Giovana Covarrubias / Lantern photographer
Preacher Tom Short wears a plastic band on his wrist which reads, “Take it to their turf.” The man who brings his religious ministry to students at Ohio State said he lives by that rule and it drives him to step down from the pulpit and reach out to students in a personal way.
“Jesus said to go to the people,” Short said, and since 1996 the preacher has made it his mission. Short, 53, visits more than 30 college and university campuses each year, including OSU. His nationwide tours keep him on the road during the week in fall and spring, and he often comes home only for the weekends, said Roz Short, Tom’s wife.
His strategy is simple: meet college students on their terms. During his visits to OSU, he sits on the Oval surrounded by students.
“People don’t have to come to my building, where I’m comfortable, to hear my message,” he said. “I’m at a place where they can feel safe and comfortable.”
While behind enemy lines, Tom has to contend with students who view preachers on the Oval as hateful or crazy.
“I would definitely say the vast majority (of preachers who visit the Oval) are like that,” said Samantha Snyder, an undecided second-year.
Tom said the preachers he sees using inflammatory language to get attention motivated him to do it differently.
“It’s counterproductive,” Tom said. “I would rather have a smaller audience — then have some really beneficial discussion and interaction going on — than a larger audience that I got just by insulting someone.”
Tom invites students to tailor his message to their lives by asking him questions.
“I think the atmosphere where people ask questions and where we discuss or interact is far more interesting than if I just have a monologue or lecture the whole time,” he said. “So I’m willing to take questions in any area.”
Even while trying to separate himself from the image of a hateful Oval preacher, there are those who dislike what Tom does.
“Turning people into Christians is typically not very beneficial, in our opinion, because religion tends to be irrational,” said Snyder, who is the chair of Students for Freethought, a student organization for atheists.
Other students like Snyder often take advantage of Tom’s open-format sermons to discuss controversial issues.
“Has science disproven God? There are objections about how we got the Bible. There are objections on whether Jesus Christ is the only way,” Tom said. “The biggest thing that comes up tends to be homosexuality.”
But Tom said he always has a plan. When debate gets too heated, he tries to steer the conversation back to his three-point message.
“God really does exist, the Bible is true and Jesus really is the savior of the world and the only way to heaven,” Tom said. “Ultimately, I’m an evangelist.”
There are days, though, when his message gets lost in the fight.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re a sheep amidst a pack of wolves, and all they did was eat you all day,” Tom said. “They did that with every (preacher) in the Bible. They did that throughout history and they do that with me too.”
On those days, he is reinforced by the conviction he is arming students with lessons they will use throughout their lives.
“I’m confident I have the truth and I really believe people need to hear the message of Christ,” he said. I give “them something valuable that I hope will change their whole life. I believe that I help them, and that I find tremendously satisfying.”
Roz said she realizes her husband’s profession is out of the ordinary.
“He is really motivated with a love for the students,” Roz said. “And it’s something that not very many people can do and not very many people want to do.”
That satisfaction is something Roz does not see her husband walking away from soon.
“Unless he has a physical limitation,” she said, “he would want to keep doing what he’s doing.”