A young man in a black shirt with red and orange flames held a sign in his hand as he yelled at a crowd of Flagler College students, “You are all sinners!”
In December 2011 during fall finals, Zachary Tatter, 23, stood outside the Proctor Library and preached to students. This month, Tatter and his followers have continued to return to the sidewalks of Flagler College’s campus and around downtown St. Augustine to preach their Christian beliefs.
“I think the lord has put it on us that there are many people here [at Flagler College] who may have broken hearts and need them healed,” Tatter said. “I know alcohol can smother your problems, love in a man or a woman can temporarily halt it, but the true essence of what you’re going through cannot be taken away unless you put it in Christ.”
Many Flagler College students were upset by what Tatter had to say. Some yelled, some laughed, some sat and watched as they discussed how angry they were about all the noise while they were trying to study.
“What looks disruptive to some, may be a blessing to others and that even at the end of what people may have called disruptive, there was a huge blessing that came out of it and people really got introduced to love,” Tatter said.
Although Flagler College is a private campus, many of the sidewalks through it are public property and therefore, Tatter is allowed to keep preaching.
“Anywhere we’re allowed to be, we will be,” he said. “Generally anywhere in the world, you can go plant up a sign and preach the gospel because there is someone there with a broken heart that needs to be set free and Christ said I will heal the broken hearted so come to me. If they won’t come, we’ll come to them …”
Tatter also preaches outside popular bars in downtown St. Augustine such as No Name Bar, said Flagler College junior Joey Ryan.
“As a catholic, I agree with them that spreading the word of God is very important. But that’s not what they’re doing,” Ryan said. “They are demeaning other people, some of which are good Christian people who go to mass every week, and they scream at them that they’re going to hell. That’s wrong no matter who you are.”
For Tatter, spreading the word of his savior creates both positive and negative reactions. “As for negative responses and how people take what we are doing … if your deeds are evil and you walk in darkness you will not like the light and you will not accept the message of peace, love, joy, gentleness, anything,” he said. “But as long as you are living in a way that contrary to these things of light, such as love, you will hate what we say and there is nothing I can do about that accept keep preaching love.”
Flagler College alumnus and devout Christian Steve Meehan disagrees with Tatter’s method of preaching. “As a Christian, whose faith means a lot, and is affected by the Bible, it is a shame to see others interpreting the Bible as a call to speak hateful words,” Meehan said.
“John 3:16 says, ‘God so loved the world, he sent his only son, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life.’ And as a very well known verse to many Christians and to some non-Christians, it speaks of God’s unconditional love for his children, everyone on this Earth. Unconditional is without condition … So all the hateful, angry, offensive and hurtful words I have heard these protestors say, I do not agree with and think it’s doing the opposite of what we are called to do; in loving one another.”
On Jan. 17th, Tatter had a different approach to preaching as he silently stood outside the Crisp-Ellert Museum with two men and a woman. Dressed in conservative clothing, they held signs with Biblical messages, handed out free bibles and played Christian music from a stereo. Flagler College students continued to either walk by the religious protesters or stop to pick up a bible.
His followers, who declined to comment, drove by Tatter and his friend as they were preaching when they decided to stop and join.
“Mainly how we come together is just the common faith of goodness and goodwill for all men through Jesus Christ and just the brotherhood and love,” Tatter said. “Love is what brought us together. Love of our lord and love of every human being out here.”
Tatter admits he wasn’t always a believer and that he used to participate in the same “dark deeds” that he preaches to others to take out of their lives.
In fact, his record in the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office shows six previous arrests with multiple charges from May 2007 to Jan. 2011, including larceny, burglary of a conveyance, burglary tool possession, resisting an officer, driving under the influence, drug possession and contempt of court.
“I was kind of a poser, kind of like many people trying to live another way, until I found out who God was, what he came to do and that he is actually real and just by believing in that he turned me from my wicked ways such as … I don’t really want to get into it. We don’t have that kind of time, but I was a different person once and I had a broken heart,” Tatter said.
Tatter said he had never read the bible until someone came to him and told him he should believe in Jesus Christ. “Just like that my whole life changed. I had a purpose for my life and I came to see that I was made in his image for his lightness, for his glory, and for his love and to spread that love to the whole world.”
No matter the approach to his preaching, Tatter said the message he is trying to send really boils down to this: “Just love. To turn from the ways that we all know aren’t right and turn to righteousness and love and peace and Jesus Christ.”
Video of religious protests at Flagler College: