Around noon on Thursday, “Brother Ross" Jackson of North Carolina set up camp on College Green to preach a message against homosexuality as part of his tour across American college campuses “to come against the typical college culture.”
With a GoPro camera strapped to his chest and a Bible in his hand, Jackson preached animatedly as over a hundred students gathered around him in a circle.
“At first the students behaved a little better, but once the 'homos' — the more sodomized, liberal students — came out and kind of dominated the crowd, then it got kind of out of control,” Jackson said in an interview.
By 2:30 p.m., a large group of pride flag-toting students decided to direct students away from Brother Ross. College senior Miranda van Dijk was among those students who led the group away from the spectacle.
“I know that there are a lot of queer people on this campus and I know that when a lot of freshman or non-freshman arrive and walk past that sort of thing, they feel as if it pertains to them, and it hurts,” she said.
Another protester, College senior Rebecca van Sciver, stood near Jackson with a sign saying, "Buttsex = Heaven, Intolerance = Hell."
Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush, who was at the impromptu sermon and had a heated exchange with another preacher, who identified himself as "Preacher Aiden," knew in advance of the hate-filled sermon.
“The last two days these guys were at Temple doing the exact same thing," she said.
Aiden held a large sign reading “Homo Sex is Sin” next to the Benjamin Franklin statue in front of College Hall.
Both Aiden and Jackson handed out materials to propagate their ideas, though the messages did not always align. Aiden’s cards were emblazoned with the “Coexist” symbol, but were distributed while he pointed at two students and said, “Go home Muslim!” and, “Go home Jew!”
“Most of the students here meet the [standard of] typical ‘brainless, liberal, conforming student’ that does not think for themselves,” Jackson said.
University Chaplain Chaz Howard, who attended the protest, called the preachers' messages “terribly hateful, extraordinarily mean-spirited" and said they "should not be interpreted as representing the religious community at Penn, certainly not Christianity.”
Both preachers brought their families, whose toddling children waved flags and also shouted, “You’re going to hell!” at the students.
It was not clear whether the preachers represented any particular religious movement or denomination. Aiden's wife, Mary, said the couple belonged to a church in South Philadelphia, but said she could not identify it at the time. Ross' wife, Samantha, said she and her husband did not belong to any church in particular but simply preach the King James Bible.
Student responses to the provocative show varied. Some chose to hold posters and flags and stand across Locust Walk from him, refusing to engage and recognize the hateful speech. Van Dijk, LGBT Center Senior Associate Director Erin Cross and others handed out lip balm and cookies to pry students away from the make-do pulpit beneath the statue of Ben Franklin.
“We are happy to offer you free cookies if you don’t give him an audience,” van Dijk said.
Others took different approaches. One student threw a condom at Jackson. Another displayed gay pornography on his computer in front of the preacher.
Rush said, “The students are enjoying debating with these guys, we would prefer they don’t engage with them because all it does is give them a pulpit. They get off on it.”
College and Wharton sophomore Jake Mattis yelled “you’re cute” and “let me give you a rim job.”
“I think that people's reactions to it were just what he wanted," Mattis said. "You don't defeat bigots by making them an antagonist, because they're used to that. You defeat them by making them a joke.”
This is not the first time virulent preachers have come to Penn. Rush shared the story of similar protesters in the past, who the University could do nothing about because Locust Walk and College Green is an open space. However, "Open Expression Observers" — staff or faculty members who attend potentially controversial events to make sure Penn's open expression guidelines are not being violated — were present.
“Because this is open to the public, there was nothing we could do,” Rush said.
Staff Reporter Jacob Winick and Senior Reporter Aliza Ohnouna contributed reporting.
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