God And The City
One College's Tall Order: Making an Evangelical Haven in the Heart of N.Y.

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2008


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.

That's not happening here. There isn't a bong in sight, or a drop of liquor. 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.

"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's 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. A young man named Anthony Randazza will argue in favor of Calvin's concept of predestination and "irresistible grace," and his friend David Lapp will argue against. A moderator -- no kidding, there's a moderator -- will keep each side to a five-minute opening statement, then a half-hour of mutual interrogation, followed by questions from the audience.

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.

The symbolism of the address did not escape 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.) Moving to the iconic heart of the bluest city in the country was precisely the point.

"What the King's College is doing is a beautiful illustration of what Christ did," says Lapp. "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. On some level, this is a massive student-abroad program, except the kids are from, say, Iowa instead of Norway, and meeting them sheds light on a literal reading of the Bible instead of the national appetite for smoked lamb's head.

But hang around these polite, untattooed 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 coed 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, 'Okay, 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?"

A 'Crackpot Idea'

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. The classrooms are there and so is the student lounge, a vast den with tables for pool and ping-pong and lots of sofas. When the halls are filled with students, it feels like a heartland social in a very large bunker.

Only two majors are offered: business and a program in politics, philosophy and economics. No foreign language classes, no science. With biology absent from the course catalogue, there is no official take on evolution at the King's, and it is the one topic that everyone seems vaguely reluctant to discuss.

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

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

Nearly all of the students and faculty are Republicans, against abortion rights, wary of gay rights. They'll say nice things about Mike Huckabee, because he has popularized the non-threatening face of evangelical Christians, but many find his economic populism -- his emphasis on the plight of poor families, his attacks on the alleged greed of corporations -- a little off-putting. There's also widespread affection for President Bush, which is something 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!' "

Everyone here seems to relish being outnumbered; 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," says Marvin Olasky, who became provost in June of last year. "You don't have free discussions in the classroom."

A gentle, nebbishy guy with thick glasses, Olasky is best known as the author of "The Tragedy of American Compassion," a book that shaped the idea of "compassionate conservatism" touted by President Bush in 2000. Olasky's path to the King's was hardly direct; he was born Jewish, grew up an atheist and was a certified pinko commie in his 20s, enthralled enough by the Soviet Union to hitch a ride on a freighter and tour the country. 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.' "

Olasky is sitting in the Club Room, part of the administrative offices, which are on the 15th floor. The King's entrance is on the southeast corner, behind a set of glass double doors.

"Here's my crackpot idea of the day," Olasky says, grabbing a piece of paper. He draws a Y axis with "vibrant debate" on the top and "apathy" on bottom, and a horizontal X axis, with "violence" on one side and "civility" on the other.

"If you've got vibrant debate and violence, you've got jihad. Violence and apathy, you've got soccer hooligans. We want our kids to be here," he says pointing to the quadrant where "vibrant debate" and "civility" meet.

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 style of "new Christian urbanism," as Olasky calls it, frowns on hard-sell proselytizing. But students at the King's have been known to strike up conversations in the city with strangers, hoping at minimum to change their mind about evangelicals. The most outgoing and nerviest is David Lapp, who takes semi-regular field trips to the campus of New York University and approaches people with lines like "Do you want to discuss big ideas?" or "What do you think is the good life?"

"I see this place as a meeting ground," says Lapp, who was home-schooled in Lancaster County, Pa., a.k.a. Amish country. "The people I meet are very detached from Christian America; they're not sure what's happening out there in the heartland. Just talking, I realize that New Yorkers aren't as crazy as I was always told they are, and they can learn that evangelicals aren't as crazy as Pat Robertson makes us seem."

None of Lapp's impromptu dialogues has led even to a follow-up chat, let alone salvation for the unsaved. One, in Washington Square Park, led to a 45-minute talk that ended with each party recommending a book for the other. Lapp suggested G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy." His interlocutor suggested Richard Dawkins's "The God Delusion."

Then again, students at the King's have found themselves in more than a few discussions they couldn't wait to end. Like the two female students who were talking in the stairwell of their apartment building late at night and were accosted by an elderly woman whom they were apparently keeping awake. She had a knife in her hand, which she at first hid behind her back.

"Next time I bring two of these!" the woman shouted, revealing the blade.

Nor was there a lot of amiable back-and-forth when Caitie Hlushak found herself alone in an elevator, at midnight, with a man carrying a black plastic case.

"It looked like the sort of case that would carry a gun," says Hlushak, who comes from a small town near Denver. "And he turns to me and he says, 'I just killed a guy.' I was like, 'What?'" she recalls, laughing. "I just cowered in the corner. He might have been joking, he might have been trying to be friendly."

Friendly? "I know. It sounds crazy. Oh, and he had a can of Drano in his other hand."

Sex and the City

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. There were just 17 students in the first class.

Three years ago, the state's Board of Regents seemed poised to vote against renewing the King's accreditation -- which would have all but turned off the lights -- arguing that the school didn't have the budget or faculty to teach more than 200 students. The King's supporters mounted a public relations campaign, in Christian radio and publications, suggesting that the board had an anti-Christian bias. Ultimately, the Regents handed over their seal of approval and the second existential threat to the college was thwarted.

All of the King's students are assigned to "houses" with names like Thatcher, Reagan and Churchill. Throughout the year, they compete -- in scavenger hunts, in basketball games, in a race for the highest GPA, in good works.

An academic year at the King's costs $29,000, though 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 a few blocks away for women, both on Sixth Avenue near the Empire State Building. Each apartment is a one-bedroom for four people; the bedroom has two sets of bunk beds. Dating is permitted. There are no rules against sex, but it's quietly discouraged, by students as well as faculty.

Sex, however, is a topic that Manhattan has a way of bringing up, regardless of your views on the matter. After the Saturday night debate, a group of a dozen students heads to a Vietnamese restaurant, and over bowls of lemon-grass soup the women trade stories.

"We were walking downtown once and this guy came up to my friend Katherine and pointed to her butt," says Penelope Gelwicks, a sophomore from Fishers, Ind. "He said, 'You know what we call that in Brooklyn? A badonkadonk!' He followed us for a little while, then he said, 'Okay, bye!' "

As unnerving as these tales might sound, lots of these students intend to stay in New York when they graduate, landing jobs in nonreligious fields with nonreligious corporations. No one has become smitten enough with life in the "muck and mire" to ditch Christianity for the dark side, as far as the students and administrators know. But a few of these youngsters 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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