Pablo Puig, Staff Writer
Like many students, I’d long dismissed the “Sin Awareness Group” that often comes to preach at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, considering them a running gag of campus life. At first sight I’d simply dismiss them, looking away and putting on headphones. If this wasn’t possible, I’d either find another route or move past them quickly, accepting an occasional pamphlet that was neither discarded nor read even slightly. To me, they were always an unwanted presence, but at least I believed the group could be safely put out of mind.
And then, like any joke that goes on too long, they abruptly stopped being funny. On Monday, April 29, while hurrying to class, I stopped to take in the scene: a crowd of dozens, watching as the group argued with someone who’d had enough of their proselytizing. Though I moved on, already late, the event was not so conveniently ignored, getting loud enough to be heard from the adjacent Clark Hall classrooms. Possibly as a consequence of the interference, my class was let out early, freeing me and a fellow writer at the Current to approach the matter as reporters, speaking with the group, crowd members and even the UMSL PD officers that came to keep the peace by ensuring that no escalation took place.
At this point, I experienced the rhetoric that I’d so far chosen not to hear. Particularly, I learned about the group’s attitude toward sin; to put it bluntly, they expressly condemn all those who do not share their perspective on God. They believe humans are incapable of goodness by themselves and can only find redemption through adherence to their specific beliefs and behaviors. Only their God is valid, and all other ways of living one’s life, whether religious or secular, are inherently and unpardonably sinful.
You don’t need to take my word on their opinions. This attitude is apparent in their distributed material, in words yelled at passerby. They seem to truly see themselves as righteous and all others as wicked.
I should hope that it is self-evident why such views are utterly incompatible with UMSL. The university is a multifaceted community. All kinds of people come here, homogenous only in their pursuit of knowledge. Despite such profound differences between us, several of them seen across all humanity, we manage to not just tolerate each other—we accept one another.
Consider all the people you’ve come to know here, be it in classrooms or beyond them, and all the ways they are unlike yourself: gender, sex, religion, class, ethnicity, race, profession, ambitions, interests and so on.
Ask yourself, has experiencing “the other” truly diminished you? Or are we enriched by cherishing and celebrating that which we consider “not us?” In doing so, people tend to learn that such distinctions are more illusion than substance; modern universities are the wrong environment to perpetuate uniformity.
UMSL’s core values—integrity, inclusion, innovation, access, success and engagement—are antithetical to those of the “Sin Awareness Group.” In this case, the virtues of integrity and inclusion prove relevant, more so than any of the others.
The twin meanings of integrity are each applicable; it is not only the trait of moral uprightness, but also the state of being whole and undivided. Morality and unity, these are expected of UMSL at all times and most can agree that they are upheld to the university’s best ability. But we’ve seen what this group has to say about these ideals, and I doubt anyone at UMSL will argue that they are compatible with our own.
Inclusion, if less nuanced, is no less important a value. UMSL claims to “recognize individual attributes and respect individual differences while firmly asserting that we are better together.” Again, most will agree the university strives to meet this goal, and again, few can argue that this group rejects it outright.
But, to go beyond UMSL, these proselytizers are a clear repudiation of the guiding principle to any place for any level of learning. Namely, to better humankind in knowledge and virtue.
How can all manner of peoples be bettered at UMSL when, through our inaction, we implicitly validate the condemnation of human complexity?
How can our population thrive, professionally or academically, when such withering speech is allowed to take root in the hearts and minds of any who hear it, like weeds in the garden?
By now, I have made clear my stance on this group: an absolute rejection. Indeed, of all the people with which I’ve spoken about the “Sin Awareness Group,” not one person has voiced support for their beliefs. To reiterate, across the vast range of religious perspectives on campus, no one appears to actually agree with them and, to my knowledge, no one invited them. This begs the question, “Why are they here?”
So far, the answer seems to be, “Because they cannot be stopped.”
The responding officers from Monday’s incident explained it quite well. As UMSL is a public university, supported by taxpayer money, we are held to the standards of free speech laid out in the Constitution and upheld by the courts. The American Civil Liberties Union, a long-standing force for preserving the rights and liberties of all individuals in the U.S., even has an online section for explaining the reasons behind protecting unpleasant forms of speech on public campuses. It is worth browsing if you are at all interested and concerned about this situation and subject.
While it seems UMSL can’t censor the “Sin Awareness Group,” as their speech remains merely offensive, there are still ways to oppose their proselytizing. Though the group is free to speak, so too are students free to confront and counter offensive speech with their own, as a student did the morning of April 29. Protest and discourse are strategies that, though seemingly ineffectual, are both legally protected and more likely to achieve the intended goal of defeating harmful speech. The administration must also consider how it will respond; there is a vast spectrum of options between censorship and inaction, and the university’s population is unlikely to accept the latter, even if the former is not viable.
Regardless of what ensues from this incident, we cannot expect the administration, or groups, or even opinionated individuals to stand as the sole opposition to these forms of speech.
If I were to choose just one thing for people to take away upon reading this, it would be this: opposing such ideas is not only crucial to upholding the unifying spirit of UMSL, it is also essential to the well-being and advancement of all individuals. Perhaps many are not as bold as those who’ve already spoken out, but even a meager courage is necessary and useful in defending the ideals that we purportedly share.