Jesse Morrell — a 25-year-old evangelist preacher from Cheshire, Conn., who said he did three stints at the juvenile detention center on Whalley Avenue for selling drugs — says he knows where most Yale students are headed: hell.
For the past three days, Morrell has used Yale’s campus as the platform for his open-air preaching. A self-proclaimed born-again Christian, he has spent much of the past three days sermonizing about the “evils of sin” on Old Campus, Cross Campus and the section of Wall Street near Woodbridge Hall.
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While Morrell failed to attract much attention from passersby during his first two days on campus, on Thursday afternoon, about 100 Yalies gathered to watch him rail against moral corruption at Yale. Several of those gathered wondered aloud if Morrell actually believed the things he said, and others heckled during his sermon, while others still took photos and videos on their cell phones.
“It seems like he’s really enjoying this, frankly,” Jeremy Poindexter ’11 said.
Yale Police Sgt. Brian Logan, whose car was parked nearby, said he was there to protect everyone and make sure the crowd did not block the road. Deputy Secretary Martha Highsmith, who is in charge of campus security, did not return a phone call Thursday.
In an interview Thursday, Morrell said the Yale Police Department issued him a trespass warning because students and University officials had complained about his preaching. As a result, he can no longer step foot on University grounds, he said, which is why he remained on the Wall Street sidewalk Thursday. (That warning could not be confirmed with any Yale officials.)
But Morrell said he has the right to profess his message. He added that he has been “unlawfully” arrested many times and has taken his complaints to court. Last August, he won $25,000 in damages from the New Haven Police Department for unnecessarily interfering with his sidewalk sermons.
Of 24 students interviewed Thursday, 13 said they had heard Morrell preaching, nine of whom said they found him entertaining. But others were not amused.
“I don’t think people should be pressing their religion on me,” Simon Cozzens ’13 said.
Morrell is head of the Open Air Outreach, a Christian ministry founded in 2002 to “take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to sinners through open-air preaching, calling them to forsake their sins and trust in Christ, and to train up other believers to do likewise,” according to the ministry’s Web site.
Morrell told the News he is not here to attack Yale specifically but that his mission is to preach at universities because he thinks college students today are morally depraved.
Wearing a herringbone jacket and cap, Morrell said he converted to Christianity in 2001, right before he turned 16. Morrell said it was during his time at the Whalley Avenue juvenile center that he was persuaded to convert to Christianity by a hellfire preacher.
He said he is well aware of the inflammatory nature of his sermons.
“It’s controversial on purpose,” he said. “I’m trying to get everyone’s attention so I can spread my message and create a debate.”
He said he believes every religion other than Christianity is wrong and that people must “turn or burn” — convert to Christianity or burn in “the fires of hell.”
Rev. Andrew Cunningham, director of the International Christian Fellowship, said he does not know who Morrell is, what he preaches or what his motives are. However, he did question Morrell’s authority to judge others and emphasized that Christianity insists God is the only judge of peoples’ actions.
“You are sure to find dogmatism within members of every religion,” Cunningham said. “I think tolerance is a basic tenet of Christianity.”
Morrell said he is not advocating hatred, but love. Carmen Chambers ’12, a member of Yale Students for Christ, said she talked to him and realized he has the right intentions but is blinded by his own judgement.
Chambers said she fears Morrell’s style of preaching will magnify the ill perception that people may have of Christianity, but thinks it may help people reflect on what they believe in.
Morrell said he is not sure whether he will continue to preach around campus today.
Taylor Lasley contributed reporting.