by Todd Richardson
“We don’t need prostitutes in San Marcos,” the man said, “because we’ve got sorority girls!” He stood at the base of a statue in the Free Speech Zone of the quad, his index finger raised at a young woman in a tank top. He wore a brightly colored stole draped down his shoulders. He clutched a bible in one hand and a staff mounted with a crucifix in the other. The passing woman looked up at him, horrified that she’d been singled out, and hid her face behind one hand like a horse blinder as she shuffled through the crowded forum.
The preacher went by “Brother Jeb,” and was a campus celebrity. I recognized him from last fall when he’d put on a similar show, berating students from the protection of the Free Speech Zone, proclaiming hellfire and doom on passersby. Brother Jeb had drawn a herd of spectators that semester, many there to oppose him and others there just to watch. Later, a friend showed me a video on his phone shot from just over Brother Jeb’s shoulder. The camera focused on the students yelling and cursing the reverend. Red lettering flashed at the bottom of the screen: HATE, GODLESS, BLASPHEMY.
Now that Brother Jeb was back, I wanted to see what would happen. It was a sunny Friday afternoon after a fresh rain, and a cool breeze whispered overhead between the oak leaves and carried a scent of earth into my nostrils. The good weather had brought several university organizations to the quad hoping to recruit students trekking from one end of the university to the other. Fraternities, sororities, the LGBTQ Student Union, the Anime Club, the Quidditch Club, the Universal Unitarian Student Organization, the Hispanic Business Student Organization, The Black Student Alliance, and unaffiliated groups of hippies playing ukuleles and bongos lined the quad, choking the narrow walkway through the Free Speech Zone marked by a large Grecian statue. It was at the base of the statue that Brother Jeb set up shop, yelling down at students as they passed.
“The Lord will punish all sodomites!” Brother Jeb directed his voice toward the LGBTQ Student Union. “You will burn in hell for your disgusting sins!” The group of students behind the LGBTQ booth ignored the taunts, but his comments drew boos and jeers from other students.
“You’re not a Christian!”
A knot of students formed in front of the statue. A few began debating scripture with Brother Jeb, but for every verse they quoted he replied in kind with something hateful. Each shout drew another spectator from the passing students, who decided that the hate-spewing preacher was reason enough to skip class. Brother Jeb began whipping the growing audience into a frenzy as he lashed out with his fiery tongue.
“Those scuffed knees are badges of your sin!”
“Oh Lord, help these wayward women keep their legs together and find good husbands, as was your intention.”
“Someone ought to slap you!”
Brother Jeb spread his arms and lifted his head toward the heavens. A woman pushed forward to confront him, her hands clinched in rage, but her friend pulled her back. Behind the preacher, I saw a man and a woman emerge from the corner of the quad and set up video cameras pointed at the students. I wondered if I might find their videos online later.
I turned my head and saw that the Universal Unitarians hung a sign in front of their booth that read, “We’re not with this guy.” The Catholic Student Union hung a similar sign that said, “Forgiveness, Love, Charity.” Somewhere at the back of the crowd, students began to clap in unison and sing “This Little Light of Mine.” A few of the hippies in the quad joined in with their ukuleles, and the song spread from student to student in the crowd.
Brother Jeb tried to shout over the singing, but it washed his voice away. I could see him, red in the face, mouth open with his bible and staff raised, quaking. But nobody could hear him anymore; the only sounds were of clapping and singing and rejoicing.
Finally, Brother Jeb gave up. He dropped his arms, turned, and motioned to the man and the women with video cameras. They picked up their equipment and walked away. The quad erupted in applause as Brother Jeb left.
That day in the quad, I saw hope. I witnessed its power. I cling to its promise.
Todd Richardson is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.