A few hundred Winthrop University students in protest swarmed a group of traveling preachers shouting their message from footstools on the sidewalk in front of Byrnes Auditorium on Wednesday.
The traveling street preachers, many who hold down regular jobs from Idaho to Orlando, Fla., converged at Winthrop on Wednesday and set up their demonstration in a "free speech zone," campus officials said.
The group of eight took turns preaching about the spiritual dangers of drunkenness, drug use, premarital sex, homosexuality, pornography and abortion. One demonstrator held a graphic picture of what was called an aborted fetus.
Students crowded around the speakers, engaging them in debates. Some students debated in cells formed along the periphery.
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Winthrop sophomore Antonio Artis said he thought the preachers were a bit hostile.
"They should talk about it in a more peaceful manner," he said.
Some students read from their own Bibles and made their own statements. Some held up signs, serious ones - "I'm a Christian and I still want you to leave" - and some made in jest - "Hell must be fabulous" and "Wearing a jean button-down shirt is a sin" - clearly aimed at one of the preachers.
One group of students belted out gospel songs to drown out a preacher. Others mounted footstools and shared their own messages.
Senior Wendy Adams flew a gay pride rainbow flag. "It's about time" for a demonstration, she said. "Something in the community needed to stir these students up."
Junior Joshua Robertson said, "They've been out here condemning people, and alienating themselves. They're being exclusive instead of inclusive and doing that is going to push people away" and give Christians a bad name, he said.
Freshman Stepphan Stover called the preachers' approach "counterproductive."
"He sounds like he's selling a product instead of opening up a conversation," he said. "It's OK to talk about it (religion), but I don't like it crammed down my throat," he said.
One of the preachers, Robert Parker, 45, said he just returned from England where he was preaching on the street. He's heading to Washington on Friday.
Last year, he lived in New Jersey and was laid off from Xerox after 10 years with the company, he said.
"I'm not out here to be politically correct," said Parker, who said he's been confronted by far more hostile crowds.
The fact that the students stick around for "hours and hours" and express anger means they're thinking about the message. Aggression isn't necessarily a bad thing, he said.
There were some sympathizers in the crowd. A group of self-described preachers from Oakdale Baptist Church came out after receiving a text message about something going on.
They came out to "tell people about the truth," said Joey Deese, 30.
Deese and his company, who aren't Winthrop students, agreed with the preachers' message.
When asked what he thought about the tension in the crowd, Deese said, "Nobody likes to be told they're wrong."
Two students were escorted from the demonstration by campus police when one refused to come down from a table top, and another stood in front of a police car as it attempted to drive away, Winthrop Police Chief Frank Zebedis said.
After talking with the police, the students were not charged and later returned to the demonstration, Zebedis said.
At request of police, the crowd dispersed peaceably at about 4:45 p.m. so that a campus group could set up for another event.