BY TABITHA REEVES
Where West Delaware Avenue meets South College Avenue stands Kirkbride Lecture Hall, which is home to numerous classes and located across the street from Trabant Student Center. It is an area of heavy student foot traffic, making it the ideal spot for the occasional poster vendor, sorority fundraiser or a man with a message to share.
Mark Johnson, known to many students as “Kirkbride Jesus,” frequently spends weekday afternoons on the corner, with a Bible in hand. Johnson continues to show up after 25 years, despite drawing strong, and sometimes negative, reactions.
“Some days, nobody stops,” Johnson said. “But I was at this spot last Thursday and I probably talked [to students] the whole time. In all my years, nobody has come to me and said ‘I need Jesus’ or ‘How do I receive Christ?’ It’s a seed planting ministry.”
One of the techniques Johnson uses to “plant seeds” is the sign often set up next to him. It reads, “Are you going to Heaven? Free test!” The test consists of him asking students whether they think their soul could enter a perfect place if they were to die today.
“When somebody comes and does the test, usually that turns negative,” Johnson said. “But mostly they just don’t care what I have to say. I’m not judging them. You wind up judging yourself.”
Caity Kapner, a sophomore fashion design and product innovation major at the university, has spoken to Johnson on various occasions. Kapner said that they approached him with an open mind and no expectations of judgment, but their point of view changed upon talking to him, especially when it came to discussing topics of sexuality and gender.
“He has a script that he likes to abide by that has no foundation in actual Christian thinking,” Kapner said. “He will judge you very blatantly in his ‘Are you going to heaven?’ test.”
Based on the influence of their Christian mother, Kapner’s understanding of Christianity’s true message is to love without judgment and that most sins are no worse than other sins.
“There’s a lot of minute things that are supposed to be understood in an equitable sense,” Kapner said, listing Old Testament sins from the Bible. “So my ‘sins’ are equated to your ‘sins’. We’re both ‘sinners.’ But in [Johnson’s] preaching he demonizes queerness as a sort of super-sin.”
It is not just Johnson that has provided some university students with a negative impression of Christianity. Last year, members of the Key of David Christian Center came to campus, sporting signs that many students perceived as discriminatory, inciting protests. While they were carrying signs with Bible verses, affiliating the group with Christianity, they also used megaphones to call students names based on their appearances.
Tyler Brown, in his seventh year on staff for InterVarsity, a Christian RSO at the university, shared his thoughts on the group in question.
“My understanding is that if they had any kind of religious convictions, they’re hidden under deep hatred,” Brown said.
Kapner described Johnson as the “lesser of two evils” in comparison to those members of the Key of David Christian Center.
“There’s no rational reason as a Christian to be using slurs,” Kapner said. “You cannot justify that.”
Brown explained that InterVarsity’s approach to evangelization is different from both last year’s group of conservative Christians and Johnson.
“I’ve definitely met students that were very turned off to faith as a whole because of people like [Johnson], or maybe him uniquely,” Brown said. “I would like to say that there’s some that have had the opposite experience, but I don’t know those student testimonies, so I’m not sure I could say with certainty that the opposite perspective exists.”
Brown expressed his disagreement with the evangelization methods Johnson uses, saying that hurried passersby only hear 10-second sound snippets of what Johnson has to say. This increases the difficulty of understanding the whole picture and grasping all of Johnson’s rhetoric.
“I think students experience him as very judgmental and condemning,” Brown said. “Maybe it’s because that’s what he’s communicating, or maybe it’s because if you only hear him in those short snippets, then that’s how you’ll interpret it.”
Countering Johnson’s insistence that he comes to the university to “plant seeds” and spread the gospel message without judgment, Kapner believes that Johnson still chooses to show up after so many years to stir up negative reactions from students.
“He’s here all the time, he knows people and every time he talks to people he gets his point across,” Kapner said. “At this point, he’s just here to antagonize students and provoke them.”