College Diary: Bible-Belt Adventures

Butler University is located in central Indiana in the middle of the country’s Bible Belt. Religion, in one form or another, is alive and well on Butler’s campus. These forms range from Black Muslims to fundamentalist Protestants and everything in between.

The Newman Center’s priest, Father Jim Wilmouth, is a sweet and extraordinarily busy man. He also works for the sheriff’s department, a few downtown parishes, and the Newman Center at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. He and I arrived on campus at the same time last fall, slightly bewildered but determined to get along. He goes out of his way to be available to everyone who needs his help and, consequently, carries a beeper.

In Father Wilmouth’s absence during most of the week, the Newman Center is run by his assistant, Rose Scherschel, who has been at the Center for over five years. She is a very strong-willed woman with a liberal feminist Weltanschauung. I could tell by the way she dominated many aspects of the Mass that if women were ever ordained as priests she would be first in line at the nearest seminary, wearing her Halston vestments. She made a hearty attempt to promote the feminization of the liturgy by incorporating songs from a feminist hymnal, inclusive language, Mother Earth pantheism, and worship dances into the Mass.

I played the guitar at a few Masses, and one Sunday Rose handed me a copy of the feminist hymnal Cry of Ramah from which she had taken the songs for the day. It did not include an imprimatur or a nihil obstat and had not been submitted to Church authority for obvious reasons. She told me that she had bought it at a local “feminist bookstore,” which is mainly an outlet for lesbian books and music. The hymnal contained songs with titles such as “God the Washerwoman” and “Ruah,” a feminine Hebrew word for spirit. Each song had directions for worship dances.

“You’re not going to ask us to play this one, are you?” I asked, pointing to “God the Washerwoman.”

“Oh no. The people at Butler aren’t ready for that one—yet,” she said.

I looked at the words to “Ruah,” the song I was asked to play that day, which ran “Children will lead us and women will be our prophets.” I turned to the singer and said, “Where will the men be? Trampled underfoot, I suppose.”

The lime green flyers Rose passed out to the people at Mass contained a prayer for the earth that distinctly smacked of pantheism. It was exceptionally embarrassing because I knew that there were people there who would assume that Catholics were required to believe such things.

Rose also scribbled out all masculine nouns and pronouns in Father Wilmouth’s missal and replaced them with feminine or neuter ones. She then handed the missal to me and asked the singer and me to find someone to do the readings. When she left the room I erased everything she had written and gave it to my boyfriend, Peter, with the instruction “When you get to the male words, read them very loudly.”

Rose’s penchant for worship dances struck a raw nerve with many of the students. Catholicism is the most misunderstood part of Christendom at Butler, and there are many myths and prejudices concerning Catholics. Her worship dances, usually performed barefoot, did nothing to improve our image in the eyes of non-Catholics we brought to Mass to prove that we are not all that bizarre. In fact, she caused more misconceptions to arise and caused some Catholic students to attend Mass off-campus. Father Wilmouth was approached by at least three students who expressed concern over these dances and asked him to reconsider their place in the Mass.

Coming from a predominantly Catholic high school, I had not encountered widespread misinformation about Catholicism until I came to college. At Butler, fundamentalist Protestants told me that they believe Catholics to be little better than pagans because we have chants and pray pre-written prayers. One of my friends, a Baptist Student Union member, did not know that the Hail Mary was a prayer; he thought that Catholics chanted the words “hail Mary” repeatedly during the rosary. He tried fervently to convert me, his roommate, and everyone else with whom he came into contact after attending a Baptist Student Union workshop on evangelization. He told me that the Baptist Church was the only true church and that the Catholic Church was the work of the devil. I asked him which Baptist denomination he meant, since there are several. His own, of course.

I was also told that the pope was the head of the international New Age conspiracy and that apparitions of Mary were actually appearances of Satan in drag. He hated the Catholic Church to the point that he wouldn’t even date the Catholic girl on whom he had a crush.

I asked him if he had ever been to a Catholic Mass. “No!” he said. “My dad went to one when he was in college and he told me what they do there!”

“What do they do?”

“Well… I can’t remember, but it was disgusting.” “But you’ve never actually seen any of these disgusting things your dad told you about?”

“Well, no.”

His roommate approached me a few days later in hopes of clearing up some of the things my Baptist friend had been raving about. His questions included whether it was true that Catholics aren’t allowed to pray to God, whether we worshipped the pope, whether we worshipped Mary and the saints to the exclusion of God, and whether, if I killed someone and confessed it to a priest, I would be free from any further responsibility. He is now looking into joining the Church.

I am ambushed on a regular basis by other fundamentalists. On my bleary-eyed way to the bathroom at three in the morning I was told by a young woman who also belonged to the Baptist Student Union, “You don’t need a priest to get to God, you know.”

She followed me into the bathroom and explained how Catholics go against the Bible. I was cross-examined about Catholic stands on baptism, purgatory, faith and works. I explained that Catholics don’t start declaring winners and losers until the scorecard is added up after death, but she was bellicosely determined to “witness” me, a practice I have come to view as bullying someone who disagrees with your religious views until they finally agree with you. Father Wilmouth is planning a course on the Catholic faith in order to clarify it for anyone interested in what we really believe.

A Bible cult known as the Church of Christ has recruited heavily on campus since 1987. This Church of Christ is not the same as the denominational church of the same name. It is a branch of a nationwide group that targets university students. It came under fire from all campus ministries during the fall semester for its high-pressure, manipulative techniques and was officially banned by the administration in May.

The leaders of the group encouraged its members to avoid their families. Members of the cult went door to door in the dorms and approached students in the cafeterias and hounded them to join their Bible study group. They criticized students’ beliefs and warned them that they would go to hell if they did not join the cult. Members were not allowed to ask questions and those who tried to leave were told they were showing hatred toward God. One of the more cult-like techniques used to control the members’ minds was forcing an erring member to read a gruesome medical description of what Jesus suffered on the cross and telling the member that he caused Christ’s sufferings by his disobedience to the group.

I was asked to attend their Bible study sessions several times during the course of the year, but informing them that “Sorry, I’m a papist” scared them long enough for me to get away. Other times I would ask pointed theological questions until they got mad and gave up on me. Eventually they left me—and most Catholic students—alone.

There are enough confusing aspects of college life for a freshman without a personal religious crisis being added to them. It is important for Catholic students to be firm in their faith before they get to college, because it will be assaulted from all sides.


  • Kimberly J. Gustin

    At the time this article was published, Kimberly J. Gustin was a student at Butler University.

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