Little Kings of New York

On May 10, the senior class of King’s College—all 41 of them—gathered at the Broad Street Ballroom in the Financial District for their graduation.

Like any other commencement, there were the occasional faulty microphones making awful screeching noises, the smell of the mothers’ manically applied hair spray, younger siblings dozing off in hard folding chairs.

The graduates entered in a carefully choreographed procession of black gowns and yearbook smiles as their parents rigorously worked their digital cameras.

Of course, there was one element of the ceremony unlikely to have been caught at similar ceremonies all over town: a prayer kicking off the ceremony, thanking Jesus for guiding the students toward this day.

Or the occasional dry wit of the college’s chancellor, J. Stanley Oakes, who at the conclusion of the ceremony told the class, “Graduates, you may move your tassels from right to left, and no, that is not a political reference.”

King’s College is not the city’s only religious college. Catholic colleges and universities have long been a part of the fabric of higher education in New York City. There’s Fordham University and Iona College, St. John’s University, and, until recently, Marymount College; but King’s College is not like those schools.

Tucked away as it is on the 15th floor of the Empire State Building, King’s College quickly became one of the city’s more viral human-interest stories. A Christian university with a mission that seems more Mobile, Ala., than Manhattan, which holds its classes and houses its students in the beating heart of America’s Northeastern establishment.

The school is not, strictly speaking, evangelical. Among the student body of approximately 220, personal religious affiliations include (but are not limited to) Catholic, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Calvinist, Baptist and Amish. Its students take a drink, don’t object to dancing; this isn’t the town in Footloose.

But insofar as the mission of the school is explicitly to create a Christian academic environment in a city that is a national stronghold of liberal politics (and hardly a bastion of conservative Christian values), the school is swimming decidedly against the prevailing New York currents, whatever its administrators say.

Several days after graduation, a few King’s graduates sat in a faculty lounge on the 15th floor of the Empire State Building on dark leather couches—the kind you’d find at an Eating Club at Princeton University—munching on crackers and reminiscing about the past four years.

Twenty-one-year-old Erica Umberger, a smiley, chestnut-haired business major from Hershey, Pa., whose Facebook profile indicates that she is a fan of Damien Rice, Arrested Development and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, said, in expressing her pre-King’s longing for culture, that her hometown had only “chocolate and German people.”

She recalled getting familiar with the city’s subtle anti-Bush sentiment: “The first week we were here, it was the Republican National Convention and my roommate went out wearing a Bush T-shirt,” said Ms. Umberger. “She came back spat on and said people were screaming at her on the street. Yeah, that was a little scary.”

But she’s settled in now, and considers herself no less a New Yorker because she’s got the battle scars. (She’ll be moving into an apartment with two roommates in Bay Ridge this summer, where, despite what she said she’s told her parents, she may stay longer than a year.)

Which is why the eagerness of some of her classmates to become New Yorkers themselves doesn’t always evoke the greatest sympathy from her.

“When freshman come in and try to call themselves New Yorkers, it annoys me. It takes time to become a New Yorker!” she said.

And while over time the small-town blues melt away, those blues have, for many King’s students, more to do with the parochialism of small-town life than with the Christian tradition in which they’ve been raised.

Many King’s students talked to The Observer about leaving a claustrophobic hometown in the same way your average heathen aspiring actress or suburban closet-case would: to breathe the free air. It’s just that Christianity, for them, was never the problem.

Shannon Curry, a 22-year-old, sparkly-eyed Texan from San Antonio, tells a tale—like many of her classmates—of a childhood in a small, mostly white, Christian community where diversity consisted of the neighboring Hispanic population.

“Some people think that if I am blond and from Texas, I’m not a thinker or I just can’t wait to have kids, you know,” said Ms. Curry, who is staying in New York to work for her alma mater.

Anthony Randazzo, an athletic-looking 22-year-old who can talk at length about Middle Eastern foreign policy and free-market economics, grew up home-schooled in Arkansas, Michigan and Florida by parents who were traveling Christian missionaries. “I really wanted out of that bubble,” said Mr. Randazzo. He planned to attend Georgetown four years ago, “but something ultimately drew me to King’s; it was really more or less an act of trusting God, and New York got me out of that bubble plenty.”

“I grew up in a conservative Christian family—my parents don’t drink—but when I came here, I met Christians who drank and I was like, ‘What is this about?’” said Ms. Umberger.

Little Kings of New York