A week ago, I cut through the Pentacrest on my way to lunch. Just as I was about to cross Jefferson Street, a fellow student slowed his bike. "You guys have to check out the crazy Christian guy," he said, peddling past us--five strangers--in the opposite direction. We all looked at each other strangely, craning our necks to look down the Anne Cleary walkway. At first, I only saw a middle-aged man passing out flyers for a Japanese restaurant downtown. I took a flyer from the man as I neared him, absentmindedly thanking him for the paper that I would, ten seconds later, toss into a trash can. It was then I heard him.
"I don't want you sinners in my church! Or you Jews! I only want Christians!"
There he was--Jesse Morrell--standing upon the concrete wall that separates Calvin Hall from the walkway. I drank him in; critiqued the argyle sweater, acknowledged the Bible tucked into his belt. His right hand clasped a banner supported by a holster he wore. It proclaimed in alarmingly yellow letters that "JESUS CHRIST will cast ALL SINNERS into the LAKE OF FIRE on the DAY OF JUDGMENT."
It was the lunch hour, and so the walkway was filled with passing students who yelled insults at Morrell as they walked, or snapped pictures of him. Many immediately pulled out their cell phones to text the absurdities that Morrell had directed at them.
"Why don't you do something productive with your existence?" a young man yelled out from down the walkway. Laughter echoed throughout the buildings, mine included. This guy is nuts, I thought. I know he's evangelizing, but he's...not so nice about it. A resounding, "YOU'RE GOING TO HELL!" echoed behind me in response.
That's one way to bring people to Jesus.
As described by Josef Urban on the blog, Grace in the Triad, Jesse Morrell is "an open air preacher and campus speaker who travels around the USA preaching everywhere. He writes somewhat extensively on theological subjects and operates under the banner of the ministry he founded, 'Open Air Outreach'. His influences seem to span wide and far as he is constantly on the move and preaching his version of what he calls 'the gospel'."
This "gospel" that Urban refers to are the "four vital aspects" of Open Air Outreach's evangelism: prayer, tracts and bible distribution, one-on-one, and open-air preaching. The website goes on to explain that "although [they] may also be a part of food and clothing ministries, working on the front lines sharing the unadulterated message of repentance towards God is [their] TOP priority."
Yes...which is why Morrell's zeal for evangelism is frightening. I witnessed him employ un-Scriptural tactics of "shock and awe" preaching. His primary method seems to focus on shouting insults at students, then employing appallingly offensive statements in hopes that a crowd will gather. I give him credit, though; it worked.
The next afternoon, on Tuesday, I deliberately changed my route to pass through the Anne Cleary walkway again, where Morrell was still preaching. I first took the opportunity to snap a few pictures of the situation, as a crowd of about fifty or sixty people had gathered. After a few minutes of pretending I was more than an amateur photographer, I stood a ways off from the crowd, next to towering, blond guy in a blue, button-down shirt.
"What do you think of this?" he asked me point-blank.
I laughed and shook my head. "I don't know," I said. "I give him credit for coming out here and evangelizing, though. I mean, that's what we--Christians--are supposed to do. So kudos for that. But I don't think this is necessarily the best way to go about it."
"You're right," the guy said, adjusting his messenger bag. "It's one way to bring people to Jesus. I mean, this is what he wants; he wants a crowd. He wants his word out."
I squinted into the sunlight as I spoke. "I absolutely agree! This is what he's aiming for. That's probably why he hits up all the college campuses--wants to get his opinions to the most people possible. I just think he could find a better tactic."
"Yeah, yelling out insults is certainly not a good one." A fresh dose of laughter from the crowd proved our point.
"Now," I said to the guy, "I don't think that what he is doing is bad. However, I do disagree with about everything he says. I mean, earlier, I was here for about five minutes, and I left after he mentioned that there were 'No orgasms in hell.'" The guy's eyes boggled, and I smiled. "Yeah," I sighed. "I just think it would be more beneficial to sit down with him, one-on-one, and just...talk. I want to see what he believes and why. I don't want to be condemned by him."
The guy nodded, and we both turned our heads back to Jesse, half-listening to him, half-listening to each other. We spoke of our beliefs in Christianity, the churches in Iowa City, and our purpose at the University of Iowa (he was a graduate student in communications). While we talked, a man in the crowd asked Morrell a question, who responded, "Yes, I will answer that; but too BAD you are MISTAKEN!"
"Hey! Why don't you just answer his question instead of insulting him!" someone in the crowd yelled back. Morrell paid no attention.
"LOVE," he preached, "is NOT an emotion! It is a CHOICE!"
Protests rang out. "What? How can you not feel it?" "You can't choose who you love?" "Did you have to choose to love your wife?" "Shut the hell up!" "What? No! If GOD is LOVE, and LOVE is a CHOICE, then GOD is a choice! Maybe I don't want to choose God!" "What about your wife? What about marriage?"
Morell, well-practiced in the art of ignoring inquiries, directed his answer at only the last question. "That’s the problem! People just want to marry for sex! You ask someone, ‘Why are you getting married?’ and they say, “Oh, well, he makes me feel so good,” or “I just love spending time with her.’ And it’s selfish! It's self-centered!"
More protests rung out, but Morrell ignored all of them, moving on to what is probably his favorite topic: homosexuality.