Standing on a bench in the Diag, Dave Sackett started to preach. Facing him, a crowd of students clad in black was – surprisingly – not speaking. As the gay community recognized closeted homosexuals with an hour of silence Oct. 6, Sackett preached the word of God.
To the best of his knowledge, Sackett, an LSA senior, is the only student street preacher who proselytizes on the Diag.
Last week and throughout the fall semester, a number of religious groups and individuals – primarily Muslims and Christians – reached out to passersby in the Diag. Among these groups, individuals aimed to convert, encourage debate or simply raise awareness for their religions.
Sackett said he realizes other street preachers have been met with animosity and tried to distance himself from their negative image. “You don’t hear compassion in their voice. It doesn’t seem like they’re really concerned about your soul. It seems they feel better by making you feel worse,” Sackett said. “I hope that people could feel the compassion in my voice.”
Sackett focuses primarily on sin and tells fables to illustrate his points. His style is noticeably conversational, using phrases like “c’mon,” and often addresses the crowd as “we.” After reading a verse from the book of Revelation on God’s judgment, he said, “There’s a lot of good news, but there’s also a lot of bad news. The wages of sin is death. So please think soberly about that.”
LSA sophomore Meghan Miner is unreceptive to such evangelists.
“No matter how personal he tries to be, I still think people are not going to listen,” Miner said.
Sackett said he was not trying to be confrontational by speaking to students during their hour of silence, part of National Coming Out Week. He was unaware of the event.
After addressing demonstrators in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Sackett recalled one girl from the crowd who approached him and asked about his feelings on homosexuals. “(It is) a sin against God. But is it any worse than any other sin, I don’t know,” he replied.
Sackett is not the only Christian evangelist on the Diag. Peter Payne, who is involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, has a different approach to the Christian faith and the Bible. He preaches “Intelligent Christianity 101.”
“I’m trying to persuade people that there may be more to be said for the Christian faith as a rational option,” said Payne, who has a doctorate in philosophy. “I don’t try to persuade people that all rational people have to believe the Christian faith is true, because there is no rational calculus that tells you how you need to weigh different arguments,” Payne added. He does not believe that one can definitively prove that any particular belief or worldview is true or that one is more rational than another.
But Payne realized he was unlikely to persuade or convert people on the spot. He said his speeches are more comparable to “philosophy-Christianity lectures.” The aim is to spark reflection, he said.
Miner said this approach might be more helpful.
“I would be more apt than do something with him than with a random street preacher. I think that’s a better approach,” Miner added.
There are those who disagree with Payne. “There are a fair number of Christians who differ with the approach that I take. (They) are anti-rational and distrustful of reason,” Payne said.
Payne, who has spread his message each fall for the past five years, also disagrees with the methods of traditional street preachers.
“They are out there telling people ‘you’re going to hell’ when they don’t believe in hell in the first place, telling people they’re immoral … but hardly ever does it give glory to Christ,” Payne said.
IVCF President John Downer agrees with Payne’s approach and said those who oppose his methods need to examine the Bible as more than a spiritual text.
“My personal opinion is that God created a mind as well everything else, and we can use that mind to think about God,” Downer said.
The Muslim Students Association was also on the Diag last week for Islam Awareness Week. MSA handed out flyers and pamphlets to teach about Islam and invite passersby to upcoming lectures.
“We work on educating people who are not Muslim about what Islam really is, breaking down stereotypes. We also give resources to Muslims on campus allowing (them) to grow not only as Muslims but as students,” said Omar Khalil, president of MSA.
Khalil stressed that the purpose of Islam Awareness Week and the MSA is not convert students but to educate the public about the religion and to counteract the negative stereotypes created by the media and the Sept. 11th attacks.
But MSA will help any student who wishes to convert, Khalil said.
“We always ask before someone wants to convert if they are serious. It usually takes joint collaboration between (MSA) and the mosque, because the mosque has more resources,” he said.
Concerning Christian evangelists on the Diag, Khalil welcomes their presence.
“Personally, they can go and say whatever they want. I have absolutely no feelings against them at all. The Diag is a place where people can say what they want,” Khalil said.
Evangelism at the University goes beyond the Diag. Both Sackett, who is a member of Campus Crusade for Christ, and Payne said that their groups have other outreach operations. CCC often invites students to its Bible studies. IVCF conducts “Contact Evangelism” each week, discussing Christianity with students in the Michigan Union and other main University buildings.