Saturday, September 14

‘Religion is for the Weak’ man opens up theological discourse for all

You’ve probably seen him on Bruin Walk on your way to or from class. He’s always inviting, often sports a hoodie and looks a little bit like Jacob from “Lost.”

On his mobile kiosk, you’ll find water if you’re feeling parched, some literature if you’re feeling curious and always his trademark sign with its provocative statement: “Religion is for the Weak.”

His name is Mark Jasa, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably wondered who this guy is, what he’s about and why he spends as much time hanging around Pauley Pavilion as our basketball teams.

Contrary to what his table banners may suggest, Jasa is not an atheist, though this is a common misconception. He graduated from UCLA in 1994 with a degree in anthropology and is a pastor at the University Lutheran Chapel.

When asked about his own religious perspective, Jasa points at the arena behind him and says, smiling, “Actually, I believe in Pauley-theism.”

Second-year political science student Kevin Poirier is a qualified non-theist and one of Jasa’s favorite passersby. Lured in, partly by the curious sign, Poirier first approached Jasa expecting to find an advocate of atheism. Instead, he found Jasa’s sign clever and deliberate.

“He’s directly posing this question that attracts the people he’s trying to talk to,” said Poirier.

The question? Though Jasa relishes the opportunity to make his theological case in person, I can try to sum it up. First, we’re all afraid of death on some level. Second, Christian doctrine is pretty reassuring on this front (Jesus has everybody’s back), thus “religion is for the weak,” and Jasa is exhibit A.

Should you seek proof, Jasa suggests you take a serious and inductive look at the Resurrection. And if you don’t buy the feasibility of the Resurrection, come up with a better empirical procedure for historic inquiry.

“It’s a good argument, kind of,” Poirier said. “The problem is that he uses the Bible to prove the Bible, which is circular logic.”

Despite objections, Poirier still values interacting with Jasa. Among other religious envoys on campus, “Mark is certainly the easiest to talk to, the kindest, the most welcoming, the most normal. And he’s fun to talk to,” Poirier said.

Interactions need not be limited to theology. Jasa keeps up on music and pop culture, dates normally and works on restoring a ’69 Mustang in his spare time. He’s surprisingly daft at taking seemingly unrelated topics and smoothly diverting the conversation back into his theological wheelhouse, be it a critical comparison of “Inglourious Basterds” and “Defiance” or Woody Allen movies.

After spending time at Washington University, Humboldt State and Long Beach State, Jasa returned to UCLA in 2000 and has since interacted with hundreds of students per week. As for the sign’s intent, he particularly enjoys talking with Muslims, atheists and other non-Christians.

“A Muslim girl came up to me and said, “˜I’m afraid that Allah is going to judge me,’ and my response was, “˜Don’t worry about judgment, Jesus was judged in your place.’ Done. Boom,” said Jasa, with a casual, Owen Wilson cadence.

Jasa said that more conservative Christians tend to take umbrage at his endorsement of Christianity as “outrageous forgiveness for undeserving sinners.” (A spin-off slogan “good news for bad people” can still be found on the back of his laminated table sign.)

On a campus like UCLA, Jasa is thankfully tolerant, strays carefully away from judgment and sees divine salvation and forgiveness as open to everybody.

“He’s never offensive, oppressive or tries to force his views on people. “¦ You’re free to believe whatever you want, he’s not there to convert people,” said third-year business economics student Mahmood Bakkash, one of Jasa’s “go-to Muslims,” who also sees the benefit of his presence on campus.

Be it the nature of modern religious discourse, Jasa admits that conversations with students can sometimes become contentious. Should you be looking to casually test your theological mettle using loud volumes or academically informal dogma, however, it’s better to do so in front of the Intramural Field than with your religious studies professor.

“It’s a way to learn about other belief systems. The more I learn, the more I question my own belief system or put it into better contexts, so I think it’s pretty valuable to have people (like Jasa) out there, but some of the people preaching don’t really know their values,” Bakkash said in reference to the more vocal religious advocates outside of Kerckhoff Hall often seen prescribing fire and brimstone for heathens.

“I’ve had one incident with one of them that wasn’t very civilized,” Bakkash said.

In addition to being relatively sane and approachable, part of Jasa’s value to the campus is that like his take on Christianity, his services are free to all.

“It’s kind of a theology course in itself because you can walk up and hear what other people are talking about,” Poirier said.

The learning and engagement can even be reciprocal.

“(Jasa) has asked me for clarification about Islam, and how to address Muslims who talk to him, providing background (on the) religion and culture,” Bakkash said. “It’s very much two-ways.”

The impending Pauley renovation has forced Jasa to relocate closer to the Bruin statue, but he remains a regular presence on Bruin Walk. He is as recognizable and integrated a fixture in the campus community as budget protests, the star map salesman or the guy with the huskies. (“Oh, you mean Paul?” Jasa said.) In the process, Jasa has become a compelling example of how open campuses are better situated to satiate intellectual curiosity.

E-mail Aikins at [email protected]

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