Like sentinels stationed at the Pearly Gates, they stood at Main Campus street corners, outside of lecture halls, in front of dorms and – in their view – before God.
Their mission: spreading a “saving knowledge” of Jesus Christ by helping people gain admittance into heaven. Their method: free pocket-sized copies of the New Testament. The inside flap bears their emblem, a burning lamp inside a two-handled pitcher. The design is a trademark of The Gideons International.
Founded in 1899 in Wisconsin, the Gideons are the oldest association of Christian business and professional men in the U.S. They are among the many religious organizations that annually visit campus to try to canvass students.
The Gideons have distributed more than 1.2 billion Bibles worldwide for the purpose of promoting the Gospel of Christ to all people. That purpose brought them to Temple Oct. 17.
“Rain or shine, I’ll be here,” said Jack Randolph, a Gideon member and Bible distributor. He estimated that 25 to 30 Gideons from the Upper Bucks County chapter had been giving away Bibles on campus.
Camped at 13th and Diamond streets outside of Annenberg Hall on the drizzly Tuesday morning, Randolph donned sunglasses and a fedora. He clutched his umbrella, ready to open it in the midst of a downpour.
By midmorning, a heavy rainfall was in full swing as several blocks away, on 12th Street in front of Anderson and Gladfelter
Halls, four more Gideons doled out Bibles to students who would take them.
One of them, Daniel Levy, who has been distributing Bibles for three years, said that reading the Bible would put a student on the path toward salvation.
“How can one know for sure if they’re going to go to heaven? That’s a talking point,” he said.
This year, Levy said, Temple students seemed to be more receptive to the Gideons’ message. He attributed this to the high traffic in the area between Anderson and Gladfelter Halls and the Bell Tower.
“Last year I was over by the dorms, so it was more lukewarm. But here, they’ve been very, very receptive,” he said.
“I don’t know if that means that they’re more religious here than they were last year, but they’re more receptive.”
Earl Landis, who handles personal funds for the Upper Bucks Gideons, was another Bible distributor on 12th Street. He spoke of a student who accepted a Bible and then promptly destroyed it.
“One man walked up and tore a Bible apart and threw it in the trash can,” Landis said. “That’s one out of 10,000.”
According to Landis, the Gideons were instructed to stay off campus property and remain on the sidewalks. But overall, Landis said that the Temple community has been “very friendly.”
Levy agreed, saying he was very impressed
with Temple. “We’ve had nothing but warmth coming here,” he said. “We haven’t had anybody scold me or anybody get nasty.”
Students, however, seemed apathetic toward
religious causes. When seniors Steven Mewha and John Pannosian were asked why they accepted Bibles from the Gideons, they responded lightly.
“I’ve got about 21 Bibles now in my backpack if you’d like to see,” Mewha said, unzipping his backpack and displaying a large collection of Bibles.
Mewha, a film and media arts major, said he and Pannosian are part of the Belltower Society, an informal student group that partakes in comedic stunts. He said that the group was planning to have a “Bible dodgeball fight” that day at 1 p.m. in front of the Bell Tower.
“Every single year that they have the Gideon Bible thing, we just have a Bible fight. So we don’t actually take it seriously. We’re just collecting them so we could have a fight,” Mewha said, adding that “Temple University doesn’t seem to really care.”
Junior broadcast journalism major Terrence
Lee said he declined to accept a Bible from a Gideon. “He was like, ‘What are you not a Christian?’ I just stared at him and I turned back around and started walking,” Lee said. “It’s not really appropriate for him to be saying something like that just because I didn’t want to get what he was handing out. It was very rude.”
Lee went on to express his distaste for religious evangelization. He recalled another religious group that was picketing and vocally soliciting students two weeks ago. “I’m a Christian and I’m all for helping other people get in touch with their spiritual sense, but doing it in that manner to me is just wrong,” Lee said.
Charles Leone, deputy director of Campus
Safety Services, said that outside religious organizations that do not go through proper permission channels to come to campus are restricted to the public sidewalks. He said police have a right to intervene if there is a possibility
of a physical dispute.
“You’ve just got to be careful because people get very passionate about their opinions and we just want to make sure nobody gets hurt,” Leone said. “We don’t want to censor someone. It’s a gray area. It’s a tightrope you’ve got to walk. We try to be cautious and we also want to give people their freedoms.”
Venuri Siriwardane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.