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Evangelicals in the city

The Empire State Building seems like an unlikely spot for a conservative religious school, yet it’s where the Evangelical King’s College calls home.
Friday, March 14, 2008 | 1:00 p.m. CDT; updated 6:30 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Elizabeth Schutz and Kelly Gebert Jr. at the Empire State Building, where the evangelical King’s College serves 220 undergraduates on a three-floor campus. Moving to the iconic heart of the bluest city in the country was precisely the point for the overseers of King’s.

NEW YORK — Saturday night in midtown Manhattan, and 25 college students are packed into the living room of a small apartment. The festivities are about to get underway, and in this demographic, in this town, that typically means mind-altering substances, which segue to deafening music, which ultimately leads to nudity.

Here, there isn’t a bong or a drop of liquor in sight. Just 7Up and Edy’s ice cream. And when the student in charge of this shindig says it’s time for the evening to begin, he doesn’t bust out a cooler of Smirnoff Ice. He asks everyone to bow their heads and pray.

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“Dear Lord God, we thank You so much for this evening. God, I just say that we who believe in You, we trust You, Lord; we trust that You are working for good. I ask that You be glorified with the rest of us here. In Jesus’ name, I pray.”

The main event, it turns out, is a thoroughly earnest, often witty and occasionally mind-pretzeling debate over John Calvin, the 16th-century French Protestant. With a moderator.

If there is such a thing as the opposite of a drug-crazed rave, this is what it looks like.

You may wonder who moves to Manhattan as an undergraduate and spends Saturday night parsing the words of a theologian. Here’s a guess: no one except the students of the King’s College, an evangelical college located in the Empire State Building.

That’s right, there’s an evangelical college in the Empire State Building: 45,000 square feet of space on three floors, with classrooms, a student rec center, administrative offices, the works.

Moving to the iconic heart of the bluest city in the country was precisely the point for the overseers of the King’s, who moved the institution here from a village in Westchester County, N.Y., in 1999, after financial woes closed the school in the mid-’90s. (An evangelical organization, the Campus Crusade for Christ, helped revive it.)

“What the King’s College is doing is a beautiful illustration of what Christ did,” student David Lapp says. “He came into the muck and mire of this world, and he lived among men and lived in a real place, Nazareth. So that’s fundamentally what we as Christ’s followers are to do as well: go into those places where there is real hurt, real sin, and live among them and strive to live the way of Christ.”

Manhattan’s unsavoriness, it seems, is part of the King’s pitch to prospective students. The goal isn’t exactly to rescue the place. But if casual conversations with the legions of godless residents veer to matters of faith, the wholesome-looking, Book-of-Matthew-quoting undergrads of the King’s — 220 of them, from 11 countries and 37 states — will share the Good News, albeit gingerly.

But hang around these polite, un-tattooed lads and lasses and you get the sense that New York is leaving a far deeper impression on them than they are on the city. Many take a passive approach to spreading the Word, one that involves smiling and radiating contentedness and being ready if someone asks what makes them so happy.

The problem is that when a 20-year-old woman grins at a stranger in this town, the stranger often gets the wrong idea. Everyone, it seems, has a story like this:

“It was 10 in the morning and I was on my way to poetry class,” says Kiley Humphries, a senior from Wichita, “and this guy came up to me near the corner of 31st and Madison, and he said, ’So, where are the drugs around here?’

“I almost laughed at him. He was like, ’Come on. You know. I know you know. I see that little smile.’ I was like, ’No, I really don’t have a clue.’ He said, ’You know. Tell me where the drugs are.’ I was like, ’I really don’t know.’ He seemed to believe me. Then he said, ’OK, if I do end up finding drugs, can I get your number so I can let you know?’ I was thinking, does that ever work?”

Ironically, what the King’s College did not get when it moved into one of the world’s tallest buildings is a killer view. Most of student life happens on the lower level, which is underground, in the classrooms and the student lounge, a vast den with tables for pool and ping-pong and lots of sofas.

Only two majors are offered: business and a program in politics, philosophy and economics. No foreign language classes, no science. Hence there is no official take on evolution, the one topic everyone seems vaguely reluctant to discuss.

“I shouldn’t have brought this up,” says one student after the debate, explaining his quibbles with Darwin. “You’re going to make me sound crazy.”

Indeed, the subtext of many conversations is: “We know you think we’re nutty, but if you listen, you’ll realize how perfectly sane we really are.”

Nearly all the students and faculty are Republicans, against abortion rights, wary of gay rights. There’s widespread affection for President Bush, which you just don’t see on any other New York City campus.

“I was carrying a placard from a Bush rally once,” says Humphries, who is student body president. “And a woman in my building said, ’You’re a college student?’ And I said yes. And she said, ’In New York?’ I said yes. ’And you’re for Bush.’ And I said yes. And she said, ’So you do exist!’ “

You get the sense the students all come from places where they were surrounded by like-minded people and now they’re tickled to be in the minority. They’re also aware that in New York, many of their opinions — that God condemns homosexuality because it says so in the Bible, for instance — are a kind of secular heresy.

“At most colleges today, if you attack abortion, you’ll be mobbed by other students,” Provost Marvin Olasky says. “You don’t have free discussions in the classroom.”

Olasky is best known as the author of “The Tragedy of American Compassion,” a book that shaped the idea of “compassionate conservatism” touted by Bush in 2000. Born Jewish, Olasky grew up an atheist and was a certified pinko commie in his 20s. He became a Christian as a graduate student in American studies, in 1976, as he read a Russian version of the Bible, hoping to hone his language skills.

“By the time I reached the Sermon on the Mount,” he says, “I thought, ’This is the word of God.’”

New York City, according to Olasky and the rest of the King’s elders, is the perfect place to teach the art of civilized debate. They believe a mistake was made a century ago when evangelicals began to leave urban centers, sequestering themselves in the suburbs and beyond, ceding cities to the forces of sin. The King’s choice of location is meant to prove a point: that the faithful do not need a moat between themselves and pop culture.

The King’s was founded in 1938 in Belmar, N.J., and moved to Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., in 1955. A failed land deal closed the place in 1994, and it had some touch-and-go moments after it was reborn in the Empire State Building. Just 17 students were in the first class.

Three years ago, the state’s Board of Regents seemed poised to vote against renewing the King’s accreditation, arguing that the school didn’t have the budget or faculty to teach more than 200 students. Supporters mounted a public relations campaign in Christian radio and publications, suggesting that the board had an anti-Christian bias, and ultimately won the board’s approval.

An academic year costs $29,000; nearly all the students get some form of financial aid or scholarships from a variety of private donors and foundations. The fee includes housing, which the King’s rents in two high-rise buildings, one for men, another for women, on Sixth Avenue near the Empire State Building. Dating is permitted. There are no rules against sex, but it’s quietly discouraged.

Many of these students intend to stay in New York when they graduate, landing jobs in nonreligious fields with nonreligious corporations. A few seem well on their way to melding the evangelical mind-set and New York City style.

Deborah Francisco, for instance, has mastered the Gotham approach to human interaction: Keep your head down and brace yourself for unpleasantness. It’s to the point now that, on a recent trip to Georgia, she suffered what she called “reverse culture shock.”

“This girl came up to me and said, ’Oh, I love your sweater; where’d you get it?’ “ Francisco says, laying on the sort of sweet Southern drawl you hear at beauty pageants. “I was like, ‘Gosh, I don’t know what to say.’ I had actually forgotten how to be friendly.”


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