A Philadelphia-based religious group returned to Kutztown University’s campus on April 16 for the first time since November 2017 to stage a protest with hate-based rhetoric, drawing a reaction from students. KU students counter protested with messages of no hate.
Matthew 24 Ministries, led by Pastor Aden Rusfeldt and accompanied by wife Mary, an unidentified man, and two children, gathered in the lawn outside the Rohrbach Library to protest and condemn a wide variety of groups, ranging from minorities to gamers to “ankle biters.”
Throughout the protest, the Rusfeldts engaged a crowd of gathering students with hateful messages while videotaping them.
KU President Kenneth Hawkinson visited the scene along with Dean of Students Donavan McCargo.
“Sadly, these groups make the rounds of all the college campuses, and, as a public university, we have to allow people on our campus to exercise their right of free speech,” Hawkinson said. “It in no way means we endorse anything that they’re saying. Often, what they’re saying goes against our values and the principles of who they are.”
Hawkinson said that he hopes “students would see it for what it is.”
“They’re here to agitate, so we hope that our students will walk on by and not engage,” said Hawkinson.
“In the past, we’ve gotten notice [ahead of the protest.] We had no notice,” added Hawkinson. “Usually, they send us a letter from their lawyer several hours before they arrive, outlining their rights, and they didn’t do it this time.”
At one point, Aden Rusfeldt, wearing a baseball cap and a shirt reading “I [heart] you sinner,” said to an African-American bystander, “You’re going to go to Hell, talking like a gangster rapper.”
Aden held a sign reading “What God Really Says,” and quoting a variety of hateful biblical verses, primarily from the Old Testament. Below, the sign called on people to “repent or end up in Hell.”
On the reverse of the sign, 31 groups plus the Pope were listed between the words “Warning, obey Jesus or Hellfire.”
One student, freshman Jeremy Padovani, said a member of the group told him he deserved to be disabled because he is a transgender man. Padovani has cerebral palsy and walks with a crutch.
As the crowd grew and tensions rose, KU Public Safety police officers established a perimeter around the group.
McCargo said, during the protest, that he was working to mobilize the Bias Response Task Force.
“We do have different strategies in place, but what happens is, when this group grows so fast and so quickly, it’s really difficult to begin to encourage people to walk away because it becomes entertainment,” said McCargo. “We would appreciate it, if people aren’t invested in this conversation, to just keep moving.”
Some students countered the protest directly, with signs promoting Black Lives Matter and other minority causes, while others had fun in response. One student drew a sign reading “Chipotle > Moes,” while another wrote, “Drake & Josh is coming back.”
Two students stood back from the crowd with their signs, spreading positive messages. Senior Samantha Fairchild, held a sign reading “Love is Love.” Freshman Elijah Leon Guerrero, stood back with a sign reading “I’m just watching, also, free hugs.”
One student, intending to break the tension of the situation, arrived and joined the crowd dressed as Jesus.
“At first, it was kind of like a joke, because I dressed as Jesus for Halloween, so I had this sitting in my locker for the longest [time,] but when I got out here, I realize tensions were getting tight, and it made people laugh,” said sophomore Damani Okuri. “They’re not really here trying to push anything. They’re just trying to get a reaction out of us and trying to make money. Some people take it a little too seriously, so somebody has to come loosen the tension a little bit.”
The Women’s Center set up a table with a variety of signs from their “Replace the Hate” event last year for students to hold and spread positive messages, said Christine Price, director of the center.
“This is to kind of counteract the message,” said Price. “Ideally, we would have people coming over here and coming away from [the protesters,] but I think people wanted to get the signs and take them over and say ‘No, this is our message of no-hate, and we love everyone, and equality.’”
The group dispersed by 5 p.m.