Jed and Cindy Smock having been coming to the UA Mall to preach for more than 25 years, but this is the first time they've been greeted by angels.
The Smocks—better known as Brother Jed and Sister Cindy—are traveling Christian ministers who preach at more than 200 universities every year.
A typical scene: Brother Jed stands by while Sister Cindy holds her arm out and points to all the students around them. "You are fornicators!" she shouts.
It's a fire-and-brimstone show, with the preachers saying the students are going to hell if they continue to live a life of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
This year, however, Brother Jed and Sister Cindy's words about homosexuals, whores and short skirts motivated freshman Kira Johnson.
The English major was inspired by Matthew Shepard's funeral in 1998. The Wyoming college student was murdered for being gay. Hate-monger/pastor Fred Phelps showed up at his funeral to disparage the LBGT community. Phelps, however, was greeted by angels: Shepard-family supporters who dressed like angels and surrounded the funeral area to protect the family.
While Johnson admits the Smocks aren't as heinous as Phelps is, she says she still felt a presence was needed to show Brother Jed and Sister Cindy—and everyone who watched—that there's a different way to counter the Smocks' rhetoric.
Rather than shouting back, as many students do, Johnson and her friend Jai Smith turned to fellow members of the Pride Alliance, a UA student-run LGBT advocacy group.
On Wednesday, March 25, Johnson, Smith and four other students showed up in angel outfits, rigged by Johnson with some PVC pipe that fit over the shoulders to support white wings made out of sheets. Together, the group walked from the Student Union toward the grassy hill in front of the administration building where the ministers preached. They did this in complete silence, lining up between the ministers and the mall, standing in shifts until the ministers were done.
The reaction—the angel protest has continued each weekday through our press deadline—has been amazing, Johnson says.
"As a result of the protests, I've met a lot of people who've come up to us and thanked us for being here," she says. "We've heard from a lot of Christian students who were happy to see us, because they don't feel like (the Smocks) represent Christianity."
On the second day, Johnson says they felt they were getting under Brother Jed's skin when he announced to the crowd as the angels descended: "Here come the homos."
"I had to laugh to myself. I looked down the line and wondered, 'Who is he talking about?' since there were only two gay people there that day," Johnson says.
Johnson's co-organizer, Smith, says the experience has been a great way to let people know there's another way to fight back—and that sometimes, silence is golden. It also falls in line with the Pride Alliance's mission.
"This has helped us gain even more visibility this year. My hope is that we will create a more inclusive environment on campus. ... I think we've managed to expand acceptance," Smith says. "In comparison to other places, as far as college towns go, this might be one of the more inclusive, and it's one reason I decided to stay—but it also has a long way to go."
Smith says that each day, the protest has gone well, although a few hecklers have tried to get the angels to break their silence. On Thursday, senior Paul Temple stood in front of the angels, walking back and forth, and trying to start an argument about the flier the angels were handing out that explains the tie to Shepard.
"It's a bad idea," Temple says. "(The Smocks) aren't for violence against homosexuals. They are against the sin, not the sinner."
Not all Christian students agreed with Temple. On Friday, freshman Stephen Hall stood up and told Brother Jed that his preaching went against Jesus' teachings, especially judgments against different people. While Brother Jed kept on preaching, Hall got cheers and applause from about 40 students watching the interaction.
"I want to stand up for the God who stood up for me and died on the cross. This is not that God," Hall says. "I've been a Christian all my life. (Brother Jed) is a child of God as much as I am, but I think it's important to let people here know this isn't what Jesus is about."
At one point, Sister Cindy sat near her 14-year-old twin daughters and ate lunch on a break while her husband continued their work. She says the family makes their home in Columbia, Mo., and that she and her daughters flew in to meet up with Brother Jed, who has been on the recent leg of the tour by himself.
Sister Cindy, when not yelling about fornication, is pretty approachable. She shrugs off criticism by saying that she and her husband preach in a way that is entertaining, in an effort to get the students' attention and make them think.
"I guess we're kind of like those Tyler Perry movies, like Madea Goes to Jail," she says. "That director's main message is to get women off the streets and off alcohol. It's a similar technique. We have a message we want to give. To do that, we use drama, satire and hyperbole, and sometimes we're vulgar to draw the crowd."
But that crowd can get nasty sometimes. Sister Cindy agrees, recalling times when she and her husband have been spat upon, pushed or hit. Police will sometimes ask the Smocks if they want to press charges.
"Usually, an apology will do," Sister Cindy says.
Smith says he saw someone throw a cup of water in Sister Cindy's face during one of the early protests.
"It was completely ridiculous. I went up to Brother Jed and said I was sorry that happened to them. That kind of action is completely unwarranted and not constructive," Smith says.
Besides, silence, he's discovered, may just be the best way to respond to Brother Jed and Sister Cindy.