Students react to current activity of Free Speech area’s religious activist
From day one of this semester, former Bakersfield College student Nathaniel Runels has stood in the campus Free Speech area on Wednesdays and preached his Christian message.
Student reactions have been varied on campus, while the administration has attempted unsuccessfully to remove Runels from campus since the first week of the semester.
Runels said that at first he had no problems with getting access to the Free Speech area.
“The first week I was here, I was fine,” he said. “Just as a courtesy, I told them I would be here, and so they told me to sign in and sign my name at the student center.”
However, he encountered problems during his second week at school. “They said that I needed to fill out paperwork, and I needed seven days in advance so they denied me to preach.”
He contacted Public Safety director Chris Counts after that incident.
“He told me I didn’t need a permit, but because of complaints, they may have me not here anymore,” he said. “When I met up with him I told him, ‘Well, I’m just going to preach anyway and [he] would do what he had to do.’ So [they] told me that they had called the Bakersfield Police Department on me.”
Runels continued to preach in the Free Speech area despite concerns from school administrators.
The situation escalated on Feb. 5.
“Last week when I was here, [Public Safety] approached me and he told me that he called the BPD and that they were going to come and that I was trespassing, and he threatened to arrest me. I said, ‘Well, you can’t threaten to arrest me because that’s against the law, and I have video of you doing it’, and after I said that, he said OK and never came back.”
Sgt. Joe Grubbs, BPD’s public information officer ,confirmed that the BPD did receive a “peace disturbance” call from the BC campus on Feb. 5 and did dispatch an officer to the scene, although the officer arrived after Runels had already left the Free Speech area.
On that date, several clubs were also utilizing the Free Speech area: the Agriculture club, MEChA, the Gay Straight Alliance, and the American Sign Language club.
“It’s a little bit distracting, and it makes it kind of awkward for us to be out here. We’re trying to just ignore it, but at the same time we’re trying to make ourselves feel comfortable so we’re making jokes,” said GSA Treasurer Alex Delgado. “We know he’s trying to be respectful of us; I can hear him avoiding some terms that he used last time he was here.”
M.E.Ch.A Vice President Sarah Chavez echoed that sentiment. Chavez said that her club is open to all people’s beliefs but was slightly upset that Runels was preaching right behind her club’s table. “The fact that [Runels] is interrupting us means we can’t really speak to whoever is coming up to our table. It’s kind of hard, we’re trying to talk and we can’t.”
ASL club president Lei Lani said that Runels is distracting to both her and to students coming up to the club’s table, but she believes he has a right to be there. “I mean it is the Free Speech area, he has his rights to speak what he wants.”
Ag club President Bryce Stevenson said: “Personally I do not have a problem with his campaign as long as he has got the proper documentation just as all the other clubs out here have. The yelling is a bit of a distraction, is a lot of a distraction, a lot of people who have come up to the [Ag club] have mentioned something about it being a distraction. I am all for people expressing their opinions, that is what this country was founded upon, so I cannot argue with what he is doing as long as he has the proper documentation.”
Not all students have found Runels’ approach annoying. Education major Annie Harraka was actually drawn to him because of his style and message.
“I noticed how he was screaming out like how the disciples did, and I just thought it was so interesting,” she said. Harraka continued to say that her mother had recently passed, which she said caused her to move “away from God for a while.”
“I love that he’s doing that, I love it,” Harraka said. “I think that students need to hear that, because some campuses don’t allow people to do that. I wish there were more people doing that.”
Harraka said that many other students seemed to be less accepting of Runels than she was. “I don’t want to judge anyone, but I think that they should have open minds and at least listen to it and get to know it a little bit,” she said.
Geology major Sam Johnson snapped a picture of Runels for a friend and agreed that Runels was “distracting.” “It’s more of a spectacle than anything else,” he said.
Runels knows that student reactions to his actions have been mixed. “Some people agree, some people disagree, but all in all I think it has been good because everyone’s been able to hear.”
He feels like he is accomplishing his goals out here, regardless of some of the negative reactions he has received.
“I have heard of several people who have given their lives to the Lord since I’ve been out here, he said.
On Feb. 12, there was a more direct response to Runels from the student body as computer science major Wade Hickey and industrial drawing major Garret Gandeis stood across from Runels holding up signs that expressed opposing views.
“I’m addressing that he’s kind of a big annoyance to everyone here. [He’s] intrusive, and a sign isn’t intrusive,” said Hickey.
Gandeis elaborated on that point, saying, “We’re just tired of having to deal with people who are making very loud and intrusive noises that are out of place in education. So we’re trying to show him that you can get a point across without being noisy and without offending people. You can close your eyes to a sign, but you can’t close your ears.”
Runels believes that what he is doing is the right thing, and he takes it very seriously. “I’m out here preaching because I believe that there are many people living in sin, and the Bible says we all have sinned and the only way to be saved is to repent of our sin and put out trust in Jesus Christ. I don’t want anyone to perish, just like God doesn’t want anyone to perish.”
Runels states that he is nondenominational though he attends Cavalry church where he is employed. “I am on staff at the church of Calvary chapel. I’m specially paid full time to go out and preach.”
Cal State Bakersfield also has had visits from Runels. “I was there for the week they started classes, and every Thursday,” he said.
Irma Cervantes, CSUB’s public affairs coordinator, stated that CSUB does not have a policy requiring any student to fill out paperwork to use that campus’s Free Speech area.
If further issues arise, Runels says that he is not worried and has taken preemptive action to keep himself safe.
“I am familiar with my rights, and I actually have an attorney that helps with free speech and preachers and whatnot, and I’m aware that this is a public campus so you don’t need to sign anything. So I chose not to sign anything because of the restrictions it had,” he said.
“I’m legally safe currently. If someone did arrest me, they’d arrest me under false pretenses. That’s why I have the video camera out there so everything will be on camera. I’m recording myself when I’m preaching.”
Runels said he’ll continue to preach at BC and CSUB regardless of any trouble he gets into.
“As long as I’m able to be out here to preach I’m fine with that, and if someone wants to restrict those rights, I am willing to just go with them and keep coming back,” he said.