For two groups on campus, the road to religion means ...Going to Extremes

The Alligator (University of Florida)/October 2, 1998
By Donovan Mufdi

When Barra Cohen was a high school senior, she often imagined what college life would be like. She pictured lots of students with diverse opinions and an open exchange of ideas.

Now a UF freshman, Cohen is discovering that religion on a college campus is not merely a course offered inside classrooms. Students are confronted daily by people who believe the student body needs spiritual guidance of some sort.

"All this culture and diversity is great," says Cohen, "but there has to be mutual respect. The campus religions don't show respect for each other or for the religious beliefs that I bring with me."

Side-stepping the Krishnas as they offer their midday meal on the Plaza of the Americas lawn, Cohen hears the echoes of "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare!"

She cuts through the crowd of students at Turlington Plaza and sees a red-faced man clutching a Bible, his voice raised to be heard over the roar of conversation.

"Mend your lives or suffer the judgment of the Lord! Be prepared for the final days!"

Raised in the Jewish faith, Cohen says she is now between religions - a fact that makes her an ideal candidate to both the Krishnas and the preachers.

Despite their diverse ideologies and approaches, both groups have a long history on UF's campus and an ever-changing relationship with its students. Picnic in the park The Hare Krishnas, formally known as the International Organization for Krishna Consciousness, have been on campus since Gargamuni Swami, one of the group's national leaders, came to Gainesville in December of 1970.

He set up a make-shift temple in the apartment of UF student David Liberman, but both were evicted by Liberman's landlord, who disapproved of the free meals and religious meetings held in the apartment. After their eviction, the two brought their meals to the Plaza of the Americas but pressure from various Christian groups called for their removal and ultimately led to their arrest.

"The Hare Krishnas are not a cult," Thursby asserts. "They are just stereotyped that way. They have many of the same characteristics as many Christian sects."

Thursby also refutes the stereotypes about the Krishnas.

"The movement has all kinds of members," he explains. "I know Hare Krishnas who are Harvard grads, successful lawyers, and yes, there are also those who have gotten locked into the religion and haven't gone anywhere, in the secular sense of success."

In terms of their campus outreach, the Hare Krishnas are one of the less abrasive spiritual organizations on campus, says their local president Savya Sachi.

"Our programs bridge the gap to the students without getting in their faces," Sachi relates. "We target intelligent people who are looking for spiritual knowledge."

Students say the reason for their acceptance is simple.

"I don't know a lot about the Krishna religion, but at least they don't try to force it on me." says freshman Graciela Garcia. Preacher purpose Microbiology sophomore Rossana Guerrero is not receptive to people who yell at her, and she says the Turlington preachers are no exception.

"We've been here for two years now, and we've never really heard a word he's said," she grumbles, eying a preacher who warns students to avoid the trappings of worldly possessions. "I just want to chuck this (bottle) at him!"

The subject of her annoyance is Matt Sherman, who stands nearby preaching to the crowd.

For the past three years, he has come to campus whenever he can to spread his message. And with more than 40,000 students rushing by, he only has a moment to peak their interest.

Sherman has thrown Bibles, mimicked hanging himself, singled out passerby and debated with them - all in an effort to spur their spiritual advancement.

He disputes accusations that the preachers are an overly aggressive group, saying he respects other religions and their followers but refuses to "respect political correctness when it obscures the truth." "God loved me enough to share his truth with me, so how can I do otherwise? Some of these people will never get to a church, so I have to come to them," he says.

A member of Gator Christian Life and a UF graduate, Sherman has ties to both institutions.

Like the Krishnas, GCL which has been active on campus since the early '80s, has not always had a smooth relationship with the administration, relates GCL representative Matt Gordon.

In mid-June of 1985, several of its preachers were arrested on Turlington Plaza when professors in nearby classrooms complained to the police about the noise level.

Despite the group's history, Sherman adamantly opposes the "in-your-face" reputation the preachers have, especially when they are compared to the techniques of the Hare Krishnas.

"My stance is far less abrasive! The Hare Krishnas are a cult, wolves in sheep's clothing," he exclaims. "They only come to campus to recruit for their cult. They want their members to ignore reality, chanting to solve their problems."

Fabian Chapov, a pastor at the Rock of Gainesville church, has come to Turlington Plaza on Tuesdays and Thursdays with others from his church for the past two or three years.

"We're not here to condemn the students, we just want to make them think," Chapov explains. "Students spend all their time thinking about their majors and classes, but they don't even spend five minutes considering whether or not God exists."

Chapov explains the reasons for the judgmental reputation Turlington preachers have.

"The negative students are much more vocal. I've had people yell, curse, even spit at me," he confesses. "But we know that many students are trying to listen to what we have to say.

Larry Bates, an occupational therapy senior, says he supports the preacher's work on campus.

"It's not supposed to be a question and answer session," Bates says of Sherman's preachings. "But I know he's speaking the truth, and the students need to hear that."

Other students say if they aren't going to church, the preachers should take the hint and leave them alone. "The bottom line is this: it's great you have your beliefs, but so do I," says business senior David Selznich. "I'm trying to enjoy my day and I don't want to be bothered by nonsense."

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