Angela Cummings says she "worked very hard in Bible school to be a history maker." And make history she has. Not since the days when her friend, the late street preacher and activist Dan Martino, regularly made headlines around Chattanooga (and the world) has a street preacher raised as many eyebrows and as much ire in this city.
Cummings is loud and unapologetic. She speaks openly about her troubled past and how God delivered her from it. Her sermons are a blend of the Bible and extra-biblical zingers. Many students and many in the community have taken issue with her confrontational tone; her boldness in accusing the student body of sin; and her audacity to preach about God, Jesus, heaven and hell.
She has been called intolerant. Her words have been labeled "hate speech." Increasing numbers of students and others have been showing up during her visit to protest her, mock her and drown her out with their own shouting and—in at least one case—a saxophone.
As disagreeable as her presence may be for some, UTC officials insist that she followed the proper procedure in requesting permission to speak on campus. Despite petitions and feedback from frustrated students and faculty, they say they just can't kick her off campus and will provide security for both her and the students' protection.
"We are required by law to allow access to individuals with diverse ideas," UTC spokeswoman Cindy Carroll told the Times Free Press. "A university should be a place where ideas—even distasteful ones—can be expressed and explored. The same protection that allows an individual to express one thought allows someone else to express an opposing opinion."
Despite campus policy, one UTC student, 24-year-old Cole Montalvo, evidently felt the need to approach Cummings recently and, as Sean Phipps put it, "play the hero." After being told repeatedly not to cross the barricade security had set up around Cummings, he pushed through anyway and was arrested. Video of the incident went viral, and the remainder of Cummings' visit became a referendum on free speech and fairness.
One of the people shooting video of the incident was Cummings herself. Her footage shows her preaching before the arrest, the incident, and her and the crowd's reaction to it. Most of all, however, it shows a missed opportunity.
Cummings is preaching to a relatively sparse crowd when Montalvo tries to approach her on his bike. As he is stopped by campus security, he tries to get Cummings' attention to ask her a question. He speaks peacefully and politely.
"Hey, ma'am? Ma'am?" he calls to Cummings.
"Yes?" she says, as his questioning is interrupted by a member of campus security. "Go ahead," she says, as she walks back to and adjusts her video camera in order to get a better angle of Montalvo and the officer.
"If you're trying to spread the good word, maybe you shouldn't be telling everybody that they're sinners," Montalvo says. "And maybe you shouldn't be yelling at everyone, OK?"
Cummings doesn't respond, but as things heat up between Montalvo and campus security, Cummings does take a moment to plug her upcoming appearances on campus.
"I signed up to be here this week, students," she says. "I will be here tomorrow. I will be here Monday and Tuesday—unless there is a rapture."
As officers restrain an increasingly agitated and resistant Montalvo, Cummings again adjusts the camera for a better view. When a student filming the arrest with his cellphone cusses her out, she tells him, "God's got your number, too, sinner."
"Is your campus always like this?" she asks a member of campus security standing next to her. "Why is he resisting?
"I've only been 13 minutes into my message," she says before spinning the camera around 360 degrees to get a shot of the now-bigger, louder and angrier crowd. As Montalvo is taken away in handcuffs, Cummings moves the camera one last time to get a good shot of him and the officers walking away. She then starts preaching again, this time to loud roars of disapproval from the crowd.
The missed opportunity
"I just got arrested on my campus," Montalvo says in a video he shot in the back of the squad car. "There's a lady … She's yelling at everybody, telling them they have to repent or they're going to hell or something and that we're all sinners, and I tried to walk up to her and ask her why she was calling us sinners."
Before letting his emotions overtake his better judgment, Montalvo approached Cummings peacefully. He wanted to have a conversation. Somehow, despite spending four years as a biochemistry student on the "Christ-centered liberal arts campus" of Lee University, he was evidently unaware that it was the Apostle Paul—and not Angela Cummings—who first said that "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God."
Montalvo may not have thought that referencing this bit of Scripture was a good way to share the Gospel, but the Gospel simply wouldn't be the Gospel without it. The "good news" cannot exist without some bad news. This is a basic tenet of Christianity that Cummings could have easily shared with Montalvo. But she didn't.
Minutes before Montalvo's arrest, Cummings was reading from the book of James, stressing to students the importance of humbling themselves. Sadly, as a friend and I were discussing this weekend, Cummings missed an important opportunity to live out her words in front of Montalvo.
What if—instead of adjusting the video camera, plugging her upcoming appearances and verbally sparring with those in the crowd—Cummings walked over to Montalvo when he was first stopped by security and calmly answered his question? What if, after Montalvo had been restrained, she had used her powerful lungs to implore campus security to let Montalvo go? Even if she'd been unsuccessful in her efforts, what kind of impression would that have made in the minds of the impressionable college students in attendance that day? What would that video have looked like?
"College students stop because it's a show," she told the Times Free Press last week. "Some street preachers are boring, and it's no wonder why they don't get a crowd. But once I get a crowd, I point to Jesus."
Cummings is by no means boring. And she most definitely drew a crowd. But when she did, she kept pointing to Angela Cummings.
Bill Colrus writes about (in no particular order) news, culture and media. You can find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.