comes After Pride?”
After making the decision to spend the morning at Augustana College, I decided I would distribute a gospel tract I wrote titled: “What Comes After Pride?” The tract (pictured above) uses a discussion about the sin of pride to transition to its gospel message. Needless to say, the inference by the front of the tract is that one type of pride is what is commonly referred to as “gay pride.” That being said, the text of the tract makes no mention whatsoever about this particular kind of pride.
I’ve distributed hundreds of these gospel tracts on the campus of the University of Iowa with literally no negative pushback. Even distributing this tract at LGBT-specific events has resulted in very little negative reaction. While I know negative responses to this tract are always possible, I didn’t plan or hope for anything out of the ordinary at Augustana College.
Arriving at the Campus
I arrived at Augustana College shortly before 9 AM. Though small, the campus covers a few neighborhood blocks, with public streets running through the campus. I decided to position myself on 7th Street, across the street from Carlsson Evald Hall, and just up the street from a campus building called “Old Main.”
I stood on the sidewalk, holding my “Stop and Talk” cross. During the first half-hour or so, I distributed a few tracts. Pedestrian traffic was pretty slow, so I thought about leaving and ministering elsewhere. Pedestrian traffic started to pick up as it appeared there was a break in classes. I was approached by a young lady named Sabrina.
Sabrina’s initial approach seemed warm and friendly, but that soon changed. Professing to be a Christian, Sabrina soon expressed her upset about the tract I was distributing. She said several of her friends had approached her to tell her how upset they were about receiving the tract. Up to that point, I hadn’t distributed too many, so it is hard to tell if Sabrina was being honest.
Unfortunately, the conversation went as others have with those who think the tract is exclusively a denunciation of LGBT-ism. Sabrina was unwilling to consider that pride is sinful, especially since she seemed to have locked in her mind the specific element of “gay pride.”
I communicated the law and the gospel to Sabrina. I tried to explain to her that she had created a Jesus in her imagination, one to suit herself–one that loves the sin that she loves and hates the sin (real or perceived) that she hates.
A mistake I made with Sabrina, regretfully one I would make throughout the morning, is this. Sabrina insisted the “Pride” tract was only about “gay pride.” In my efforts to convince her (and others throughout the morning) that the tract was not exclusively about “gay pride,” I failed to admit and own the fact that the tract’s inference to “gay pride” was obvious. I knew it when I helped design it. I knew it when I wrote the tract’s text. While I wasn’t trying to be deceptive or dishonest, based on some of the feedback I’ve received from the video of the day’s events, I can see where my failure to admit the obvious could be perceived that way.
The error was mine, and not those who perceived I erred. I will do better in the future.
Chief Thomas Phillis
Not long after my conversation with Sabrina ended, I saw an Augustana Police car pull into the horseshoe driveway across the street, and stop. I asumed the officer was going to come across the street and talk to me. Street evangelists kind of have a sixth sense about stuff like that.
Sure enough, an officer exited the vehicle and made his way across the street. It was Thomas Phillis, Chief of Police for the Augustana College Police Department.
Chief Phillis was cordial and respectful. He was professional. He introduced himself and asked to see the material I was distributing. Legally, since I was on a public sidewalk, I was under no obligation to show him what I was distributing. I was not being detained, so I was under no obligation to answer any of his questions.
I mention this to state the following: many street evangelists err by having as their default position a determination to exercise their “rights.” Certainly, there is a time and place do so. We have the Apostle Paul as an example (see Acts 16:35-40; 22:22-29). However, asserting my constitutional rights is rarely, if ever, how I respond to an officer’s initial contact. My goal is not, first or foremost, to win a legal argument with an officer. My goal is to win the officer to my side; to assure him that, as a Christian, I want to submit to his authority; to navigate the encounter in such a way that I am left unhindered to continue my gospel ministry, at the location.
No two situations are identical, just as no two officers are identical. Circumstances are different and can change very quickly when dealing with law enforcement on the streets. Wisdom, respect, meekness (not battle) should be the evangelist’s default position. Confrontations with law enforcement should not be desired by the evangelist.
Some may read that last sentence and think, “Wait a minute, Tony. Haven’t you been arrested in England, Scotland, and (of all places) Iowa while street preaching?” Yes. this is true. But none of my arrests have been the result of confronting law enforcement–forcing their hands and leaving them with no options. In each of my arrests, the officers determined the outcome with little or no interaction with me.
While I’ve been arrested three times, I have had literally hundreds of encounters with law enforcement while engaged in street ministry, with very positive results.
Agreeing to Chief Phillis’ request to see the tract I was distributing cost me nothing, and it paid dividends. Chief Phillis read the tract. He received the gospel.
After reading the tract, Chief Phillis politely reminded me to not block a nearby driveway and to stay on the public sidewalk. Before he left, I also gave him a “Police Lives Matter” gospel tract, telling him that I am a retired deputy sheriff. We said our goodbyes, but I would see the chief again.
Augustana’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance
At the beginning of the next class break, I noticed three ladies walking up the sidewalk, toward me. Each had a look in her eye and a determned step that indicated they were planning to talk to me. The assumed leader of the group asked for a tract, in a rather interrogative way. Unbeknownst to me, as I engaged them in conversation, a crowd was forming behind me. I would learn that the group was primarily made up of Augustana’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) group.
The group, by and large, did not come to dialogue, but rather to condemn. Many had made up their minds that I was a hate monger and a homophobe. I spent the next hour or so preaching and engaged in conversations with small groups and individuals. I had to parry various logical fallicies, ad hominems, emotionalism from some, as well as the rebukes of professing Christians who applauded the sin of LGBT-ism, while disagreeing with, or outright denying the authority of God’s Word. Along the way, both professing Christians and non asserted the existence of Jesuses that were the creations of their imaginations–Jesuses that were not holy, righteous, and just. Rather, their Jesuses were “all-loving,” with the kind of love that approved of lust and lasciviousness.
As intense as the morning was; as vitriolic, unhinged, and irrational as some of the argumentation was, there were a few bright moments along the way. Those bright moments came as a result of the encouragement of other believers.
One lady in particular stood on the hillside listening to me talk to a group of young ladies. I would glance at her from time to time and see her nodding in affirmation of what I was saying. At another moment, I watched her bow her head in prayer. Toward the end of my time at Augustana, she even spoke up to explain to the crowd why it was necessary for me to do what I do (evangelism).
The crowd began to dissipate when I announced I was leaving. I noticed that my lady supporter on the hill was walking away. I called to her and asked if I could speak to her. When she walked over to me, I asked her if I could give her a hug. She obliged. I told her how much she encouraged me with her affirmations and prayer.
For the last 17 years, this wonderfully encouraging lady has been part of Augustana College’s support staff.
“Do you happen to know who Ray Comfort is?” She asked.
She was surprised to hear that I worked with/for Ray, at Living Waters, for more than four years.
“I want to be more bold, here.” She said. And she began to weep.
I put my arms around her and spoke words of encouragement to her. What a joy and a blessing it was to see the love of God made visible by allowing me and this lady to enjoy encouraging Christian fellowship!
During my sometimes-intense conversations with students, I noticed that both city and campus news groups arrived. The stories published about my time on campus were sadly, as expected, slanted.
Here are two reports:
Again, the video of my time at Augustana College gives clear testimony that both of the above stories are inaccurate.
Members of my church family (including my elders) will return to Augustana College. We will go there, not to fight with people, but rather to fight for the souls of people. Many of those present when I was there hate the truth, but it is the truth that will set them free.
Pray my church family and I speak the truth with love, no matter how much we might be hated for it.