Ronia-Isabel Cabansag provided extra reporting assistance for this article.
“Ma’am, why are you so intolerant?” Ken Fleck, a 41-year-old self proclaimed evangelist, asked as a student exited Starbucks and walked by, paying him no mind. In his hands, he held a bible and a sign reading “Ask me why you deserve hell. This campus needs Jesus.com.” Around him, a crowd of 20 Eastern Michigan students formed. At times, the crowd grew and dwindled, swelling to nearly 50 people at its height, but the near constant is their anger as Fleck, creator of the organization “This Campus Needs Jesus,” continues to preach on such topics as God, Jesus-- and why everyone is going to hell because they are liberal, belong to the LGBTQ community and much more.
Eastern’s campus is no stranger to controversy in the form of visitors loudly appealing to students to rethink their ways. However, unlike Created Equal, the pro-life group that stirred up students last semester, Fleck did not ask for the university’s permission before setting himself up at 9:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, atop a fire-pit bench on the Student Center patio.
“I usually don’t ask for permission [from campuses] because we have a constitution ensuring free speech,” Fleck said, scoffing when it was suggested that informing schools could be helpful.
Fleck, a University of Michigan graduate, made Eastern the second stop of his “Jesus 2020” Michigan tour, remaining by the Student Center until about 4:30 p.m. During his time on campus, the street preacher was the reason for several calls to the Department of Public Safety, with an officer, sometimes two, lingering close by as the man spoke. The first call came in at 11:00 a.m.
“Someone called because they didn’t like what he was saying. We came, we left, someone else called again and we came back,” Officer David Feeley said. “That [a drink being thrown on Fleck] was the first thing [from the crowd]. Other than that, it’s just been arguing.”
A drink being thrown was just one of the many reactions students had to Fleck’s sermons.
Lois Tom, who stayed and debated with Fleck for an hour, noted, “He’s saying women should not be preachers, saying that gay people are wrong, that he believes that Muslims-- actually, anyone who isn’t a Christian is wrong. Saying that all of us are stupid for what we believe and we asked him why he comes here. We’re such a diverse campus. We have many religions, races, ethnicities and everything here, and [he’s] coming here.”
Tom also said that she suggested to Fleck to “approach us differently. Maybe we’ll listen. He said, ‘Well, it caught your attention, right?’ That was the only way to get you to stop, by having something like that [you deserve hell] on his board. He’s standing above everyone like he’s something.”
Micah O’Flynn, another student in the crowd, agreed. “It’s not that deep. I don’t believe in telling everyone they’re going to hell because they’re living. He’s literally doing the opposite of what God wants. God’s about love and inclusion and love.”
Damien Gendreau was the student who threw the drink, but decided that it was worth it for one reason. “It was because he told me that I deserve to be hate-crimed. The cop said it was okay for [Fleck] to say that to me.
“When I walked past [Fleck] earlier, I had a full discussion with him. I walked up to him and said ‘Okay, I’m transgender and identify as bisexual, so what does this mean to you?’ He said ‘You’re going to go to hell, and you’re going to face shit in this life that is going to lead you to hell.’”
Gendreau asked him to elaborate, with Fleck allegedly replying, “You see, you’ll get assaulted all the time, and it’s because people like me are able to be aware that this [stuff] is wrong. People are aware that this is not how it’s supposed to be.”
“I said to him ‘that means that it’s okay for people like me to get assaulted and hate crimed and bullied?’” Gendreau paused, “And he said yes. I went to class, came back, bought the pomegranate [water] and I poured it on him. It’s less than what I wanted to do ...If he presses charges on me, I don’t care.”
Michael Chiaramonti had a different tactic.
“This guy was standing up here while I was sitting at Starbucks, preaching some hate speech, and I thought it would be hilarious and take away from his spot if I stood up here with a sign that says ‘Tony Stark died to save us from Thanos.’ I think it’s a much needed relief.”
However, it’s the basic arguing that Fleck took the most issues with.
“The cops came. They got calls, and the students were lying about me, so make sure you put that in your paper,” Fleck said, going on. “The students were lying, saying that the preacher was harassing people. Those are false police reports. I said ‘Officers, you should arrest those students for their false police reports.’
"And so there was a student there that threw water--a drink-- on me, and I wouldn’t press charges. Make sure that’s documented, because I don’t press charges against students because I love them and my reward is in heaven.”
The questions Fleck fielded from students ranged from asking after his expressed beliefs to blatant heckling. When asked about the day and the hour of the end times, Fleck replied, “No one knows the day or time,” before continuing with “This is what’s so funny, guys: climate change movement, they keep saying that it’s 11 years, or that it’s 10 years. They can’t even make up their mind, and they’re doing the same thing. They have a whole thing about the world is going to end and they don’t even know when.
“Yeah, you guys could beat me up, you guys could spit on me. You guys could kill me today! And my reward is in heaven. I’ve been a christian longer than most you guys have been alive.”
When asked by the reporter for one last statement, Fleck responded with “My question to you: are you fake news? I’m literally asking because there’s good journalists and bad journalists. Good reporters--” He stops, having heard a crowd member say that his question is one from a conspiracy theorist.
“The Democratic Party are the conspiracy theorists because you thought there was Russian conspiracy. You guys believed that Trump was in bed with Russia.” After that, he waved off the question and he was onto the next volley of derision.
Inside Starbucks and all but front row to Fleck’s sermon, Juan Alamanza went on with a day at work. He watched the crowd gather, fifteen to twenty people at a time. He watched the students react to the preacher. “A lot of people were cycling in and out of the store. A lot of people would go out and see what the commotion was about. You would see people kind of come in, grab something and go right back outside.”
“I enjoyed seeing how campus kind of came together to agree this wasn’t a good thing. It was various groups of people. There was no specific group. It was just anybody who was passing by who felt like they had time to argue, they would go in, they would speak their piece and they would just go back and forth for a while.”
Almanaza noted the police visits to the spot.
“Since he wasn’t technically physically harming anyone, I guess they weren’t legally obligated to stop him or move him, so it was more so students interacting with him. One of our faculty in the Student Center walked down and he spoke to him and told him to leave finally.”
With Eastern behind him, Fleck continued on to his next spot on his “tour.” He plans to be at another Michigan campus next Wednesday, with his website offering his planned schedule of stopping at Wayne State, Michigan State, Western and Oakland universities.