On High

Christian college takes root in the Empire State Building

Olga Lukomsky, a 22-year-old "post-modern Christian," lives on the 19th floor of a luxury apartment building near Herald Square. She and her three roommates—all devout Christians—share a small bedroom with a balcony overlooking a porn shop. When they see men entering the store, they sometimes casually yell down, "Perverts! Stop exploiting women!"

They go to school four blocks away at the King's College, whose stated mission is to create "ambassadors of Jesus Christ to lead and serve the world." Occupying the basement and the 15th floor of the Empire State Building, the college trains students to enter the country's "strategic national institutions": media, government, business, and the church. Lukomsky, who's thinking of going into hatmaking, inadvertently found out about the school while searching online. "I really wanted to go to King's College in England, but the King's College in NYC came up and I was like, holy crap. It seemed perfect."

Until 1994, King's was in Briarcliff Manor, Westchester, but it temporarily shut down due to financial problems. When the family of an alumnus offered to donate $100,000—on the condition that the school would consider moving to New York City—administrators surveyed church pastors and concluded that the city, bereft of a Christian college for more than a century, could use a spiritual anchor.

Stanley Oakes, the president of the International Leadership University, an organization working to build Christian colleges, took over the project and, with the help of Campus Crusade for Christ, leased 34,000 square feet in the Empire State Building without having a single student or faculty member. "It was an adventure in faith," he says. "If you think you have a lot of the answers, you ought to try them out in some hard places. New York is hard." Oakes says that when he received his first big donation in 1998, he felt like Moses, watching water stream from a rock.

Since it opened in 1999, the school has grown quickly—Oakes estimates it's one of the country's top five Christian schools in terms of student quality. There are now 212 undergrads, the vast majority white, living in two nearby high-rises; the goal is to bring the class size to 2,000. "Students come here because they want the challenge," says David Innes, an assistant professor of politics. "New York is not Calvinist Geneva. I'm saying one thing in class, and the world around them is saying something very different. We train them to engage in the world and not whack people with the Bible."

Last summer, the college was granted a five-year accreditation after a lengthy brawl with the state board of regents, which had given them only a one-year extension the previous spring. Oakes, now the president of the school, felt that a few members of the board were making political, and not rational, decisions. "I think what we would like people to feel is, 'Don't poke the sleeping dog.' We're just trying to do our good work here. Just leave the dog alone," he says. In a 2005 article about the conflict, the National Review Online described King's as a "fasci-nating experiment in higher education—an ultimate encounter of red and blue America."

Oakes, who grew up in Minnesota and holds a master's in political theory from the University of Dallas, finds the secular university outdated, uninformed, and propagandistic—particularly on the issue of how good and evil enter the world. "The professors are embarrassed by the question of whether things are actually true," he says. "It's the elephant in the room. Things can be correct, not true, but correct." He thinks they've replaced the Bible of Christ with the "bible of Rousseau." "I say, let's just compare accounts. Do you think human beings are not human beings but just animals with no moral purpose? Or don't you?"

The school's mission statement compares the biblical worldview to a "nuclear power plant" that reduces pollutants, and conservative politics are intimately wrapped up in this cleaning process. "My roommate says there will be free-market capitalism in heaven," says Nathan Scarborough, a freshman from Arkansas and the only openly gay student at the school. He's planning on leaving the college at the end of this term. "I thought there could be a progressive, Christian movement here, but I think that was optimism on my part. There's a grating, uncomfortable feeling. Someone mentions Brokeback Mountain and they're like, 'Ew.' Professors address homosexuality as a cultural problem that needs to be fixed."

Faculty members come from varied denominations, but they all must sign a statement of faith, which says they accept, among other things, that "Jesus Christ is God the living Word, who became flesh through His miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit and His virgin birth." The school offers only two majors—business and PPE (philosophy, politics, and economics)—and has a broad classical curriculum, with an emphasis on the great books, particularly the Bible. Prayer is not mandatory and there is no college chapel, so people arrange ministry events through King's equivalent of the fraternity system. Students belong to one of nine houses, named after notable Christian figures: Ronald Reagan, C.S. Lewis, Margaret Thatcher, Sojourner Truth.

MacKenzie Horrell, a freshman from Little Rock, Arkansas, credits the school for her religious awakening. She had visited King's on a college tour her junior year in high school but was initially uninterested: "I used to think, 'Those people who believe in God—what are they living for?' " The next summer, an admissions officer called and told her he'd been praying for her. "I had been having a hard time and it really hit a spot in me," she says. "I went to my grandmother's house and she actually led me to Christ on her back porch that afternoon. Once you give your life over to Christ, that's it—I can't explain how happy I've been. God said, 'You're broken, you can let me fix you, or you can lay there and die.' "

Images of death and resurrection were prominent at the school's annual art expo last month, organized by Lukomsky, the president of the school Artisans Guild. Students showcased paintings, film, photography, and music about romance, loneliness, PMS, the meaning of art, and gratitude toward Jesus. "You just hung there and died," belted out one singer. "You didn't have to do it/Oh, but I'm glad that you did." Another read a poem, a critique of the big bang theory: "BANG. We are utterly alone. BANG. Your life has no meaning. . . . Around is strewn the evidence of Christ/And still we seek ourselves/why?" Most contributors were dressed fashionably off-kilter: arty peasant skirts, oversize shawls, lace-up boots.

King's students adjust well to the style and pace of midtown, though their relationship with the city is never quite clear: Are they here to contribute to New York? Or save it? Oakes, who has many ideas about how to "mend the social fabric," believes that evangelical Christianity, like country music, is becoming increasingly mainstream ("It's no longer just for people who love twangy music about pickup trucks") and knows of a number of groups looking to open seminaries here. "Some old, white guy like me, am I going to solve the problems of New York City?" he asks. "No. But we can be part of the maelstrom of competition. And to the extent that we do well, we'll gain credibility," he says, laughing. "Maybe I'm Darwinian in that sense."

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