A Belated Thank You to My Old Campus Preacher
Class was starting soon, and I knew I’d be late. “Just one more minute,” I muttered aloud. Who was I kidding? My mind had been made up several minutes earlier, but my voice, always the defiant one, insisted that I could still make it on time.
Shortly thereafter, the chime of the campus clock tower brought my mind and voice into sync. I wasn’t going anywhere. I knew I shouldn’t stay, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave — and I didn’t feel the slightest shred of guilt or regret. Missing class was a small price to pay for the education I was about to receive.
If there was one thing I despised more than missing class, it was the dreaded missed opportunity. So when I overheard my campus preacher going off on a tangent about — well, I can’t even remember what the topic was — I decided to stop and listen. And when no one stepped up to challenge him, I decided to take a stab at it myself.
Nearly two hours later, furious as I was with his unrelenting stubbornness, I offered my thanks to the man for what had been the most lively discussion I had been a part of since stepping foot on campus. It was the first time I had worked up the courage to debate anyone in a public forum, and as I made my way back to the dorm, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had made a fool of myself. I had already known that debating the preacher would be a fruitless endeavor. Though I hadn’t introduced myself to him until that day, I had seen him engaged in spirited debates with other students before. He wasn’t the type to budge. But his cleverness and quick thinking caught me by surprise. If I was going to best him in a debate, I’d need to learn how to debate. That meant going back to debate him again.
Over the next four years, I spent countless hours going back and forth with that preacher. By the time I graduated, I had come to see him as a respectable adversary rather than the judgmental, intolerable killjoy I had initially thought him to be. And at the risk of offending every college professor who happens to stumble across this piece, I dare say that I learned more from those exchanges than I did in any classroom — not about religion, mind you, but about how to reason, how to formulate a coherent counterargument, and, perhaps most importantly, how to identify my own shortcomings as a thinker. I cannot thank the preacher enough for that.
Sadly, there were some on campus who sought to rob my peers of the opportunity to do the same. Students and professors alike often argued that the preacher’s offensive nature was an affront to everything that an institution of higher learning ought to stand for. Some wrote letters to the university newspaper demanding his exile from campus. Others tried to start petitions to ban him from common areas. Fortunately for me — and for every other student who recognized and appreciated the value of a good debate — the preacher was allowed to stay.
To be fair, I wasn’t entirely unsympathetic to the arguments put forth by his fiercest critics. The preacher wasn’t a malicious man, but he was more than a little antagonistic. I understood perfectly well why some members of our community wanted him gone. What I found totally unacceptable, though, was how a small minority of students and professors sought to deprive me, along with countless other students, of the most fundamental right every college student enjoys: the right to learn.
That was my rather unpleasant introduction to the issue of censorship, and the lessons I took away from that experience stay with me still.
Disagreement is a precursor to progress, a mechanism utilized by thinking men and women who acknowledge and appreciate the role that intellectual diversity plays in the evolution of both the individual and society at large. We need to learn from our disagreements with each other, not shy away from them or try to suppress them as the preacher’s critics did when they petitioned the university to have him removed from campus.
The ongoing debate about the limits of free speech in America is often framed as a debate over the rights of the speaker. Rarely do we hear about the rights of the audience, and it’s time for that to change. The freedom to listen and respond to a speaker’s ideas is no less integral to a healthy, functional democracy than the freedom to share those ideas. That is perhaps the most important lesson I learned from the preacher. And for that, he has my everlasting gratitude.