"I speak up so I can be heard:" Controversial pastor makes unconventional, divisive views heard on campus
Michael Venyah was convinced he would be stoned to death.
In 2005, in Weimar, Germany, Venyah preached the gospel with intense passion when a stone clashed against his thigh, leaving a large welt.
The next stone hit him in the mouth. He could feel the tooth break as he preached.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw two younger boys in the mob pick up much larger, jagged rocks. The impact would do more than just chip a tooth. It would bash his skull in.
"I have a clean conscience," Venyah prayed. "If this is it, I'm ready to go. I love you."
Back home, Venyah's wife, Tamika, was carrying their first child in her womb.
However, the boys dropped their jagged rocks soon after. Venyah left that day bruised, yet still breathing.
Eight years later, accompanied by his three children and pushing their youngest in a stroller, Venyah made his way to his usual preaching spot outside of Anspach Hall.
"Repent and live the gospel, or you will be sent to hell," Venyah bellowed. "Smoke weed; you will be sent to hell. Smoke cigarettes; you will be sent to hell. Watch pornography; you will be sent to hell ... Are you Catholic? You will be sent to hell. Are you Protestant? They cannot help you."
Michael Venyah is the founder of Lansing-based ministry Soulwinners Ministries International, created to preach the gospel to Christians worldwide. The ministry, according to his website, has reached 16 nations on four continents.
Very few students know Venyah for that, though. Rather, he has made his presence known on the west side of campus, in a corner between Anspach and Brooks halls, where his combative form of preaching has carried waves of controversy over the student body. Confrontations rarely carry the physical threat of Germany, but they are always present.
"In biblical times, prophets would be heralded as a public crier," Venyah said. "They would stand in the community square and yell 'Hear ye, Hear ye,' and people would gather and stand around. This is not how we do it in the modern times. We have to be politically correct; we have strayed from God's word."
A typical day
Venyah's typical day begins at 3:30 a.m. for a period of praying, fasting and reading.
Around 6 a.m., Venyah begins his work as an independently contracted tutor, teaching South Korean professionals desiring to learn and/or improve in English.
At 10 a.m., from Monday through Thursday, he will drive to a university in Michigan, where he will begin preaching upon arrival. He has visited almost every major university in the state, but Central Michigan University, Western Michigan University and Michigan State University are his favorites.
He's often joined by family: His wife, a fellow preacher recovering from the birth of their fifth child, and his children, who are on break from homeschooling.
Around 4 p.m., he will usually arrive home and begin tutoring again. He typically spends a total of four to eight hours preaching each day and another eight hours tutoring.
The tutoring brings a modest income that Venyah's family of six depends on.
Taylor Dietz, an Ortonville junior and member of Campus Crusades for Christ, quickly walks away from Venyah after both got into a brief spat about the meaning of a passage in the Epistle to the Romans.
"This is why we have confession," Dietz said. "Because we can't help but sin; we're not perfect. But Christ forgives us. He allows us to confess."
Dietz paused for moment.
"It's just so tragic to see that," he said, referring to Venyah.
"I remember him. You see, he didn't know the scripture, he couldn't point out verses," Venyah said afterward. "You see, the modern pragmatic methods of Christendom, user-friendly, people-friendly, have a coffee, Jesus Loves you, we're going to Cedar Point next week: meaningless. Just because you go to church does not mean you're a Christian."
A group of about 30 gathered last week in the Bovee University Center's Gold Room. The student group, Pay It Forward, is dedicated to spreading positivity on campus by performing selfless acts.
They're currently making their own signs. "Baby, you're a firework," one of them reads, quoting Kesha.
"Don't write anything negative or demeaning," Pay It Forward President and Ovid-Elise freshman James Wilson said. "We want to stay positive. We don't want to get into a fight with this guy."
The group plans to protest Venyah this Wednesday by spreading messages of positivity over what they consider Venyah's negativity.
"He's kind of putting a bad spin on God," Alicia Clark, a White Pigeon freshman and member of the group, said. "We want to put a positive spin on it; turn someone's day around."
Kaylee Jewell, a member of Pay it Forward, felt downright offended by Venyah.
"He doesn't have the right," the Gaylord freshman said. "He's just judging. What does he know about us?"
Venyah finds a follower
Many students, when approached by Venyah, walk away as quickly as possible. Most everyone else stays for amusement or to argue.
Bellaire senior Kristen Daniels, though, found Venyah to be someone she could learn from.
"Last semester, I heard a lot of people talking about his preaching on campus," Daniels said. "I asked him if could talk to him; I walked back to his car with him. He told me about his religion, his views, and I learned he was a minister."
Daniels and Venyah have been in contact via email for the past year. Venyah has accepted her as a valuable part of his ministry. Daniels said she has also benefited from getting to know Venyah.
"My family struggles with alcoholism, and he was able to send me biblical material, with no bias, just straight out of the Bible," Daniels said. "It definitely helped."
Daniels has not attended a Bible study or service with Venyah but considers him a valuable companion. She said there was one primary reason why she chose to approach Venyah and not another Christian organization.
"I guess he was the only one that was seen." Daniels said.
Family plays major role
Venyah met his wife in 1997. He was an associate pastor and she took him as her mentor. Early on, there was nothing romantic about their relationship. But Venyah said God had bigger plans.
"The pastor's wife had a dream that I was single," Venyah said. "I was. I was simply dedicated to the Lord, but she saw that I would be dedicated towards someone."
The same dream occurred to Tamika's mother months later.
In 2003, Venyah pulled her to the side after a church service and asked her to marry him. She met with him after a service soon after. They were outside, in front of the church. She gave him a slip of paper.
"It said she prayed about it, and the Lord gave her an answer," Venyah said. "That I was a man with godly character. And from that point, she has helped me know him."
It was a quiet day, Venyah was preaching into an empty space, with no one spectating. His children were lined up at the side of him, from oldest to youngest. The oldest was carrying the sign he had made only three days ago.
"Alright (son), do you want to preach?" Venyah paused to ask.
Immediately, his son straightened, and tried on his impersonation of his father.
"The way of the world is death," his son cried out. "Jesus is salvation."
Venyah nodded vigorously throughout his son's speech, whispering "yes," and "good." He moved down the line, with each of his sons, each smaller and quieter than the other, until they reached his last son. He stood in his fathers arms, struggling to hold his preaching sign straight.
"Jesus ..." he began, muttering only the single world, and then he froze. He tried one more time and got no further.
"(Son), do you want to preach?" Venyah asked.
The youngest averted his eyes shyly. He didn't say a word for the rest of their stay.
It didn't take long until Venyah and a student were face to face.
A female student, who Venyah referred to as "Ms. Hypocrite," edged closer as the argument went on.
"Why do you have to raise your voice?" she asked. "There's no reason to be disrespectful."
"I'm not being disrespectful," Venyah said. "I speak up so I can be heard"