On Wednesday, Nov. 15, a table of representatives from the Rolling Meadows Mennonite Church sat on the second floor of Buntrock Commons at the base of the stairs to the cafeteria, passing out pamphlets. The materials varied widely in subject matter, with some as harmless as “The Gospel According to John.” Many of the rest, however, echoed hateful sentiments, most obviously one brightly colored card which read in large print, “AIDS: The Real Problem Behind the Scourge.”
This piece of writing, among several other pamphlets disseminated by the group, claimed that HIV and AIDS are divine punishments for an immoral lifestyle. Their writing claimed “The Real Problem is not HIV. It is one even more deadly. The Real Problem is often the sin of immorality,” continuing that “Many times AIDS is God’s judgement on immorality.”
Another piece, titled “What do you want from life,” showed an image of an arrow pointing from a cradle to a grave, and further explored the group’s definition of sin. “Sin leaves us unhappy and disappointed. Our sinful lives lack purpose and peace. And sin condemns us to death.” It then went on to assert that the only way to escape the punishment for sin was to accept their god.
A pamphlet titled “The New Morality or the old immorality,” featured a drawing of a young man with tattoos and a loose-fitting gold chain around his neck, looking around a deserted city street with “No Fear” etched into the wall behind him. The pamphlet claimed, “God speaks through AIDS. And people are paying attention…finally.” The pamphlet went on to provide what it claimed to be a direct message from God, which read “the new morality is nothing other than the old immorality that I have always abhorred. It is sin, and it results in death.”
The same packet also deemed various practices sinful and reflections of modern immorality, including adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, lust, bestiality and youthful lusts. Each section offered one or more Bible verses that the packet purported to prove the immorality of the practices. When addressing homosexuality, the packet claimed that “God condemns this sin. Because of this sin and others, God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with fire.” This comparison was echoed in the piece regarding lust, which equated modern cities to Sodom and Gomorrah and claimed that byproducts of modern city life “stimulate lust, and a person who lusts in his mind soon sins in his deeds. The person who sins (whether in thought or in deed), will die.”
The group was quickly met with resistance from the campus, including several students confronting it for spreading hate speech. Cosi Pori ’18 was one of those who directly addressed the radical religious group, expressing anger at the impact the group may have had on students struggling with HIV or AIDS.
“I went back and gave a speech at them, and said ‘hey, the real problem is you guys [who are] perpetuating the stigma against AIDS and HIV, [making] people more afraid to live with it and come out having it. I took one of each [pamphlet] and the rest I took and threw in one of those recycling bins,” Pori said.
Another pamphlet, titled “True love…knows how to wait” featured two roses on the front and vilified premarital sex, specifically in regards to women. Offering purported testimonials from young women, the pamphlet claimed that men who engage in premarital sex with women are “guilty of destroying her longings and dreams.” Later on, it shifted the blame to women, claiming that “the man is not always the one at fault. Of course not! There are young ‘ladies’ who do not deserve any respect. They dress provocatively; they flirt; they are easy to have; everybody can hug them, pet them, or kiss them, and they do not resist. Young lady if this describes you, you are partly at fault for the consequences of your appearance and behavior.”
Pori also expressed their anger with the “True love” pamphlet and its equating of women’s value to sex and the blame it placed on women for dressing “provocatively.”
“On this campus, which already has so many problems with sexual assault, someone might have picked this up and read it, and that’s just ridiculous,” Pori said.
Pori also suggested a political motivation to the tabling, stating that when another student asked if the group’s presence had to do with the recent election of Donald Trump, they affirmed that it was related.
After a relatively substantial student response, the Mennonite group was asked to leave campus and President David Anderson ’74 sent out a message condemning the group and affirming that they would not return, despite having apparently been on campus before.
“…they have apparently been on campus before without us being aware of their message. This tells me that we need immediately to undertake a review our of policies relating to permitting outside groups on campus towards the goal of having a more rigorous and robust screening process so that an incident like this does not occur again,” Anderson wrote. “I apologize on behalf of the College to everyone who was hurt or who, like me, was offended by this group’s words and acts. They do not represent who we are, and I am grateful to the students who called them out.”
Many received the message well, but expressed frustration at Anderson’s apparent lack of knowledge of the hate-group’s previous presence.
“I was very impressed with how fast it all got handled, but what was weird to me was that in PDA’s email he said he had no idea about it and that it has happened before. I was told by other students and alumni that they remembered this group,” Pori said, expressing concern with the possibility that the administration could remain unaware of such a situation.
Greg Kneser, Vice President for Student Life, offered some explanation for the group’s repeat appearances.
“About five percent of the groups simply ask for a table and are charged a small fee, as this group did,” Kneser said. “We do not ask to see materials for pre-approval or interview them to see what they intend on discussing, in the same way we do not do this with student groups. If there are complaints, we deal with them immediately. The Mennonite group will not be welcomed back to campus, which has happened to other groups in the past.”
He also offered an explanation as to how St. Olaf’s screening process for outside groups might be reformed.
“Our goal in all of this is to keep the campus an environment where there is a free exchange of ideas and that students and others will have access to services, commerce, ideas and opportunities for engagement outside of the ‘bubble’ that lots of folks talk about,” Kneser said. “In order to achieve that balance, we will have a policy in place so that any groups who wish to interact with our community agree to abide by the values of St. Olaf College, in much the same way that student organizations are expected to act. They will have to actively sign off that they understand our expectations before being rented or granted a space. We are drafting that language now and will share it with the community when we are done.”