Proselytizing 101

Colby Katz

The call to James W. Johnson came in April 2004. On the phone was Winston Thompson, an associate dean at Broward Community College, telling him that Lulrick Balzora, an assistant professor of religion at the college, had been called up for duty in Iraq.

"Would you be willing to take over his courses?" Thompson asked.

Johnson was more than qualified for the assignment. A graduate of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome, he had taught religion courses at BCC for more than a decade. What's more, the offer was enticing, since Johnson had over the previous five years seen his course load decrease from full time to only one course per semester. In other words, he could use the work. He agreed to take over two "Introduction to the Study of Religion" courses and one on the New Testament.


Broward Community College

To ease the transition to such a busy schedule, Johnson sat in on a few of Balzora's lectures. And that's when he realized something was wrong. "I was dumbfounded by what I thought was his lack of objectivity," Johnson says. "He was teaching with a homiletic style. It was almost as if he were really pushing his religion."

Johnson, a skinny, 44-year-old white man who wears pressed collared shirts, gently asked Balzora about his seemingly inappropriate teaching style. Balzora, a burly black man with a buzz cut, avoided the question and then handed Johnson the textbook for the New Testament course, Encountering the New Testament by Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough.

"I'm not sure what you'll think of the book," Johnson remembers Balzora telling him. "It's rather Evangelical in its approach."

Johnson took the book home and was shocked.

"The courts have been very clear about how the Bible may and may not be taught in public schools, and it is absolutely illegal to promote religion in the teaching of the Bible," he says. "Yet at BCC, Balzora was absolutely promoting a fundamentalist Christian view. It is clearly stated in the text."

Encountering the New Testament, the only textbook assigned in Balzora's class, doesn't disguise its agenda. In the preface, the authors state that the textbook is "written from an evangelical point of view, in the firm conviction that the Scripture is absolutely true and never misleads us. It is the sure foundation on which our faith and life may be built because it unerringly leads willing readers to Jesus Christ."

The phrase "absolutely true and never misleads us" troubled Johnson most, because they implied a literal interpretation of the Bible — a belief to which Christian fundamentalists subscribe. Most academics and biblical scholars agree that the Bible is riddled with errors and inconsistencies because it was written and edited by many different people over time, then translated into myriad languages. As Johnson continued to read the textbook, his concern grew. The text didn't offer an academic view of the Bible; it consistently offered a fundamentalist view. Among the passages:

On the personal significance of the Bible: "The direction that our whole life takes depends on whether we embrace or ignore, or perhaps twist, the Word of God."

On homosexuality: "The modern tendency to condone homosexuality is a denial of God's creation, his law, and his power through Christ's cross to loosen the grip of sin."

On salvation: "The New Testament is clear on the fact that it is only those who accept Jesus as their Savior, the one who died for them, who will enter heaven. Heaven is the free gift of God to those who will repent of their sins and open their hearts to the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us. People are lost not because God does not offer them salvation, but because some refuse to accept the gracious offer that is made to them."

For Johnson, the fundamentalist textbook led him to his own revelation. As Johnson's course load had decreased over the past few years, he noticed more and more courses going to five new instructors at BCC — Balzora, David Corbin, Guy Jeanty, Randall Allison, and Milton Davidson. All had received their advanced degrees from fundamentalist seminaries or universities. What's more, when Johnson pulled the syllabi used for Old Testament and New Testament courses at BCC's central campus in Davie, he discovered that these other instructors were using the same textbook Balzora was.

Johnson immediately set up a meeting with Thompson. In addition to being the associate dean, Thompson teaches religion at BCC. He was in a position to put an end to any inappropriate textbooks or lectures at the college. Instead, Thompson declined to act. Johnson's appeals to the administration at BCC did not result in any action either.

"The allegations are meritless," Balzora says without elaborating.  

In December 2004, Pat Senior, an associate vice president at the college, told Johnson in a letter that a BCC investigation found "no evidence" of impropriety.

Christine Gudorf, chair of the religious studies department at Florida International University in Miami, thinks otherwise. After being provided with textbook examples and syllabi from BCC, Gudorf was appalled.

"They're clearly Evangelical interpretations [of the Bible] based on faith, and they are not appropriate to be used in public institutions," Gudorf says.

But at BCC, fundamentalist teaching wasn't eliminated. Johnson was. In August, BCC informed Johnson in a letter that his duties as an adjunct professor were no longer needed. It was retaliation, Johnson alleges, because the college was well aware that he was filing a lawsuit.

The same day that he received the termination letter, Johnson filed his claim in Broward Circuit Court. He alleges that he was discriminated against because of his religion and that the college illegally promotes a religious agenda in the classroom. He not only asked the court to reinstate him as an adjunct professor but also to issue an injunction to prohibit the college from promoting any religion.

At BCC, religion courses fulfill a graduation requirement, and some English composition courses have been designed to be taken in conjunction with religion classes. Some students will have no choice but to take the religion courses that make use of the Evangelical material in order to earn a degree.

"What they're doing at BCC is improper and illegal," Johnson says. "They have to be stopped."

A tour of Johnson's home in south Fort Lauderdale is a minicourse in world religions. In one corner, a Buddhist statue from Thailand stands sentry. On the coffee table is a statue of the Hindu god Shiva. On another table is an intricately designed menorah next to an Islamic prayer rug hanging on the wall. At the end of the hallway, a large-scale is Jesus is being crucified.

"I'm a collector," Johnson admits. "I find all religions and their symbols fascinating."

It wasn't always that way. Johnson's spiritual quest was an unusual one. Raised as a Protestant in Pompano Beach, Johnson, as a boy, began to feel himself drawn to the Catholic Church. A friend would take him to Catholic services, and during a family visit to a monastery in Conyers, Georgia, something stirred in then-12-year-old Johnson.

"I had a very profound religious experience," he says. He started attending Catholic services more frequently, and by the time he was 16 years old, he was studying with a priest to convert to Catholicism.

At 18, Johnson moved to St. Louis to attend Cardinal Newman College, the first step in what Johnson believed would be the path toward priesthood. He went on to Rome, earning a master's degree in divinity, then moved to Denver to join the Dominican Order. It was there that Johnson's life plan began to fall apart.

"I came to a realization of my sexuality," he says, "and I was fortunate because I was surrounded by a lot of loving people, priests, who helped me to accept it."

But even after telling the monks that he was gay, Johnson's misery continued. He was painfully unhappy. Seeing this, another monk confronted him. "James, you are in a sense doing violence to your own personality by trying to live this life," the Dominican monk told him.

Johnson agreed, leaving the religious order and moving back to South Florida. Today, he doesn't believe his sexuality was the reason he left the order, as he did then. That's because Johnson was diagnosed with depression two years ago. "Had I been diagnosed earlier and put on medication, I have no doubt that I would have become a priest," he says. "The main issue was not about celibacy. Looking back, it was that I was a very unhappy person because of depression."

Like other gay Catholics, Johnson doesn't believe that Rome's current position against homosexuality should exclude him from being part of the church. In fact, he believes that the church has historically condoned homosexuality. Johnson pulls out a picture of a painting of Sergius and Bacchus, two saints that some historians believe represent an early acceptance of homosexuality by the Catholic Church. According to the story, Sergius and Bacchus, who were Roman guards believed to be gay partners, were tortured to death for their refusal to denounce Christ.

No longer married to the church, Johnson became a religion instructor at BCC in 1992. "I absolutely loved teaching," he says.

One year after starting at BCC, Johnson met his partner, Marx Broszio, who was one of his students in a World Religions course. They began dating halfway through the semester.  

"We were very careful," Johnson admits. "We wanted to be careful, to be professional. I was very concerned about maintaining a professional rapport with him, and I can honestly say I did that. We enquired about the school's policy, about instructors dating students. It was not against policy."

Jillian Krueger-Printz, who handles public affairs for the college, isn't so sure about that claim. "I can't speak to what the exact policy is now or what the policy was ten years ago," she says. "But I do know that inappropriate relationships with students definitely are not tolerated."

But Johnson's relationship with a student never affected his standing at the college. For the next decade, Johnson continued to teach religion courses at BCC.

It wasn't until 2001 that things began to change. After Thompson became head of the department, Johnson noticed that many of the religion professors hired to teach courses seemed cut from the same cloth.

It's a cloudy Sunday morning, and about 30 people, many of them blacks of Caribbean descent, have gathered in the auditorium at Perry Middle School in East Miramar. They're here for the weekly service of Fountainside Christian Fellowship, a church founded last year by BCC adjunct religion professor David Corbin.

For the first 30 minutes, worshipers sing hymns, led by Corbin at the organ. Dressed in a powder-blue blazer, the Trinidadian-American Corbin then addresses his parishioners in his sing-song dialect.

"Jesus has blessed us this fine day, brothers and sisters," Corbin says. "Today we have with us Jack and Karen Mitchell, Christian missionaries that we support, and they're here to tell us about the fine work that they do in Eastern Europe."

Corbin points to the front row of folding chairs. Jack Mitchell, a slender white man with thin white hair and a white beard, stands up at the lectern as the lights dim. A movie presentation begins. Mitchell talks in front of the screen, discussing his work and missions as if they were military salvos in hostile territories.

Calling Eastern Europe a "spiritual wasteland," Mitchell flips through photographs of Greece, Hungary, Romania, and the Czech Republic. He then gets to a photograph of Poland and pauses.

"Poland is the country in the world with the most spiritual need," Mitchell says. "Thirty-nine million people live there, and only one-tenth of 1 percent are Evangelical."

In fact, Poland, birthplace of Pope John Paul II, is 95 percent Roman Catholic, making it one of the world's most religiously devout countries. But for Mitchell, spirituality is Evangelicalism — a fundamentalist form of Protestant Christianity that believes salvation comes through faith in Jesus rather than through good works. One of the nation's fastest-growing religious movements, Evangelical Christianity instills in followers a need to spread the word — to evangelize.

That's exactly what Mitchell and his wife are doing in Eastern Europe, attempting to convert a region with a rich history of Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam to fundamentalist Christianity.

And Corbin — who claims publicly that his church is nondenominational despite a mission statement that proclaims "preaching will be evangelical in theology and committed to a literal interpretation of the Scriptures" — is a financial partner in helping the Mitchells and their colleagues convert others to their conservative brand of Christianity.

It should come as no surprise to administrators at BCC, where Corbin teaches courses in world religions and Old and New Testament. After all, Corbin received his doctorate of ministry at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, a leading Evangelical seminary in Illinois operated by the Evangelical Free Church of America.

A review of his sermons, available on Fountainside Christian Fellowship's website, confirms a conservative view of Christianity consistent with Evangelicalism and an irritation with other ways of thinking: "Any attempt to present a positive message on the family conflicts with political correctness," he said during a recent sermon, adding: "I say publicly that I prefer to be biblically correct than to be politically correct."

But none of this necessarily means that Corbin, who declined to comment for this article, pushes Evangelical Christianity during his lectures at BCC. Corbin simply represents part of a pattern that Johnson has pointed to in his lawsuit against the public college.

Five of the six religion instructors at BCC's central campus, all hired in the past few years, have degrees from seminaries instead of universities. In fact, all five attended seminaries known for Christian fundamentalism. Four of the five have practical, rather than academic, degrees, meaning that their course of study was in how to operate and run a church.

"If there is a pattern of hiring from Evangelical institutions, then that's enough to suggest that there's a real problem," says Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the Washington, D.C.,-based First Amendment Center and an expert in religious education in public schools. "The pattern is the thing. In a good religious-studies department, what they look for is areas of expertise. Having multiple professors with similar backgrounds is a red flag."  

Indeed, if BCC's professors are pushing religion in the classroom, most are wise enough not to advertise the misconduct on their syllabi. But there's one exception, Randall Allison, who has a master's degree in divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, an Evangelical institution in Fort Worth, Texas.

This fall, Allison has been teaching a BCC-accredited World Religions course at Florida Bible Christian School in Miramar. The school's mission is "to provide a Christ-centered learning environment where young people are educated spiritually, intellectually, physically, and socially to transform their world for Christ."

The location of the course isn't by itself troubling, says Haynes, since many community colleges offer courses at locations throughout an area to make higher education accessible to more people. "Whether it's improper depends on the content of the course."

Allison's syllabus suggests that his course goes beyond an objective study of religion. His third course objective is "to assist the students in their personal religious quest as they analyze the myriad views of the divine and what it means to them."

Additionally, the final project for the course, which is worth 30 percent of a student's grade, requires them to "take four issues and compare what Christianity says about it with the other world religions." In other words, Allison prohibits his students in a World Religions course to compare, for instance, Buddhism and Islam as part of their final project.

"He's using Christianity as a measuring stick," Johnson says. "Allison is out of line. That is absolutely out of place. If I were to put on my syllabus that I'm there to assist students in their religious quest, that's absolutely out of line. My job as an instructor is not to lead a student to this or that religion but simply to show them the history of the religions and what they believe."

Johnson sighs, noticeably infuriated by the topic.

"I can assure you that this man is not giving just an objective view of these religions," he says.

Robert Montreuil thinks Johnson is a hypocrite. A slender, 44-year-old white man with a brown beard that moves up his cheeks and to the sides of his bald pate, Montreuil is both a student and a teacher at BCC. When not in class as a student, he works in the computer lab at BCC's central campus and teaches one course in personal computer support.

About two and half years ago, Montreuil signed up for one of Johnson's courses in World Religions. "I just had a great interest in the subject — and I saw it as a fun class and a grade booster," Montreuil says, sitting in one of the college's computer labs. "But this class turned out to be the worst class I have ever had, bar none, particularly because of this professor."

Montreuil, who describes himself as a Protestant but is hesitant to use the word fundamentalist, claims that Johnson was particularly hostile toward roughly five of 20 students who were openly Christian. Montreuil, who claims to have a learning disability, says Johnson's hostility may have stemmed from his request to videotape the class. Johnson refused, allowing him only to audiotape each lecture.

"From the beginning, Johnson said: 'Leave your religious views at the door,'" Montreuil remembers. "I thought that was a good and reasonable request. But he wouldn't follow his own rule... For the longest time, we thought he was a Buddhist. We couldn't imagine he was coming from a Christian worldview."

During one lecture, a heated discussion started about Christian fundamentalism. In trying to understand other religions, Montreuil says, some students would use Christianity as a comparison. That apparently annoyed Johnson.

"Whenever people tried to express their point of view, to use Christianity to put other religions in context, Johnson responded harshly," Montreuil says. "During several occasions, he became angry and belligerent."

Following one of these heated exchanges, Johnson walked up to the blackboard. "Fundamentalism = Religion," Johnson wrote. He then put a slash through the equals sign.

"He said fundamentalism is not religion," Montreuil says. "It seemed that from the beginning, he wanted us to believe that orthodox Christianity, or fundamentalism, as a religion is not legitimate."

Johnson does not refute the claim. "I see fundamentalism as a huge problem, and I make no bones about it," he says. "It has created a problem for the way religion is perceived by many people in society, because people think religion means narrow-mindedness. Religion and fundamentalism are not the same thing."  

On exams, Montreuil claims that Johnson consistently marked down his essay answers by 50 percent. "He resented me because he thought I was a conservative Christian," Montreuil says.

Infuriated, Montreuil filed a formal grade appeal with Thompson. Although Thompson informed him that he could not file an appeal until a final grade had been issued, Montreuil left feeling confident about how the administration viewed his instructor.

"When I spoke to Dr. Thompson — and this is just my impression — there was an awareness that this person was a problem, but they needed a solid reason to let him go," Montreuil says.

In the end, Johnson gave Montreuil a good grade. "He gave me an A to try to shut me up, but that's the grade I earned," Montreuil says.

Although Johnson dismisses the student as a religious zealot and a troublemaker — "He challenged every second sentence that came out of my mouth," Johnson says — Montreuil isn't the only pupil who has had trouble with Johnson. In fact, on, a website that allows students to comment on and rate their college instructors anonymously, Johnson has an overall rating of 1.8 out of 5. The comments, all negative, describe him as boring, disrespectful, and illogical. By comparison, the professors that Johnson claims promote a religious agenda have received higher ratings.

One BCC student who would agree with Johnson's low rating is Lauren Le Roy, a Hollywood woman who was a student in the New Testament course that Johnson took over from Balzora.

"I am a Christian, but I'm not a conservative, fundamentalist Christian," Le Roy explains. But the student admits that she could see how Johnson might have viewed Balzora's lecture as pro-Christian.

"The way Mr. Balzora taught, he taught in a way it could seem that they're promoting Christianity," she says. "But this was the second religion course I'd taken at BCC. I was used to the way they taught religion. Balzora approached the Bible in class as if it's kind of true. It wasn't the Bible as literature."

Like Montreuil, Le Roy clashed with Johnson. She didn't like his Catholic spin on religion, she says, and he would often promote his own agenda in class. Among the claims Johnson made was that evidence existed that God condones homosexuality.

"We were all like, what? It doesn't say that in the Bible," Le Roy says. "I think Johnson did exactly what he's accusing the other professors of doing. Before Johnson, I never felt like professors were ever preaching to me."

If a fundamentalist Christian agenda exists at BCC, the person responsible for it is Thompson, the associate dean. The Jamaican-American Thompson, who received his doctorate in theology from Columbia University, became head of the Religion Department in 2001. A former pastor in New York, Thompson declined to comment for this article.

"I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on Mr. Johnson's claims because we still need to finish our investigation," he says.

Thompson has larger problems than allegations that he's proselytizing with public money. Even after filing for personal bankruptcy in 1990, Thompson has been plagued by debts and civil judgments. Among creditors who have taken Thompson to court are the City of Fort Lauderdale, Columbia University, and a local homeowner's association.

In September 2004, Thomas J. Ryan Jr., a history professor at BCC, filed a lawsuit against Thompson, alleging that the associate dean charged $11,276 worth of Air Jamaica tickets on his American Express card without permission.

Thompson admitted to financial problems during a March deposition related to the lawsuit. "I have, in the past, done foolish things," he said.

After interest and late fees, Thompson owed Ryan $15,003. He admitted to the debt in his deposition. "I take full responsibility," he said, then pleaded with Ryan's attorney, Charlotte J. Burrie, not to file a judgment that would negatively affect his credit.

"I am proposing that I will make, within the next week or so, a good-faith payment towards this entire amount of somewhere about $2,000 to $2,500," he said, "and then within a 30- to 45-day period, I will bring the rest to the table."

If Thompson did that, Burrie agreed, she would not file the judgment. The associate dean never made good on the debt. "All I can say is that there is now a judgment against Mr. Thompson," Burrie says. The judgment, which was recorded in September, shows that Thompson now owes $21,628, reflecting the debt, interest, and attorney's fees.

How much Thompson knows about what happens inside BCC religion classrooms is unknown. But the numbers seem to suggest that he must be aware of a trend toward Evangelical instructors. In 2001 and 2002, only 50 percent of Old Testament and New Testament courses at BCC's central campus were taught by instructors with degrees from Evangelical institutions. Since January 2003, all courses in Judeo-Christian scripture have been taught by graduates of Evangelical seminaries.  

Gudorf, the FIU religious studies chair, says that it's feasible that overzealous religion professors could go unnoticed at public universities and colleges.

"It is impossible to know what is going on in every single classroom," Gudorf says. "Even if you read the syllabi, you're not going to know what that text is. It's not going to say, 'I'm an Evangelical text. '"

But shown the materials presented in Johnson's lawsuit, Gudorf finds it hard to believe that BCC hasn't already noticed impropriety and taken action.

"We are a religious studies department in a public university," she says of her own department. "For that reason, we have to be able to teach particular faiths, but we have to do it in such way that we are not proselytizing, or pushing, a particular faith. It's absolutely inappropriate to take something that is Evangelical teaching and pass it off as Christianity. From this, it seems they're doing just that at BCC."

Haynes, of the First Amendment Center, describes Johnson's lawsuit as extraordinary. "This is unusual in my experience simply because most public universities know better," he says.

The problem could be institutional, Haynes says. Religious studies is a relatively new academic field, and for that reason, it is has strived for credibility and objectivity. But even today, college administrators often view religious studies as a religious pursuit, not an academic one.

"I can testify to the fact that people in the field are often just assumed to be religious people and, usually depending on the part of the country, Christian," Haynes says. "It's not quite a real academic discipline, at least as it's perceived."

Still, any public university or college that pushes a religious agenda is violating the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. Even academic freedom, no matter how liberal, doesn't trump constitutional rights.

"If some Evangelical material or viewpoints were included among a number of readings with other viewpoints to get a range of views, that would be fine," Haynes says. "If it's the main text for the class and it is in fact Evangelical in nature, as it seems to be here, that would be unconstitutional."

"You can't promote religion," says Ware Cornell, the Weston attorney who is representing Johnson in his case against BCC. "They're not only pushing a religion; they're pushing a very conservative, fundamentalist view of a particular religion."

So far, the college has been tightlipped about Johnson's allegation. All the religion professors at BCC either declined to comment at length or did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Even BCC President Larry Calderon won't react to allegations that his college promotes religion. "I am not at liberty to discuss any issues for which litigation is pending," he says.

In documents filed with the court, BCC attorney Suzanne Singer denies that Johnson was discriminated against because of his religion or that the college promotes a particular faith.

"We find absolutely no merit in Mr. Johnson's allegation," Singer says.

A trial will likely begin early next year.

On a morning a couple of weeks after Hurricane Wilma's visit, Johnson sits at his dining-room table and points to a Coptic processional cross from Ethiopia mounted on the wall. The former BCC adjunct professor is particularly interested in the African country, which is the world's oldest Christian nation. Its former royal family was said to have descended from King Solomon.

As a Catholic, Johnson doesn't believe he has found the only answer to the afterlife. He believes he has found one of many available in the world. "All of the religions of the world are striving for the goal of salvation," he says.

That's why he is so critical of Christian fundamentalism, a religious view he believes is engaged in an effort to convert the world and eliminate all other religions. He pulls out a photograph he found in the publicity section of the U.S. Navy's website. It shows Balzora, identified as a Navy chaplain, baptizing another U.S. soldier using a front-end loader's bucket as a makeshift baptismal.

Johnson laughs. "What do you think — Evangelical?" he says.

In his travels around the world, Johnson has seen Evangelical missionaries pushing their religion. He ignored them without a second thought. But he never thought he'd find that same type of missionary in the classroom at a publicly funded college. Now, Johnson feels he can't ignore them.  

"They can't be allowed to promote their religion in the classroom," he says. "I want it to stop."

Johnson pauses.

"And I want my job back."

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