‘Kirkbride Jesus’ debates crowd of student spectators
Published: Monday, March 5, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, March 6, 2012 03:03
A half hour before his solid mechanics class let out of Kirkbride Hall Thursday afternoon, sophomore and engineering major Matt Sparacino heard sudden loud shouting coming from outside.
"We thought, ‘Oh, it's Kirkbride Jesus again,'" Sparacino said of his 100-student class.
But when the students left the building at 3:15 p.m. and filed out onto the courtyard, they saw Mark Johnson, 48, colloquially called "Kirkbride Jesus" by students, and another man arguing about the former's preaching.
According to Sparacino, the man, who looked to be in his thirties, said amidst the crowd that he had been passing through the area for years and wasn't happy with Johnson's presence. The man cited Johnson's use of circular logic, which Sparacino said involves "using the Bible to prove the Bible," in his argument.
"Sometimes I feel like he's being really aggressive," Sparacino said. "But after today, I gained a lot of respect for him. In light of petty arguments, he held his ground."
Johnson, a Port Deposit, Md. resident, said the man told him he has heard Johnson preach since 1998 and "was tired of it."
"He wasn't asking a lot of questions," Johnson said. "He was making statements. When I tried to answer his questions, he didn't like my answers."
He said it doesn't surprise him when people respond negatively to his preaching methods. The response itself is what matters to him most, he said.
"When you preach the gospel, it's a win-win," Johnson said. "It's never a bad day when you wake up. It's a lot more fun when you've got 100 people standing around you."
Senior Daniel Bleeker said he heard about the growing crowd outside Kirkbride Hall from a friend's text message, which prompted him to see the debate himself. He said he primarily saw one person questioning the preacher about religious topics, but said other members of the crowd sporadically participated in the discussion.
Bleeker, who identified himself as a Christian, said he believes Johnson can sometimes appear overaggressive and unpleasant when he preaches, but thought the incident allowed students to talk openly about their beliefs.
"I mean, I do like the discussion of religion, an actual discussion because let's face it—we kinda try to avoid it," Bleeker said.
Sophomore Brandon Blue lingered in a group of students after the crowd had dissipated, discussing points brought up during the interaction.
"A lot of people write him off without listening to what he's saying," Blue said. "It was good for some people to stop and listen. It gave us an opportunity to openly discuss what we believe and why we believe it."
Senior Nick Audette said he asked Johnson questions about the authority of the church after the crowd began to disperse. While he said he is not religious and almost considers himself anti-religion, he thought the opportunity to debate philosophical matters in an open setting was a positive experience. He compared it to ancient Athens, where Socrates and other philosophers debated their points in open air.
"It's sort of interesting that this is a way to make that happen, even if I don't agree with what he's saying," Audette said.
The biochemistry major said the conversations spurred by the incident were surprising because they are rare on a college campus.
"I was just interested to see a large group of people talking about things because it doesn't happen that often," Audette said.
Junior Megan Rabian, president of the Baptist Student Ministry, said she was surprised to hear such a large crowd gathered around Johnson last week. She said she thinks students often don't pay attention to him because he speaks extensively about sin and condemnation.
"That's a big turn-off," Rabian said.
Evangelism, the preaching of Christ's teachings, is meant to spur open dialogue about religion, she said, and Johnson accomplishes that in his own way.
"Any conversation that starts people questioning the Bible or wanting to know more about the Bible is a really great thing," Rabian said.
She said her student group also tries to spread the gospel, or Christ's message, to the university community. Before the demolition of the group's former Amstel Avenue residence, which made way for the ongoing construction of a new, bigger building, Rabian said ministry members handed out free donuts and hot chocolate on the street, talking to students who stopped by about the gospel. Members also visited freshman dorms asking students if they needed their trash taken out, then offered their thoughts.