Deliverance

Brother Stephen White, born-again Christian preacher, modern-day
"saint" and self-proclaimed "Soldier of Christ,"
has positioned himself no more than 50 yards from my dorm room
window for the past two days. His constant stream of jeers and
proclamations and the shouted responses of indignant Yale students
seep in as I immerse myself in microeconomics and French philosophy.
Campus buzz is all about the "crazy Christian guy on Wall
Street." Brother Stephen’s arrival at Yale, with his wife,
kids, and apprentice Brother Jeff in tow, coincides with National
Coming Out Day 2000. Signs of support for the event are ubiquitous
on our progressive campus: Small pink banners fly from campus
windows, pink triangle and "Straight but not narrow"
pins adorn backpacks, and the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender
Co-operative has set up a door on Cross Campus with "The
Closet" markered across it in large black letters. Just
across Wall Street from this display, Brother Stephen attracts
quite a crowd. Yalies usually are self-involved: Political rallies
and demonstrations, even for causes that most students agree
with, consistently draw fewer than 40 people. But for two days,
a mass of at least that number has surrounded Brother Stephen
almost continuously as he prances and jumps and howls and shakes
his fist, scathingly denouncing everyone from homosexuals to
tree-huggers to potheads to Catholics. I skipped two classes
just to listen.
It is a warm October afternoon and dozens of Yalies stop on their
way home from class to watch the spectacle. Someone in the crowd
mentions that Brother Stephen is leaving Yale this same evening
and heading to Philadelphia. This last point catches my attention:
I too am on my way to Philadelphia, to visit a friend at the
University of Pennsylvania, and I need a ride.
After a moment’s hesitation, I approach Laurie, Brother Stephen’s
wife, who is sitting on a collapsible lawn chair with their two
children (Philip, 2, and Wesley, 9 months) in her lap, and strike
up a conversation with her. I manage to bring up Philadelphia
almost immediately and within minutes, feeling only a twinge
of guilt for so shamelessly taking advantage of her Christian
charity, have secured a spot for myself in their car.
I run up to my room to grab a bag, let my roommates know where
I’m going, and, more importantly, how I’m getting there. Disbelief
quickly turns into a mix of amusement and concern. They advise,
"I wouldn’t ride with him if I were you. That man is mentally
ill. He thinks he’s a saint." And, "Are you really
going to deal with six hours of him preaching at you? I think
I would kill him by the end." I smile, shrug, and head out
the door, prepared for six righteous hours of hellfire and brimstone
on the road to the City of Brotherly Love.
Brother Stephen speaks in a squeaky Arkansas drawl, peppering
short sentences with proclamations of "Praise the Lord"
and "Praise be to Jesus." If written, his speech would
contain frequent exclamation points and italicized phrases. He
is an old-time Southern traveling preacher, straight out of a
Flannery O’Connor story.
As we squeeze into his plain white Mazda, Brother Stephen tells
me that he’s been craving a burger all day. I direct him to a
Burger King down Whalley Avenue. I’m a bit nervous about the
whole endeavor: In his preaching earlier in the day, Brother
Stephen had taken some decisive swipes at inner cities and black
culture, especially "reefer-sucking, fornicating" rap
icons like Tupac Shakur. Mixing Brother Stephen with the standard
New Haven crowd seems like a recipe for disaster.
After seeing Brother Stephen in action for the past two days,
his change in demeanor when we get in the car is disarming. We
make small talk; he asks me where I’m from, what I’m studying,
why I decided to go to Yale, what my parents do. Though an occasional
"Praise the Lord" or "Our Lord and Savior Jesus
Christ" still pops up, he is low-key and down-to-earth,
someone who has an easy time talking to people and clearly enjoys
it. He’s almost someone I’d like to sit down and have a beer
with-if we’d met in a different context, and if he drank alcohol.
Even when the conversation takes a turn towards religion and
philosophy, he remains calm, and by the time we reach the Burger
King, he knows the basic facts of my life: I am a Jew; I am agnostic;
and I have violated more than one of the Ten Commandments.
I go sit in a booth with Laurie and her two sons while Brother
Stephen and Brother Jeff stand in line. The contrast is almost
comic: The two preachers, blond hair gelled into submission,
wait politely in dark suits among the mostly black, casually
dressed clientele. But after a minute, I look back and both are
jabbering away at the person next to them in line, Brother Stephen
animated, Brother Jeff poised. A minute later, Brother Stephen
is offering his email address to a teenager wearing a leather
Fubu Jacket, red Yankees hat turned sideways, and a thick gold
chain around his neck. The teenager accepts the card, and gives
Brother Stephen his phone number.

Brother Stephen claims that he was called to preach when he
was 19 years old, six years born again and living in Arkansas.
He was "saved" at thirteen. I can only imagine what
sins lay in his closet at that tender age. But, no matter-he
was willing to make the "transformative atonement."
Brother Stephen has spent most of the past ten years of his life
preaching at eastern universities like Penn, Princeton, and Yale.
The routine is more or less the same each time: Set up shop on
a busy campus thoroughfare, straighten the tie and bring out
the Bible, then launch an epic session of heckling, prostrating,
haranguing, condemning, and proclaiming. At first, passers-by
glance nervously at the gray-suited Soldier of God and try to
avoid his taunts, bigoted censures, and hallelujahs. Soon, a
crowd gathers around him and the spectacle begins. Students,
dripping with righteous indignation, confront the preacher. They
get in his face and yell: denunciations, streams of obscenities,
insults. At Princeton, Brother Stephen tells me, one student,
"a Jewish boy," actually hit him. "We’re going
to take that kid to court," Laurie assures me.
At Yale, students’ responses have ranged from outrage to mild
amusement. One student walked up to Brother Stephen and blew
smoke in his eyes. Two female friends of mine talked about standing
in front of him and licking each others’ faces. Most Yalies stop
to watch for a bit, then move on, casually mentioning the "freak
on Wall Street" or the "crazy Christian guy" in
the dining hall or before class. I wonder if Brother Stephen
knows that his shouting and jumping and frantic arm-waving is
to most of us merely a freak show, and that his devotion and
faith are just further evidence of his insanity, something to
be laughed about and mocked, then forgotten. I don’t want to
tell him, as if I have some reason to protect him and his feelings.
So we talk about the righteous objectors, the students who confront
him and argue with him. Brother Stephen’s act is meant to be
interactive-he mocks, he jeers, he accuses listeners of sin and
informs them that they will "spend eternity in a lake of
fire," and he expects them to talk back. That is why, Laurie
tells me, Stephen likes to preach at Ivy League schools: Here
students argue with him. They talk philosophy and theology and
sociology and politics and the Bible, even if discussion is not
always civil. At some schools, UConn for example, students just
walk by and tell him to fuck off, not even taking the time to
stop and watch the show.
No one is more outraged by Brother Stephen than the handful of
devout Christians on campus. To them, his Christianity is an
egregious perversion of their religion and their Bible. I have
trouble ascertaining just what kind of Christian Brother Stephen
is-according to him, there is only one kind, and his kind is
it. "All those Christians at Yale," he tells me, "aren’t
really Christians. If you are a true Christian, you devote yourself
to spreading the word of the Bible and helping people realize
Jesus as the son of God." Those Christians at Yale have,
for the most part, been fierce and vocal in their opposition
to him. But, Brother Stephen tells me, this opposition does not
reflect the feelings of the true Christians at the University.
"I ask Christians if they think homosexuals are going to
hell," he elaborates, "and they say yes. But they whisper-they’re
afraid to shout it out. I’m here to make Christians know that
they can shout out their beliefs and their faith in Jesus Christ!"

I tell Brother Stephen that I am a writer, and ask whether
I can write about the trip. His reply is an unequivocal, "Absolutely."
Brother Stephen, it seems, loves publicity. He brags about frequent
articles in the Daily Pennsylvanian and the Princetonian, and
claims that he was mentioned in the New York Times in an article
about evangelical preachers disrupting Republican convention-goers
in Philadelphia this summer. On the dashboard, there is a stack
of copies (presumably to hand out back home) of the October 12
Yale Daily News, the front page of which is dominated by a picture
of Stephen, looking wild-eyed and possessed with a Bible in hand,
and the headline "Zealot preaches to Yale masses."
Still, he is not happy about the paper’s coverage. "The
Yale Daily News printed nasty info about me and the Gospel of
Jesus Christ," he calmly explains. "One Yale student
actually said ‘I have not been to Sunday school in 10 years and
I know the Bible better than Brother Stephen.’ Of course, this
freshman wouldn’t dare humiliate himself by making himself known
to me."
By the time we get on I-95 and head towards New York City, Stephen,
Jeff, and Laurie are discussing the day. They sound like high
school athletes on their way home from a big victory, recounting
the events play by play. "Remember when that one kid came
up and argued with me about Romans?" Stephen asks us, grinning,
victorious. "Yeah, you told him," Brother Jeff shoots
back, and they all shake their heads and smile. It occurs to
me that Brother Stephen, Brother Jeff, and Laurie do not see
even a hint of validity in the various arguments-Biblical, philosophical,
sociological, political-brought against them by the academic
elite of America. Every anecdote they mention ends with the same
contented smile and sense of victory; to them, their logic is
impeccable.
At Yale there was an almost endless stream of cock-sure kids
marching up to Brother Stephen and declaring their own grain
of incontrovertible evidence or undeniable reasoning that would
prove, without a doubt, that he is wrong. Yet his beliefs have
not changed, nor has he been converted to the truth through some
flawlessly argued philosophy or a student’s assertion that "God
is love." "People come up to him and they think that
they can change his mind," Laurie says, "but he hears
the same arguments everywhere, and if they didn’t work the first
time, they’re not going to work now."
After all this talk of preaching, I’m curious: How many converts
has Brother Stephen won in the past 18 years? For his entire
adult life, he has spent nearly every day either studying the
Bible or spreading the Gospel at a mall or baseball game or on
a college campus. He often preaches for ten or twelve hours at
a time, shaking his fist and shouting and waving his Bible at
all who care to listen and many who don’t. His answer surprises
me: "I’ve never actually saved someone." But he does
not seem bothered in the least, presumably because of his faith.
To his mind, every true Christian is driven to preach this same
message of the Gospel-otherwise, you would not be a true Christian,
he asserts, just like the silent ones at Yale. Laurie chimes
in, supporting her husband: "You have to take a radical
stand for righteousness."

By the time we get on I-295 to Philadelphia, Philip is asleep
and Brother Stephen and Brother Jeff are in the front, unabashedly
belting out the lyrics of the acoustic evangelical music on the
stereo. The words have something to do with Jesus being there
for you when your belief is threatened by the cold and hard world,
but I stopped paying attention after the first few songs, all
of which sounded the same to my ear. I am in the back with Laurie,
her youngest son asleep in her arms. "You know," she
begins, eyeing me, "I used to be a sinner." I nod and
look away. The silence is easier.
But she goes on, unprompted. "I used to sin. I fornicated.
I would, like, go to parties. I cursed all the time, it was always,
like, ‘F’ this and ‘F’ that." She grew up in New Jersey
in a non-religious family and went to college jaded and indulgent.
I try to imagine her as a college student, someone I would see
drinking keg-beer at a party or huddled, smoking a joint, laughing
on a dark quadrangle. She is looking at me earnestly. I ask her
when she changed, when she was "saved," and, more importantly,
how. Her answer is matter-of-fact. When she was a sophomore at
West Chester University, she "just didn’t like going to
parties anymore." I press her for an explanation. "I
didn’t curse, I didn’t drink, I just didn’t want to go out for,
like, a few weekends in a row." And? "It was a sign
from God."
Laurie joined a campus crusade, gradually gave up her old sinning
friends, and "devoted her life to Christ." She met
Stephen two years later, at a college ministry retreat. They
continued running into each other over the next several years.
In 1997, Stephen "thought about all the men of God who had
great wives" and decided to pray for one. Lo and behold,
he soon unexpectedly bumped into Laurie and wondered if "this
could be the Lord." After subjecting her to a strict set
of criteria (for example, "she had to want to have many
children" and "be a good cook and like caring for the
home"), he approached her father to ask for his daughter’s
hand in marriage.
What surprises me more than anything is that Laurie is not the
meek, unopinionated, old-fashioned wife I expected her to be.
At one point earlier in the day, as I watched Brother Stephen,
a female friend approached me, pointed at Laurie, and whispered,
"God, I wonder what the wife is thinking." Indeed,
the scene did seem easy enough to pigeonhole: the Good Christian,
an old-fashioned chauvinist, and his subservient wife who smiles
approvingly and minds the children. But unless Brother Stephen
and his wife’s interaction in the car ride is an elaborate charade
for my benefit, this prejudice is far from true.
Laurie is girlish-looking, with a few lingering freckles and
mousy brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, and she wears a simple
brown dress with a white turtleneck underneath. While her husband
drives, singing along to his favorite evangelical rock tape,
we talk politics and the history of the evangelical movement
and child-rearing. Laurie is a social worker in the poor, rundown
area of West Philadelphia where they live. "Some of the
higher-up people in [the company where I work] are homosexuals,"
she tells me, as if searching for approval by demonstrating her
capacity for tolerance. Yet she also explains the ongoing homosexual
plot to infiltrate the public school system, a fact affirmed
by "a mass of evidence" that she refrains from explaining.
Her kids, of course, will be home-schooled.
The presence of the kids has made me uncomfortable since the
ride began. Before he fell asleep, Philip taught me the "b-i-b-l-e"
song and we read the story of Noah’s Ark (he also quoted Bible
passages to me while his parents coached him). Earlier in the
ride, Laurie slapped him for hitting his brother. Noticing my
gaze, she explained, "You have to show them pain when they
do something wrong."

The Philadelphia night is clear and crisp and at midnight
we pull up to a large house near the Penn campus with Greek letters
above the door. Heavy bass can be heard from inside, and, occasionally,
a group of students goes in or out. My friend the frat boy stands
outside, beer in hand, the stupefied smile of drunkenness plastered
on his face. I squirm uncomfortably-I am loath to let Brother
Stephen, Brother Jeff, and Laurie see the world I’ll enter (or,
more accurately, reenter) after I leave the car.
Brother Stephen turns around in his seat to face me. He is smiling,
his blue eyes friendly. I thank them, trying to be profuse while
still rushing to escape this awkward state of limbo. But, as
I express my gratitude, Brother Stephen interrupts me: "No,
thank you. Thank you and your people for the Holy Bible. Thank
you for spending these hours with us." He gives me a pamphlet.
"Take this," he tells me and I look down at the paper.
"Soldiers of Christ" is printed boldly across the top.
I pretend to study it, nod, and start to get out of the car.
Brother Stephen stops me. "Brother Daniel," he addresses
me. His voice drips with earnestness; his gaze is magnetic. "Atone
with me, Brother Daniel. You could die at any moment, and you
will go to hell. I don’t want that, Brother Daniel!" He
goes on. I don’t move. Can all of this really be honest, genuine
care for all of the sinners like me whom he believes will spend
an eternity burning in hell? At the moment, I feel like it is.
But, I guess that’s exactly what Brother Stephen wants me to
feel. "Pray with me, praise the Lord! Atone with me…."
With Brother Stephen’s words still ringing in my head, I step
out of the car and head for the keg.

 

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, a sophomore
in Berkeley College, is research director for
TNJ.

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