School speech sparks religious furor Evangelist plugs later talk on Jesus

October 15, 1991|By Michael J. Clark | Michael J. Clark,Howard County Bureau of The Sun

A motivational speaker hired by the Howard County school system to build self-esteem among students has left in his wake a controversy in the county's Jewish community.

Pat Hurley, who travels nationally using humor to inspire students and performs for Christian organizations, has angered Jews by using his speeches at five high schools to promote an evangelical Christian talk he gave on the evening of Oct. 1 at Howard High School.

The talk, about the impact of "Christ on my life," followed Mr. Hurley's speech on "Why the Opposite Sex Is So Weird," which dealt with dating and male and female attitudes. The program was was attended by some 700 students.

Fliers advertising the evening talk, sponsored by Christian youth groups and seven area churches, were handed out in the five schools where Mr. Hurley spoke. He promoted the evening talk during his five daytime speeches, but in only one of them did he note its religious content, Mr. Hurley and school officials agreed.

At least eight people called the school system to complain. The brouhaha the incident caused has prompted the superintendent, Michael E. Hickey, to express "concern," saying that he will "take steps that it does not happen again."

Mr. Hurley, 43, who talks about self-esteem, suicide prevention and the dangers of drug abuse, got high marks for his presentations from school officials. However, the promotion of his evening talk clearly concerned the Jewish community, which has told the central school system office.

Ben Kerman, a 14-year-old freshman at Centennial High School who is Jewish, said that he was upset to learn at the evening talk that Mr. Hurley planned to make a Christian testimony.

"I kind of felt deceived," said Ben, whose family worships at Temple Isaiah. "I have heard of these things happening, but I did not think it would happen in Columbia. It was disgusting that they did not tell anybody in advance."

Rabbi Mark Panoff of Temple Isaiah said Mr. Hurley's "real agenda was to spread Christ in the schools."

"He portrayed himself as someone the kids could trust yet in only one high school did he say the evening talk had religious overtones," Rabbi Panoff said. "He came across as a charlatan to us because his real agenda was to spread fundamental Christian doctrine."

Arnold Feldman, a spokesman for the Jewish Council of Howard County, said that the Jewish community believed that Mr. Hurley had "duped" their children. "We feel it was a sneaky thing to do," he said.

Mr. Hurley, whose Roswell, Ga., business is called Humor With a Message, Inc., received $2,500 from the county school system to give his five talks during school hours. He denied using subterfuge to pitch his

fundamental Christian beliefs. "There was no attempt to trick or deceive anyone," he said.

The local church groups that sponsored his evening talk had received permission for him to advertise it in the five schools, he said.

Walter Caldwell, a county school system central office staff member who helped coordinate the daytime talks at the schools, said that he had not been told the evening talk would be promoted at the sessions paid for by the school system.

"It was a dirty deal in my opinion for him to use us to get our kids there," Mr. Caldwell said.

Mr. Hurley said that during the evening speech, for which a $2 admission was charged, he spoke for nearly an hour on the advertised topic about dating and the differences between the sexes and then gave a 25-minute testimony about Christ's role in his life.

He said that his religious message followed an intermission, during which the 700 young people in the audience were told they could leave and about 200 did.

After Mr. Hurley's talk on Christianity, college-aged "counselors" met with the students in small groups to ask them to "turn their lives over to Christ."

Mr. Hurley said that he had not intended to proselytize Jews. He said that it was not his position to say that Jews would not go to heaven because they are not followers of Christ.

"What I say is that the Bible says" that anyone "who does not go through Christ" cannot expect to have an eternal life, he said. His literature handed out at the evening talk proclaimed "Jesus is the Answer. (the only answer)."

Pam Walchle, a representative of the non-denominational Christian group, Campus Life, based in Frederick, helped arrange Mr. Hurley's visit after a county school official contacted their office.

In a May 23 letter, a member of the Campus Life organization said that the evening session led by Mr. Hurley would be "completely separate" from the school assemblies and would have two parts to it with an intermission separating his motivational talk from his "personal testimony" where he "shares the Gospel with them."

"We certainly do not want people to feel they have been misled," she wrote. "Nor do we want to jeopardize our relationship with the Howard County school board."

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