I live close enough to the college campus where I work that I walk most days. I save myself and the earth a couple gallons of gas and let the fresh air prepare me for or calm me down from a busy desk job. But on Monday, my walk wasn't so much interrupted as it was just annoyed by a couple of street preacher protesters who visit campus occasionally to share their idea of the "good news." They weren't as transparent about their hatefulness as groups like Westboro, but their signs and words were clear: The Bible is fundamentally inerrant. Its words condemn everyone from, in their archaic language, homosexuals to harlots. And people apparently need to be told this, publicly, during their sidewalk lunch rush. I would have been happy with news about it being National Dog Day or that it was also the 93rd anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment, which recognized women's right to vote in the U.S., but good news, I guess, is in the viewer ratings.
I've visited enough big cities and big colleges to know that this isn't exactly unusual. I lived in DC for a summer, and I daily passed a man always knelt in prayer on the same corner of the Mall, surrounded by signs condemning the U.S. for its acceptance of LGBT people. And a large university nearby has actually designated an area for the myriad of regular preachers and protesters to condemn the university in a safe space almost out of earshot. Whether we're accustomed to protesters and street preachers or not, we quickly learn to walk on by and ignore their version of the good news. But in Small Town, USA, on a rather progressive liberal arts campus, it's not easy to ignore anything out of the ordinary. So, I couldn't help but feel offended by their message, defensive of those being directly antagonized by them, and even a little guilty for just walking by their injustice without standing up to them. I realized, though, that protesting like this, with signs and megaphones, is just universally inappropriate, and all we can do is look the other way. I conformed to our public opinion that this is an ineffective means of communication, and they should pack up their roadshow and stew in their own hate. We should all just be a little quieter, more private and reserved in our convictions. People are wrong for wearing their opinions on their sleeves, much less on the street. Never mind the message, the messenger is just crazy.
I got to work and tried to forget about it. Until I remembered that this week is also the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King's March on Washington, one of the largest protests in U.S. history. I had just disregarded all protests as immature and insignificant without thinking of their profound influence on our lives and history. I was confronted by my own hypocrisy. I write off protesting in and of itself because of the street preachers on campus or by the Mall in DC a few summers ago, forgetting that it was a protesting preacher at the front of that Mall 50 years ago who revolutionized the world. We don't want to seem too fringe, so we mainstream the radicals of history and don't get too risky ourselves. We don't protest because we're comfortable with our privilege or tolerant of the status quo. People do protest because the world has tried to drown out their voices, but they refuse to go unheard. The courage to stand for something, and even to protest and be ridiculed for it, is perhaps the most admirable thing our democracy allows us. And if Dr. King could inspire a nation by marching, how can I question the power of a protest? If we should be following anyone's lead, it's his, so maybe we should all be protesting. It wasn't the audacity of the campus street preachers to interrupt my commute that should have offended me, then. Rather, it's their message itself that offends, and it can't go unanswered.
But their words actually aren't so rare. They're just usually whispered instead or only said, or typed, behind closed doors. Most churches still teach that sexual orientation is less than a natural tendency and sacred calling. And look no further than your Facebook newsfeed to see that slut-shaming is going strong (see: Miley Cyrus VMA posts). The outcasts, the oppressed and actual harlots were Jesus's constant company. But that's not what our churches look like anymore. Instead, we guilt and impress children, victims, and each other with a quieter version of the campus protesters' same insidious message. The street preaching protesters air our dirty laundry for us: these are the things most believe, but are too reserved to announce in public.
I wouldn't have dared to try arguing with the street preachers on campus. If their convictions were solid enough to protest, then no counter-protest was going to convince them otherwise. But Dr. King's drum major instinct to march, preach, and encourage others toward freedom is something a lot more of us should be standing up for. The campus hung a banner that simply read "We Speak Love" behind the protesters. That silent gesture was a passive counter to the hateful rhetoric, and that's the reminder that genuine activism needs. Freedom is in a perilous place, and I'm not sure how much it has improved since Dr. King's march 50 years ago. It needs some more marchers, protesters, and even preachers to speak for it creatively and peacefully or else the hateful street preachers, closed door preachers, and Facebook hecklers will drown it out. Our striving for justice and peace, respect and dignity needs all the help it can get.