On the first day of February, a man interrupted Gund Gallery’s Children’s Storytime. He took out his phone and started to record video footage of the kids, most of whom were seven or younger, without their parents’ consent.
Held every month, Storytime offers craft making and book readings meant to address a range of LGBTQ+ issues. Currently, Storytime is a complement to the Gallery’s ongoing Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A. exhibit. The books chosen were Be Who You Are by Todd Parr and They, She, He Easy as ABC by Maya Christina Gonzalez. The books taught children to be proud of who they are and how to use inclusive pronouns.
The man entered the Gallery right as the event got underway. “We hadn’t even started reading yet,” Ashley Li ’22 said. “One of the parents asked him if he was going to put this online, and the guy said, ‘No, it’s for my own use.’ That set off a red flag for me.”
She, as well as parents present, expressed concern over a stranger recording the children without permission. Li ordered the man—who students would identify colloquially as a “Middle Path preacher”—to leave immediately. In response, the man accused Li of corrupting the minds of the children. After Li reiterated that he needed to leave, the man vacated the gallery, declaring that he would be back.
The preachers’ appearance on Middle Path is nothing new. Preachers have picketed on Kenyon property for years. Representatives from New Martinsburg Christian Church—located 20 minutes from the College—congregated on Middle Path in September of 2018 and have returned many times since. A hallmark of their visits is setting up signs that contain offensive language targeted at women and the LGBTQ+ community. In 2018, a sizable counter-protest composed of students, town residents and faculty members gathered in response to express their disapproval.
Li later saw the man on Middle Path arguing with Chaplain and Priest-in-Charge of Harcourt Parish Rachel Kessler ’04 and Mayor Leeman Kessler ’04. While it is not technically illegal to film children in a public space, the man’s presence raised ethical concerns for Rachel Kessler.
“I wasn’t going to get into an argument with him about theology,” Rachel Kessler said. “It’s not going to end in any way other than the two of us yelling at each other. It came down to explaining that my kids were at the event, that he was filming my children without my permission, and that as a parent he needed to understand why I would be upset by that.”
According to Campus Safety, the man fully complied when asked to vacate the gallery. Despite conjuring up effusive reactions, the man has never instigated physical altercations with any Kenyon personnel.
The arrival of Preachers on Middle Path has led to what Rachel Kessler describes as an “increased clarity that they cannot be and should not be allowed” on Kenyon property. However, matters get complicated when the preachers stand on public property — such as central Middle Path.
“Banning him from public property will probably not end productively,” Chaplain Kessler said. “It might feed into a desire to feel like he is being persecuted for speaking his idea of the truth.”
“It was disheartening, to be honest,” Li said. “I came to Kenyon thinking it would be more liberal, more open. We’re more racially diverse and aware, and then this guy comes in. Are you actually teaching people to love others? Because I think that’s what your religion should be about.”
The man who wandered into Gund Gallery had not preached on Middle Path before. Rachel Kessler, however, said she has encountered this man before when she was involved with Signs on the Square, an activism group in Mount Vernon that was created after the 2016 presidential election. The group—comprised of both Kenyon affiliates and non-affiliates—make weekly demonstrations in the Mount Vernon square on such issues as immigration, healthcare and climate change. The man had challenged their signs.
“He would vocally counter-protest that demonstration,” Kessler said. “He would stand on a bus and shout at us with a megaphone.”
The chaplain expressed a desire for Kenyon’s religious groups to clarify that the man, along with other preachers on Middle Path, does not reflect the views of any religious group affiliated with the College. The best way to address these preachers on Middle Path remains unclear. While Kessler argues that direct engagement with the preachers would only be unproductive and likely fruitless, she suggests that promoting more amiable religious views is the obligation of religious life at Kenyon.