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He was a competitive snowboarder accused of defrauding investors. Now this Christian preacher has area colleges on edge

Key of David members, led by Pastor Aden Rusfeldt, have adopted their own signature style of preaching: all-day screamfests on the campuses of colleges in the Philadelphia area that have left students both amused and outraged and forced administrators to reckon with an unpredictable type of unwanted guests.

Holding a sign and a bible, pastor Aden Rusfeldt of the Key to David Church, yells at passing students in the quad of the Community College of Philadelphia on March 26, 2018.
Holding a sign and a bible, pastor Aden Rusfeldt of the Key to David Church, yells at passing students in the quad of the Community College of Philadelphia on March 26, 2018.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

On a rainy Wednesday just before Easter, nearly a dozen men and women stood behind a steel barricade on the bustling campus of Community College of Philadelphia, some holding signs with messages such as "Homos and Muslims go to Hell" and "Women Belong in the Kitchen."

On the other side of the barricade, students and faculty chanted. "Love, not hate!" and handed out one-page guides on how to listen to controversial speech. Others wandered past, straining to ignore the spectacle.

"He gives you air to breathe! He lets you not be a cripple! And you spit on God, you spit on Jesus!" Aden Rusfeldt screamed at one passerby while shaking a Bible in his right hand. "You're going to hell."

There was a time when colleges would just write off preachers such as Rusfeldt as cranks unworthy of attention. But an intensely partisan political climate, sparked from the embers of the 2016 presidential campaign, has charged the tenor of what were once harmless interactions between bullhorn-wielding preachers and students.

Multiple times in the last two years, Rusfeldt's appearances in the region have drawn police. And his clashes aren't just with students.

In October, Rusfeldt got into a scuffle with a man while denouncing homosexuality at the Harry Potter Festival in Chestnut Hill. He also brought his sermons to the Villanova basketball team's championship parade, and staked a spot outside Lincoln Financial Field following the Eagles' NFC championship victory. Last summer, he was charged with ethnic intimidation and harassing congregants at a Buddhist temple in Montgomery County.

Still, most of his energy seems to have been focused on colleges. Since arriving in Philadelphia two years ago, he has become the bane of college administrators and public safety officials from Princeton to Harrisburg, with confrontational "preaches" tinged with rhetoric against women, Muslims, and LGBTQ people.

He's become so ubiquitous that some administrators shift into gear whenever he plans a visit, mulling not only security precautions but also the anti-hate groups that marshal to counter his message.

"The students are enjoying debating with these guys, [but] we would prefer they don't engage with them, because all it does is give them a pulpit," Maureen Rush, vice president for public safety at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Daily Pennsylvanian during one of Rusfeldt's visits there.  "They get off on it."

 ‘I used to have a greed problem’

Rusfeldt, 40, came to the area with his wife and two kids after a circuitous personal and professional journey, even working as a semipro snowboarder before christening himself "Pastor Aden."

After attending community colleges in Southern California and Bible school in Texas – he says he has been a born-again Christian since age 21 – Rusfeldt in the early 2000s proclaimed himself a guru in the foreign exchange market. In online forums promoting his services, he described his investing technique as akin to planting "a money tree" that produces hundred-dollar bills every day, and bragged about attending a business conference with Eric Trump.

The truth was much less profitable. Court records show he lost more than $105,000 in a seven-month stretch ending in May 2006, and the next year, his company was sued by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in Texas for defrauding clients. In a settlement, he was barred from giving financial advice and ordered to pay $1.9 million.

His redemption remains incomplete: In September 2015, officials concluded that Rusfeldt had violated the terms of the settlement, and tacked on a new fine of $3.2 million. By Rusfeldt's own estimation, he still owes more than $5 million.

"I used to have a greed problem," he said last month. "I [also] used to have sex before marriage. I used to hit the bong like Cheech and Chong."

After being saved and starting a family, he said, he bounced around multiple states until God directed him to move his family east so he could preach in the Philadelphia area.

In the summer of 2016, the Rusfeldts moved into a 4,100-square-foot rental home in Quakertown, situated on 16 acres of what was once a golf course.

About the same time, he signed an agreement to rent the Ebenezer Seventh-Day Adventist Church in South Philadelphia for weekly services for his church, which he calls the Key of David Christian Center. It's named, he said, after a passage in the Book of Revelation directed "to the angel of the church in Philadelphia" from the one "who is holy and true" that possesses the key of David.

Carlos McConico, the pastor of the Seventh-Day Adventist church on Christian Street, said he wasn't aware of Rusfeldt's confrontational preaching style when he agreed to rent space to him. He said Rusfeldt came across as a "really nice guy" and an "everyday Christian."

Shortly before their six-month agreement expired, Rusfeldt stopped holding services at the church. (In an interview, he told Philadelphia Magazine it got too "hot" once the locals discovered who he was.)

He has since moved the church to a point "north of Philadelphia." Rusfeldt won't say where, citing what he says are many death threats he has received. Asked about his congregation, he says only that it has fewer than 20 members.

But his campus visits have continued.

‘We can’t control’ who comes to campus

Across the country, preachers such as Rusfeldt have been a thorn in the side of college administrators for decades. At Purdue University in the 1980s, there was Brother Max, who wore suspenders and a bow tie as he urged students to repent or face the fires of hell.

The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville grew so tired of Gary Bowman, a traveling preacher who called himself "Moses," that it eventually limited his campus visits to five a  semester, a restriction later overturned in federal court. Jed Smock, a pioneer of "confrontational evangelism," has hit campuses across the Midwest for decades.

Among such preachers, Rusfeldt's beliefs aren't unique, but his casual use of profanity and harsh signs have made him more an object of outrage than bemusement — at a time when campuses have grown increasingly conscious of the impact of hateful rhetoric on students.

From 2015 to 2016, reported campus hate crimes increased 25 percent, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, with a spike in the weeks before and after Donald Trump's election.

Few observers would classify Rusfeldt's outbursts as hate crimes, but his heated sermonizing alarms students and administrators. On Penn's campus in October 2016, he told one student she looked as if she came from "a prostitution house" and badgered another student, a Muslim named Zahraa Mohammed, telling her the founder of Islam, Mohammad, was a "pedophile," according to an account she later gave the Daily Pennsylvanian.

College administrators have enough headaches tiptoeing around the free speech flare-ups that have made headlines nationwide. Pennsylvania State University was sued for blocking a campus speech by white supremacist Richard Spencer. Drexel University weathered weeks of negative press after an associate professor tweeted, "All I want for Christmas is white genocide."

Visits by Rusfeldt have only added to the stress.

But, said Zebulun R. Davenport, vice president for student affairs at West Chester University, "as a public institution and a public space, we can't control who comes and who doesn't come on our campus."

Rusfeldt typically informs campus public safety officials at least 48 hours before he arrives – which sets off a chain of reactions. At West Chester, the University of the Arts, CCP and other schools, administrators proactively warn students of a looming Key of David visit.

West Chester's student government also established a support group, West Chester Stands, to distribute leaflets during Rusfeldt's appearances that explain the group's rights and urge students to ignore the preachers or peacefully engage them.

Rusfeldt's preaches include a recurring cast of followers: his wife, Mary, their two daughters, a stepson, and a range of other Key of David members, many of them teenagers. Sometimes he will team up with another evangelist.

Brother Ross Jackson, an evangelist from North Carolina, preached for a time with Rusfeldt but said he grew disturbed by the pastor's inflammatory signs and profanity. "I don't really associate with him anymore," Jackson said.

When Rusfeldt comes to CCP, philosophy professor Osvil Acosta-Morales routinely walks out to talk civilly with him. "I think a genuine dialogue requires a reframing of things," Acosta-Morales said.

Not everyone agrees.

"You are not going to be the one who changes their heart," said Chaz Howard, Penn's chaplain and a Christian minister, who sees engaging with Rusfeldt as a waste of time. "When it's ignored, it goes away."

‘We Have Guns and Shovels’

It's not clear how long they'll have to endure him. Earlier this spring, about the same time the IRS filed an $800,000 lien against him, Rusfeldt held a yard sale and moved out of his Quakertown home.

Virginia Reiss, an insurance executive who lived next door, was relieved. Reiss said Rusfeldt had unnerved his neighbors after an incident in which he mistook a group of hunters for an "assassin" and called the state police. Then he put up a sign at the end of his driveway that reportedly read, "No Trespassing. We Have Guns and Shovels."

"I was happy he left," Reiss said. "Why would I want someone with his reputation being one of six houses on a private road?"

Rusfeldt disputes the assertion that he was concerned about an "assassin." Still, the pastor won't say where he moved, only that it's "closer to the city" and "closer to the church and church members." Still unresolved is his trial in Montgomery County, where he's accused of disorderly conduct, ethnic intimidation and harassment for allegedly accosting temple goers during an aggressive "preach" outside of a Buddhist temple in Salford Township last July.

"Go back to China," Rusfeldt allegedly told temple members. "I am warning you: Buddha does not love you. Jesus loves you."

Rusfeldt said he expects to be exonerated once the court hears about his preaching "in context."

His campus visits, which don't draw as many protesters as they did two years ago, have also wound down as many schools empty for the summer. Last year, he brought his Bible and message to South Street the first weekend of May. This year he was nowhere to be seen.

In an email exchange last week, he said he is paying off his debts and has always been upfront about what he says is his sinful past. And he insists his preaching motives are pure.

"Yes, I shame people, but I never intimidate them," he wrote. "Yes, I want them scared of God, but never of me or the church."

Then, the pastor signed off: "OK got to run, lots of work to do, later man, praying YOU get saved!"

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the Penn student Rusfeldt said looked as if she came from "a prostitution house."