The long-awaited dream of a joyous and positive college environment was struck down for West Chester University in just its first week of classes as the campus was once again the stage of hate-preachers on Tuesday, Aug. 31.
Since 2017, West Chester has been an unwilling host to the same sight: a small group stationed in one of several public spaces, shouting obscenities at passing students. The apparent goal is to draw as much attention to themselves as possible, which is usually reached in a short period of time. These people are aided by their large, and notably polarizing, canvas signs, which bear warnings like “obey Jesus or hellfire” to those who they deem unholy, including “Homos, Muslims, Drunks and Racists;” the signs go on to give examples of racists, which in their eyes includes “[the] KKK, BLM and Obama.” These attempts at attention usually succeed, as students congregate around the men, fueling their preachings with the students’ own counter-protests. Within minutes, police arrive at the scene carrying metal barricades, and a day of hatred ensues.
For some context, they are an offshoot of a religious group called Matthew 24. Matthew 24 is an LLC run by former competitive snowboarder turned self-proclaimed born-again Christian Aden Rusfeldt. Now, if that seems like quite the resume, it’s because Rusfeldt is quite the story.
Matthew 24 has popped up with their signs all over the East Pennsylvania area, from college campuses to Philadelphia sporting events, and at all of these occurrences has been Rusfeldt toting signs emblazoned with such virtuous rhetoric as “Feminists are Witches” and “Women Belong in the Kitchen.” Aden Rusfeldt, 43, was a semi-professional snowboarder before he moved on and began advertising himself in the 2000’s as a “guru in the foreign exchange market” that could help others in multiple economic endeavors, per a 2018 Inquirer report. However this venture proved completely unsuccessful, and he “lost more than $105,000 in a seven-month stretch ending in May 2006.” Court investigations into his practices led to him being forced to pay over $5 million to various clients. Rusfeldt claims that God then directed him to come to this area and preach amongst Pennsylvanians.
Today, Aden Rusfeldt has become the scorn of multiple college administrations. In West Chester specifically, every visit by the hate-preachers is met with communication from every level of the University’s upper management. The most recent visit saw a response within minutes by West Chester Vice President for Student Affairs Zebulun R. Davenport, to the entire student body. “WCU is a public institution that is open to all citizens,” said Davenport’s email. “As such we are required by law to make our campus available to all, including those who do not uphold our shared institutional values.” “Ignore them,” Davenport pleads. “Make them Irrelevant. Without an audience, they have no reason to come back.”
It is often assumed that the sole source of income for an organization such as Matthew 24 is through donations, and the more exposure groups get, the more donations they get as well. Thus a cycle is created, these groups become more well known and they grow from this notoriety. The only way to stem their exposure is to completely ignore the spectacle, which college students often struggle to do.
What adds to the impact of the visit is the time at which they arrived. Many students have not seen a college campus in almost two years and were immediately assaulted by this cacophony upon their return. “I knew they would come early. I just thought we could get a week or two done before they showed up,” said Simon Ruchti, Associate Professor of Philosophy.
“They do a lot of harm,” said Ruchti, when asked about the effect on campus. “They clearly aren’t going to change people’s minds about spiritual or moral matters. They aren’t trying to have a dialogue… They are trying to harm. And they are succeeding.” University officials like Ruchti are adamant about the damage these groups can do, but are stuck with their hands legislatively tied. “Here is a good example… We know that there are high rates of sexual assault on university campuses. Young women are walking past all day and the group will yell out that any woman who has been sexually assaulted deserves it because she is a — fill in the misogynist slur. They don’t say it directly to any woman in particular, but women in general. They have to know that amongst the women walking by are women who were recently assaulted… I know they know this because they talk about college women being sexually assaulted. They know…that they are further harming the women walking past them.”
West Chester University has expressed a desire to make some change, but their hands may be legislatively tied. Matthew 24 is using the university’s own First Amendment laws against them. West Chester University can only limit freedom of speech due to the “time, place and manner” of said speech. However, by coming in the middle of the day to an open forum such as the academic quad, Matthew 24 is breaking neither of the first two rules, and manner is less a matter of words said and more a matter of devices used. “Bullhorns, microphones, speakers” would qualify as an unruly manner of expression, but not hate-speech.
“I don’t see the PA legislature doing anything to protect BIPOC, LGBTQA folks and women,” concluded Ruchti. “As for the administration of WCU? No. I don’t see them doing anything different. I would, at the very least, love it if the administration made a clear, unequivocal statement saying they deplore everything this group says and does. Seems like a pretty low bar [to] clear. We will see if it happens.”
Matthew Shimkonis is a third year History Major. MS925373@wcupa.edu