Evangelically Speaking

The public and private sides of Brother Stephen. 

By Greta Pane

Brother Stephen has taken his family and me to a campus Indian buffet. He goes back and forth with the kids to the buffet. Three-year-old Philip spills rice on the black carpet and cries. Stephen brings back more food, holds one-year-old Wesley, comforts Philip. Wesley is mumbling first words: Bible, Daddy, Hallelujah. Brother Stephen, his arm around wife Laurie’s chair, chatters excitedly about a political convention. Laurie is telling me about being a social worker. There’s something comforting about sitting with their lively family, eating spicy Indian food and breathing the warm buzz of college students on a Friday night.

As we walk out, a girl almost shouts, “Oh my God, is that Brother Stephen?” Necks swivel. Conversation stops.

Photo by JJ Tiziou
©The Daily Pennsylvanian

“God only wants those who love him up there in heaven,” shouts Brother Stephen from College Green. “Not drunkards, liars, rapists, thieves, potheads, homos, lesbians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, or unconverted Cath-olics! The Lord Jesus Christ wants everyone with him, but most of you don’t want him.”

A student shoots back, “No, we don’t want you.” 

“Because you hate God.” 

“No, because I hate you.” 

“I know you do, because I represent the holiness of God.” 

“You represent the devil!”

About 70 individuals and organizations support Brother Stephen, director and pastor of the Philadelphia Gospel Center, so that from spring to fall, he can open-air preach where he says the godless proliferate: college campuses. Brother Stephen’s first pulpit was a school cafeteria in his hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas. After graduating from Central Bible College in Missouri in 1991, he moved to the northeast.

All my friends had something to say about my first interview with Brother Stephen. “Ask him if a born-again Christian has two belly-buttons.” “His son will never, ever be comfortable with his sexuality.” “Tell him to stop polluting our planet with his kids.” I spent an hour getting ready, hoping he wouldn’t say I was damned. I put on mascara to compensate for my short hair and wore loose jeans and a plain button-down shirt, aiming for the thin line between “dyke” and “whore.” I had never spoken with Brother Stephen; I’d stood at the crowd’s edge, angry enough to be shaking, but doubting I could out-argue, or rather out-shout him. I didn’t want to give him an audience, but I couldn’t help watching. I hated him too much.

At our first meeting, he offers me a bag of Skittles that his kids started on, makes small talk about the Internet seach engine, Google, and says the doves I raised as a kid were “neater” than his pigeons. He laughs nervously, elbows me, tries to joke. He is gracious and patient with my questions. It’s only when I try to get my atheist mind to understand how he knew he was called to preach that he dares query me: “Are you a Christian?” I tell him I was raised Catholic, and he says politely, “Well, that’d be different. We’d see things differently.”

Once two girls approached him holding hands and he pranced around shouting, “AIDS alert!” Recently he said, “We should execute the homos. They’re guilty of a crime worthy of death.” Some students believe Stephen is a repressed gay—how else could he muster such hatred? A male student heckles him when he shows up in a pink shirt with a pink-and-black tie. Brother Stephen interrupts his sermon on his own sainthood (he claims all true followers of Christ are saints) to defend himself: 

“Pink in itself is not homosexual.” 

“But you are,” says the student. 

“How do you know?” 

“’Cause we were together last night!” 

But Brother Stephen doesn’t fornicate. Except the year he was 20—when, in the Navy and influenced by non-Christian friends, he became a “fornicator and a drinker”—he says he’s abstained from illicit sex, smoking, alcohol, and swearing. He admits to his lapse but won’t elaborate. After all, he’s a saint now. He’s been one since a fiery woman preacher converted him from Baptist to zealous Pentacostalist his freshman year at the University of Arkansas.

“This is my wife. She is developing a child in her matrix,” says Stephen to the crowd. A student groans, “In her matrix?” Pregnant Laurie wrinkles her nose and smiles shyly. 

In 1994, Brother Stephen decided that like all men of God, he needed a wife. When things got serious with Laurie, he tested her. Would she follow his car if he took a wrong turn? Did her pastor approve of her? Did she study the Bible by herself? Was she a good cook? A college graduate? The answers were Yes. Laurie passed. Gesturing to his son, Stephen says, “This is my firstborn son, Philip. He’s legitimate.”

Three-year-old Philip can boast more than legitimacy—he preaches. Recently he stood on College Green, thrusting his children’s Bible into the air, and saying in a clear, high voice, “The Bible says the word of God is eternal!” Hitting the book, “This is the word of God. The Bible says there is only one true God that will take away all your sins.” One-year-old Wesley joins in, brandishing his Bible, growling, shaking his head. Students’ eyes are wide. One whispers, “It’s a goddamn conspiracy.” Philip’s preaching concludes with “Fornicators!” When Brother Stephen asks him what the word means, he covers his face with his Bible, apparently embarrassed not to know. 

Brother Stephen has offered to pick me up, even though they haven’t packed. The next morning, they’re driving to Arkansas for the 20th anniversary of Stephen’s calling. When we reach their narrow, one-way street near the Art Museum, Stephen blurts, “You’re not allergic to cats, are you?” Inside, he asks me to take off my shoes. The carpet, like the living room, stairs, and even the kids’ room, is impeccably clean. Framed Biblical quotations are everywhere, as are family photos. Gaudy sprigs of plastic grape vines hang above one large painting and a doorway.

Philip is hanging upside down on the stairs and licking the blue banister when I ask Stephen the question that’s nagged me since the start: how could someone so attentive to his children, so clearly capable of being kind, be such a bigot? Brother Stephen’s face goes blank. He runs for the dictionary and laughs after reading the definition of bigot: intolerant. “God is the most bigoted being in the universe. He made hell. If He were tolerant, there would be no heaven and hell,” is his reply. 

Yet Stephen is impressively tolerant with Philip and Wesley—even when they interrupt his preaching. The last thing he wanted me to know, which he said softly, gazing out the window, is that he hopes he’s a good father. I almost believe him when he shouts on Locust Walk, “I think I love Penn students more than most people. I’m out here preaching for you. And if you need a nickel, or you need a dime to call someone, I’ll give it to you.”

Greta Pane C’02 adapted this essay from a piece she wrote for a non-fiction writing class last spring. She graduated after three years at Penn with a major in English, and now lives in Berkeley, California.

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