Bible in hand, Micah Armstrong strides into the middle of a small group of students at the University of Alabama and starts preaching.You’re going to hell if you drink beer, he says. You’re going to hell if you curse. You’re going to hell if you smoke dope, masturbate, fornicate, watch a Hollywood movie, listen to rap, read Harry Potter books or attend most Protestant churches, Armstrong says.
Homosexuals are hellbound, too, he says. So are women with low-cut tops, short hair, pants or jobs. “Women have two places: In front of the sink and behind the vacuum,” Armstrong proclaims.
“Ooooh,” moans the crowd, now swelled to at least 250 people. Armstrong springs forward on one foot, thumping his Bible as he lands. “Yeee-ah,” shouts a heckler, mimicking Howard Dean’s campaign scream and dressed like Armstrong with a low-slung cap, backpack and suspenders.
And the show goes on. For four hours.
Known to a reluctant flock as Brother Micah, Armstrong holds a near mythic status on college campuses across the eastern United States. He’s spent the last two years visiting a circuit of 28 schools, preaching a fire-and-brimstone message of repentance to anyone who will listen.
“If you don’t believe your sin will get you sent to hell you don’t fear God. If you don’t fear God, you don’t know God,” he told students during a stop last week at Alabama, often ranked among the top party schools in the U.S. Next, Armstrong says, it’s back to the University of Mississippi. He’s also been to Florida State, Cincinnati, Georgia Southern, Central Florida, North Carolina and Florida Atlantic, to name a few.
Armstrong’s harangues sometimes provoke debate, sometimes laughter. Shouting matches between Armstrong and offended students are frequent. So are questions — some serious, some, well, not so serious.
“Brother Micah, can God microwave a burrito so hot he can’t eat it?” a student with dreadlocks called from the crowd.
“Chuck Norris can!” someone screeched, prompting a roar.
Micah just kept preaching.
“You say sorority girls are whores,” another guy called from the throng. “Is there one in particular I could go to?”
Armstrong paused, rubbed his face and kept preaching.
You can question Armstrong’s theology all you want, and many do. Critics say Brother Micah claims to be sinless and is so focused on scaring hell out of people that he has forgotten the things they see in God — love, forgiveness, charity. “I’m a pretty strong believer, and it bothers me that he’s out here turning people away,” said graduate student Jeremy Yarbrough, 29.
Armstrong, 40, and his wife Elizabeth attend a church near Tampa, Fla., when they can, but home is a camper. They say a few churches and supporters fund their open-air preaching, which is primarily in the Southeast but extends into the nation’s midsection. “Our whole purpose is to spread the gospel,” said Armstrong. Originally from Louisville, Ky., he was a street preacher in Miami’s South Beach before hitting the road.
“He’s been everywhere. He’s a cult figure,” said Sally Linder, a spokeswoman for Ohio University, where Armstrong made a stop last year.
Armstrong — who adopted the name of the biblical prophet Micah — is reserved during an interview. He said he’s purposely outrageous at times to draw a crowd, then tones down the rhetoric, sits down and talks to people. “People say, ‘Oh, they’re making fun of you. They’re not listening.’ But they do listen,” Armstrong said.
He’s right. Many in the crowd at Alabama brought Bibles with them, thumbing through pages to check out verses as he spoke. Others left discussing faith in a way normally reserved for religion classes.
A delivery worker who spent nearly 30 minutes out of his truck listening to Armstrong said the preacher is at least making people think, whether they like him or not. “There’s good in it,” he said.
Avery Dame doesn’t like Armstrong’s message, yet the junior loves what his visits do for the campus. “It’s the one time people care about something. He’s such a big jerk everyone kind of unites against him,” Dame said.
Maybe, but they love the act.
The crowd dwindled quickly after Armstrong took a water break and let a couple of friends preach. Students soon were chanting “Micah! Micah!” and they cheered when he stepped back atop a small brick wall to resume the tirade against alcohol, homosexuals … you name it.
“I love you sinners enough to rebuke you,” he said. “I don’t want you to go to hell.”
-with a report from CP