Freedom to speak: Pastor preaches at Iowa State, draws protestors and supporters


Kelby Wingert/Iowa State Daily

Pastor Tom Short, a traveling campus evangelist, set up in the free-speech zone in front of Parks Library on Sept. 25. Short comes to campuses to talk to students about his beliefs that “God is real, heaven is true and Jesus is the way to heaven.” Short said his goal is to “spark conversation.”

Greg Zwiers and Emily Eppens

“I’m standing in the hot sun trying to win your soul to God.”

Tom Short announced his Christian beliefs as he stood in the middle of a crowd of students Sept. 25, discussing his religious views with them.

At the free-speech zone outside of Parks Library, a large group of students gathered around a booth with 10-foot-tall banners, asking questions and debating the definition of truth.

Across the sidewalk, the Atheist and Agnostic Society and members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Ally community stood, gathering an equally large crowd.

The man who drew the crowds was Tom Short, a traveling evangelical preacher from Columbus, Ohio, who speaks at universities across the nation and comes to Iowa State once a year. His goal was to inform students and answer their questions relating to Jesus Christ and God as well as evolution and creationism.

“I have three major topics,” Short said. “God is real, the Bible is true and Jesus Christ is the way back to God. My goal is to spark discussion and provide another angle to answer why I believe these things are true.”

Short’s large banners reflected his beliefs, stating arguments against evolution and the reason why he believes Christianity is the only way to God. People who both agreed and disagreed with Short’s message gathered around his booth to ask questions and debate with him.

“I see how much [Tom] cares about people,” said Paul Johnson, the pastor of Stonebrook Church, a local Ames church that supports Short. “It wasn’t that he needed to shout over the top of someone else; he asks people’s names, tries to get to know people personally and tries to be aware of their situation and what they are dealing with.”

A group of LGBTQA students stood alongside the Atheist and Agnostic Society and sang songs in protest of Short’s opinion that homosexuality is a sin.

Some were holding signs with phrases such as “If God hates LGBT, why did he make us so cute?” along with more critical signs such as “Never place a period where God has placed a comma, God is still speaking.”

Short said he is not unfamiliar with LGBTQA protests.

“Their whole thing is saying that people hate [them]. We don’t hate them, but that’s where they get their power, saying that they are standing up against hate,” he said. 

Short said the Bible calls homosexuality a sin like any other, and said people who identify as LGBTQA should resist their attractions like an alcoholic should avoid alcohol.

Sarah Miller, senior in genetics, said she organized the singing protest because Short told her last year that she and her girlfriend, Jasmine, were going to hell if they didn’t repent.

Miller had a sign that read “I sing for Jasmine.”

Members of the Atheist and Agnostic Society said that Short’s messages about God’s love aren’t all they are made up to be. Christjahn Beck, senior in political science and vice president of the Atheist and Agnostic Society, said that Short can come across as harsh and close-minded.

“Our goal for being set up out here is to make apparent that what Tom is saying doesn’t necessarily represent all of the Iowa State University campus,” Beck said. “We are going to make our presence known as much as they make theirs known.”

The Atheist and Agnostic Society sets up its booth in the free-speech zone by Parks Library every Thursday when speakers like Short are on campus. Beck said the Atheist and Agnostic Society supported the LGBTQA students’ protest and shared the Facebook event through their own page.

“We’re not here too confront him; we’re not here to be aggressive,” Beck said. “We’re certainly not going to get in his face. We’re going to let him do his thing. We’re just here to say that there’s an alternative to what he’s saying and support the LGBT members of the community who he will be directly attacking.”

The conversation between the groups remained focused mainly on whether or not evolution is true.

Short said he heard atheists ask him to be shown God and he turned around to ask people in the crowd to show him evolution. He had laminated prints of Charles Darwin and other scientists, which he held up when refuting their theories on evolution.

Short argued that the changes in animals from cold-blooded to warm-blooded and from invertebrate to vertebrate are so dramatic that evolution is false. He also said science is on his side.

Short’s messages had an unintended outcome, some students said. 

“It’s been really interesting for club recruitment,” said Dana Korneisel, senior in geology and the treasurer of the Atheist and Agnostic Society. “He yells and offends so many people. We’re just here to start discussion and offer another angle [on belief].”

Also among the crowded sidewalks, the Philosophy and Religion club set up a booth. Matt Anzis, president of the ISU Philosophy and Religion Club and senior in mathematics, said that his purpose for setting up a booth among the controversy was to act as a median between the two opposing groups.

“In the description of our group, we don’t claim one set of beliefs. That is what the club is for: to be sensitive and discuss different thoughts and beliefs that people have,” Anzis said. “That’s why we’re here, to be a voice of reason between the beliefs here today. The whole thing is essentially politics. These groups are all trying to recruit people who are undecided in their belief system.”

Short’s booth attracted attention from passersby as well. Ean Johnson, junior in event management, decided to take his stance in the controversy. He painted his own sign with the words “Everyone love everyone” and took his stance right in front of one of Short’s banners.

“I’m not here for anyone. I’m here for myself,” Johnson said. “I’m not a fan of all of this. Personally, I’m open to the concept of religion, but I don’t believe that everyone has to have a direct answer for everything. Through my own logic and personal opinion, I choose not to believe.”

Johnson was blocking a section of Short’s banners that talked about the crucifixion of Jesus, and he was met by protest from Short and his group, saying that Johnson was covering up the truth of God. 

During the demonstration, Short was called hateful by a few people in the crowd.

“I have never excluded anyone or said anything hateful,” Short said. “The hateful one is [Johnson].”

Short said the people who try to shut down opposing ideas are the most intolerant people, and that he supported free expression.

Short said he loved everyone there, but he just thought Johnson was being rude by “blocking the most important part” of his message.

Anzis said there are meaningful and interesting ways to discuss the merits of religion, but he didn’t think they were being said by Short or the crowd.

“I think this event is generally frustrating because it’s really interesting to get into these conversations and this is a really big philosophical topic,” Anzis said. “This is an important topic, but the reasons spit back and forth from both sides are generally bad reasons or bad arguments.”

One of the students who travels with Short, Rebecca Millar, is postponing entering college because she said she has seen friends and family members grow in their faith and mature by helping Short deliver his message.

“I wanted to be able to mature my faith as well and to learn to just get out of my own selfish desires and to be able to learn how to really effectively communicate the gospel with people because, I mean, it’s the most important thing there is, is the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Millar said. “I mean that’s where our hope comes from.”

Zackary Manderico, freshman in pre-architecture, stopped to hear the conversation and said he felt that both sides were saying what they wanted to say and that there was no collaboration. He also stated that he felt like both sides had good intentions, but in the end they won’t get anywhere without working together.