Every school year begins with the anxiety of meeting new people, starting new classes and getting into the rhythms of higher education. For nearly as long as I have worked at our school it has also been the time of the return of the Gideons.
During the first few weeks of school, before the weather gets too chilly, a few of them usually visit campus for a few hours in late morning to mid afternoon. They stand on the sidewalks along Hewitt Avenue in front of Old Main, our central administration building, between the library and our main teaching building, handing out little free pocket-sized copies of the Christian New Testament to potentially interested passersby.
Some folks don’t like them there, and over the years campus security has been called more than once. A few years back I seem to remember there were even some minor confrontations. So every year I make a point of stopping by to chat. Today, as I walked by after class I stopped by and asked if there had been any trouble this year. Security had visited, of course, but they were on the public sidewalk and so could legally be there. At our school, which is a private university, the Gideons are restricted to the sidewalks, but the man with whom I spoke told me that at the University of Minnesota—a public institution—they could move freely around campus.
I told him that I just loved what they were doing. I think at first he assumed it was because I shared their faith. I clarified, however, that when I see them outside on the public sidewalks doing what they believe in it makes me happy. I love to see them there doing their thing.
I love the Gideon Bible People because at the beginning of every school year they remind me of the importance of public space, the value of legal protections on freedom of speech, the power of faith, and the willingness of some to demonstrate their beliefs with the physical presence of their bodies by walking on the streets interacting face-to-face with people.
I love the Gideon Bible People because they aren’t normally there and because they irritate some people to the point that they might call security—or, at the very least that security would have to be concerned with a possible situation. They upset the normal silence of students moving from place to place. They confront strangers with their simple ask to give away a Bible.
Their presence proves that while our society has fewer and fewer truly public spaces, at least the little strip along the roads is still open for our use. They also remind me how important it is to have ideas and beliefs in one’s face on campus before and after class.
Of course, I only wish that they weren’t alone. I wish that right beside them were representatives of a variety of faiths and social and political philosophies contending with one another on the public sidewalks for the ears and eyes and curious minds of students and others. I’d like to see the Greens and the Reds and maybe even some Dittoheads. How cool would it be to find a few old school Maoists (if there are any left) to hand out their “little red books” right next to the Gideon’s little green ones? If I saw one person on a soap box sharing his or her views it would make my semester.
College campuses are among the last places our society has for people to share and discuss big ideas together—unravelling the complexities of the world, debating ethics and understanding the way things work—but for some reason these exciting things often only happen in classrooms. When the class ends it’s too easy for docile minds to fall into phones, tablets and laptops or have thoughts pushed out by personal audio. Docile bodies flow to corporate food service or low wage labor. Student debt creates anxiety and fear for “a job” that can paralyze one from thinking about the big things.
How cool would a phalanx of contending ideas lining the streets outside be? I imagine a hot mess disrupting the placid, policed spaces of nowhere that contemporary campuses work so hard to scrub clean. And, if all of the different people were packed together along that little narrow strip of public space that thankfully cuts through the heart of campus they might even be forced to interact with one another—the curious among them might even want to learn about other perspectives. Isn’t that exactly what a university is supposed to be?
Just imagine when families and potential students come to tour our campus! We could show them the classrooms and the amenities—the typical stuff that every campus has—and then at the end take them out to the street. When the parents point toward the gathered rabble and ask with a mixture of concern and awe, “what’s going on over there?”—the guide could flash a broad grin and say with relaxed honesty, “Oh that? A distinctive education.”
Every year when I see them on the streets handing out their books, I am reminded why I love the Gideon Bible People.
Update Fall 2015
Even members of our campus community appear to not quite get why the Gideons are so cool. Our student newspaper, The Oracle, reported in its security news that once again this year someone (a university employee!) called campus security apparently not understanding the way that public space and freedom of speech work. Thankfully the Gideons come every year to remind us.