Waving bright yellow signs that screamed lines like “Cover up girls,” “Jesus or Hellfire” and “Feminists support pedophilia,” two men and two boys set up camp Tuesday afternoon on the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Mall, shouting and taunting people as they walked past.
The campus came out to meet them.
For over three hours, hundreds converged in a sprawling circle around the demonstrators representing the Key of David Christian Center, a religious group that expresses its beliefs by ridiculing people it deems “sinners.” The crowd, spilling over stairs and standing on stone pillars overlooking the grassy lawn, faced down the man who called himself their pastor, and his congregants.
“I’ve never seen UMD come together like this,” said Jasmine Green, a senior government and politics major. “This is an eye-opener for me.”
Some students yelled, their faces wet with tears, as the demonstrators taunted LGBTQ people, Muslims and women — singling out members of the crowd to label them “whores,” or to ask “were you raped when you were younger?”
Counterprotesters shouted, laughed and danced as a small impromptu band — made up of a banjo, a violin, a team of guitars and drums — strummed out tunes like John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Harry Belafonte’s “Man Smart (Woman Smarter).”
Others mocked the small group, turning their insults into vulgar jokes. Some flung water-filled condoms and water bottles into the center of the circle. Another flaunted a sex toy.
And, when one of the demonstrators shouted at a woman that she was a “whore,” a crowd of women tore their shirts off and stood defiantly in their bras, displaying their middle fingers at the group. One removed her bra, and the crowd roared and applauded.
The crowd cheered in an ear-splitting roar when a student unfurled a sign that read “God is a gay woman.”
Two other students beamed as they brandished signs sketched onto notebook paper. “God called. He said he loves hoes too,” one said.
One of the church’s demonstrators, who declined to give The Diamondback his name, said the group has traveled to other campuses before, but this was their first time at this university.
“We’re just Bible-obeying Christians,” he said. “We’re just here to warn you.”
He did not respond when asked what he was warning against.
Police officers responded to the scene and kept students several feet away from the demonstrators, instructing the crowd to clear sidewalks. They eventually created a barrier of caution tape and cones to maintain order.
Spokespeople from University of Maryland and Prince George’s County police departments said there were no arrests from the protest.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Aden Rusfeldt — the group’s leader — has also targeted festivals, sporting events and places of worship over the past two years.
“Responses are different. Some people are like this,” the demonstrator said, gesturing to the crowd. “Some are calmer.”
Christian students in the crowd were adamant that this was not what their religion preaches. At one point, Ryan Danaher, a sophomore civil engineering major, had enough.
Danaher, a member of Cru — a campus ministry — leapt up on a stone pillar and shouted out to the crowd.
“Jesus is real, and Jesus is the way, and he loves us,” he yelled. “He loves us so much.”
Sophomore mechanical engineering major Ryan Duncan echoed Danaher. The demonstrators’ message goes against all of his Christian beliefs, he said.
“What these people are doing is absolutely contradictory to the message of the gospel,” he said. “The gospel is a message about love, about accepting everyone as who they are.”
Rusfeldt and his congregants shouted that marriage was for a man and woman only. At one point, Rusfeldt crudely demonstrated with his hands the only “right” form of sex to have.
This upset sophomore Carson Rehfield, he said, as a gay student, "this campus normally feels like a safe space,” he said. “This is so wrong.”
In response to the demonstrators’ jeers, two male students jumped into each other’s arms and began kissing passionately as the crowd whooped and cheered. Others hugged and locked arms in front of the demonstrators.
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Viviana Alpizar, a sophomore enrolled in letters and sciences, was one of the first people on the scene. She said Rusfeldt told her she might get raped this weekend, because she was wearing leggings.
“I honestly could’ve seen that as a threat, but I decided not to, because he was irrelevant,” Alpizar said.
Elena LeVan, an event coordinator in the university’s Preventing Sexual Assault, worried that hearing the demonstrators’ hate-filled taunts could re-traumatize some people, like women who had been sexually assaulted.
But as she looked out over the sprawling crowd of students who had gathered under the beating sun to shout down the small group, she also felt a pang of hope.
“You’re seeing how horrible people can be, but you’re also seeing how people can work to try to overcome that,” she said. “Trying to be positive literally in the face of hate.”