My name is Jonathan Sweetman, a 22-year-old Air Force staff sergeant, Maryland native, Cedarville alumni, and the sole proprietor of The Cedarville Interpreter since February of 2021.
I wanted to share my story because I think it provides valuable insight into the face behind what was once faceless content. I stayed anonymous for over a year because I had seen and heard of so much censorship at Cedarville. I did not feel safe, and upon advice from those who had come before me, I decided to keep my identity hidden.
I hated being anonymous. It was unnecessarily stressful. I was often treated like I wasn’t quite a real person. I felt that the words I said had less impact. But here I am, sharing who I am. And I stand behind everything I’ve written. Here’s why.
I grew up in a little town called North Beach, Maryland on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay as the youngest of five siblings. I was homeschooled my entire life, from kindergarten to my senior year in high school. I grew up in communities seeped with tradition, fundamentalism, and legalism successfully sold as authentic, faith-based Christianity. I fell victim to the belief that what I said, what I wore, what I watched, what I listened to, where I went, where I worked, who I was friends with, and how often I prayed, read my Bible, and went to church defined my faith. To me, faith was not a lifestyle of commitment to belief and evangelism, but instead a lifestyle of checking boxes.
Books such as “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” “Shepherding a Child’s Heart,” and “His Needs, Her Needs” brought seemingly irreparable damage to my family as my siblings and I struggled with the genuine faith we had found as it clashed with the (perhaps well-meaning) but distorted teachings of prominent evangelicals. They formed a crumbled foundation upon which my life was shakily built.
From the age of 5, I played soccer for about ten years. When I turned 15 my parents told me I had to quit soccer so I could focus on my participation in the National Christian Forensics and Communications Association (NCFCA), a nationwide homeschool speech and debate league. I was heartbroken having to give up the game I loved for something I was less passionate about. Well, this was my all-time high for nerdiness by far. More notably, my participation entrenched me in homeschool culture which—as anyone who’s met a homeschooler can tell you—is a totally different world filled with a very unique community of people. Of course, there were awesome friends I made, but it felt like all I could see throughout high school was kids just like me: confused and struggling with their faiths and how they could reconcile these pervasive homeschool teaching talking points like conservatism, purity, Christian nationalism, and hidden inequality with the real world and the faith they had developed on a personal level.
As a debater, I was highly successful. My senior year, I won over 40 debates alongside my partner, only losing 1. We had a real chance at winning the national championship, but it was an incredibly tumultuous time in my life and I sacrificed that opportunity out of fear. I made the decision the day I turned 18 to move out of my parents’ house to escape the very unhealthy living situation I was in. The day after, I moved to my then girlfriends’ parents’ house. This time of my life is still a blur looking back. I ran from home and the teachings that had hurt me so much and turned my back on everything I knew. I cut off communication with my entire family. I missed birthdays, weddings, holidays. I was broken, but I spent years working on rebuilding myself and defining who I was and what I believed. I had no idea that what I was building was still on that broken foundation.
During that time, I arrived for my first semester at Cedarville University in Spring 2019 as a communications major. At this point, my life experience consisted of 18 years of homeschooling and about 6 months of an unconventional living situation which left me woefully unprepared for the real world. Luckily, I didn’t step into the real world quite yet. I went to the CedarBubble instead. I was much like most Cedarville freshman. I was sold on all of Cedarville’s beliefs, passionate about my future with the school, a huge fan of the administration, and perceived myself to be very firm in my beliefs. I was anti-gay, extremely pro-purity (aka barely okay with kissing before marriage), extremely right leaning politically, against drinking entirely, and believed men held ultimate authority. I probably would’ve told you John Piper topped my list of theologians.
A lot changed after that freshman semester.
I enlisted in the Ohio Air National Guard in Springfield, OH. I left for basic training (and my first encounter with the real world) in Fall 2019 and did not return from my tech school until March 2020. COVID-19 struck and the world went into panic. Now swimming around in my head was my past of legalism, the messages I was hearing from my girlfriend and her parents, the life experience I had from the military, the teaching I had received at Cedarville, and suddenly the threat of a national pandemic. I was in a place of deep confusion. Looking back, I realize that in my confusion I was self-deceived: I told myself that I was 100% firm in what I believed, that I was happy, that I was healthy, and that I had a solid future ahead of me. I proposed to my girlfriend during a break in tech school and we were engaged through the rest of the year as I completed additional training with the Air Force. When she, a Cedarville student herself, returned to school, she connected with a troupnof friends who became my friends when I eventually returned to the university. Many of them are still my friends to this day, but I did not have many friends that were truly my own. My identity was wrapped up in her to the point that I let our relationship destroy every relationship I had with my family and dozens of opportunities to make friends at Cedarville. We got married in December of 2020. Ten months later, after finding out she had cheated on me with one of our mutual friends, I filed for divorce. On the bright side, I have been informed they are now happily married.
I hit an all-time low. Everything I had known was up in flames. My relationship with my family was shattered. The relationship I had cared so much about for almost five years was shattered. I was forced to question everything. I had no idea who I was. I had no idea what I believed. I had been a mirror for over twenty years with no beliefs of my own and no backbone. I was crippled by depression, anxiety, financial struggles, and unstable faith. The cracked foundation I had built my life on finally gave way.
But something happened that I could have never expected. Suddenly, I could focus on building the relationships I had been starved of for so long. I was forced to find confidence within myself without being spoon fed by others. I could start growing physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. I started reaching out to new people and old friends. I began to slowly rebuild relationships with my family. I got involved with sports on campus and spent hours in the gym every day improving my strength and athletic skill (the latter is still a work in progress, ask anyone who’s played basketball with me in the gym).
Suddenly, I found stability—not in other people, but in myself. I finally found what happiness looked like. I moved away from the rubble and built a new foundation upon which I could truly rebuild my life.
It was anything but smooth sailing from there. I jumped into a relationship way too quickly, one of my best friends passed away unexpectedly, and in many ways I allowed the pendulum to swing too far away from the life I had lived before by throwing away my morals, my money, and my motivation in school. But with time and patience, I started to balance out my life. Of course, it’s still a work in progress.
Thoughts on the Interpreter
The experience I had in the Air Force during college and the experiences I have had since graduation demonstrated a dangerous flaw in Cedarville’s structure. As we all know, Cedarville is a bubble. You could ask anyone on campus including the administration and they would probably agree with you. The positive sides of this bubble model are that students can be constantly exposed to one truth, live surrounded by like minded people, and have comfortable amounts of time to focus on spiritual growth. However, the negative sides are the same as the positives. Students do not grapple with competing beliefs and ideologies. Students do not have to learn how to live with people who have different perspectives and lifestyles than them. Students do not face the challenge of fitting their spiritual routine into a society that does not offer any accommodations.
I saw the severity of this problem as I struggled to become socially competent and make myself marketable as an employee. My Cedarville education, if anything, handicapped me in my growing career as opposed to a secular school like OSU. Cedarville was known to everyone as “that super Christian school.” I tried to transfer before my Junior year, but it was too late. I was too deep into my program and would have had to delay my graduation by 1-2 years at another university. So I made the choice to create the Cedarville Interpreter, initially to address widespread campus rumors and the alcohol policy. But eventually, it grew to be a page exploring, criticizing, and offering solutions to many of Cedarville’s policies and procedures.
In the midst of the tumult of my life, The Cedarville Interpreter was an outlet for the confusion and frustration I was feeling. That’s what made it real for me. There were times I released content that I did not put enough of my heart behind (we won’t talk about the last article ok guys? It probably wasn’t my finest work) and at times I picked fights when it wasn’t necessary. But if I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change anything. This page surprised me every day with the reach it had and how much the support of a large platform meant to so many people.
I take absolutely no credit for the impact this page has had. All I did was sit behind a computer and type out my feelings. It was all of your input, support, and enthusiasm that built the Interpreter to the biggest Cedarville student newspaper on Instagram. Suck it, Cedars (jk).
I still don’t know what the future holds for this page but I’m so glad that my legacy as an alumni was a page where students felt welcome, open, safe, and accepted in an environment that can often feel constricted.
It’s been a wild ride, hasn’t it? We’ve investigated and debunked the widespread rumor that Cedarville owns the city’s liquor licenses, heard tragic stories of abuse and negligence by school administrators, but most importantly of all brought real problems to light and provided love and support to vulnerable communities on our campus. We raised hundreds of dollars for the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. We signed a petition to fire Mindy May which resulted in Mindy May getting promoted (a less than successful campaign unfortunately). We painted the rock in support of our LGBTQ+ friends. We reasoned. We argued. We changed. We grew. And we did it all together whether we agreed or not. That’s what conversation is all about. That’s what learning is all about. That’s what growth is all about.
We can only hope Cedarville will see that one day and build a new foundation of learning that promotes disagreement, open discussion, and growth for its students.
I have been asked countless times what solution I would give to make Cedarville a better place. What could I say to the administration that would actually bring to light and bring to fruition all of the problems and solutions we have identified together?
I would say only this to the administration: Let them speak.
Let truth find its way to the surface. If you’re so confident truth always wins, then let it win. Let truth come organically. Let students struggle with difficult topics. Don’t spoon feed them agendas or doctrines or lifestyles. Let them figure it out in a nurturing environment.
Let them speak. Let students be heard whether you like it or not. Have town halls about university policies and hear students’ opinions. Allow publications that openly critique doctrines of the university and also allow publications that promote those doctrines. Let them debate. Let them listen. Let them grow.
Release your grip.
Let. Them. Speak.
I wanted to share a few words of encouragement with you all as I conclude.
1. Always be open to new ideas
Be guided by open-mindedness. This doesn’t mean being constantly fluid because you should truly hold on to what you believe. But never allow arrogance to get in the way of growth. What you believe might not be right, so always approach differences of opinion with kindness, understanding, and a mindset focused on the pursuit of truth. Allow yourself to be wrong and to fail, do not be afraid of it. It’s how we are built to learn and grow. Remember to look at yourself from the outside to understand what flaws may exist in your worldview. Never stop building yourself once you’ve created a firm foundation.
2. Never back down from what you believe or who you are
The amount of times I was told to quit or be quiet are innumerable. I was too liberal, too conservative, too tolerant, too whiny, too shallow, too unskilled as a writer, too incompetent as a social media manager, too focused on negatives. But I was and am unashamed of what I believe. I am not afraid to allow my thoughts to be tested by the fire of the public eye. It’s a freeing feeling, truly, to not be afraid of being proven wrong. Of course, I am still stubborn at times, but that does not mean I don’t ponder the beliefs of others for days after they left a comment or sent a DM. Be open, but stand up for what you know is right and be confident and fearless enough to put your worldview to the test.
3. Remember the point
The point of everything we do should be to love God and love others. No matter where we are, how frustrated we are, how trapped we feel, we should approach every situation in love with a focus on others. I’ve learned the hard way that it is not about me. My legacy will never be defined by what others did for me or told me. Our legacies are defined by who we impact and influence for good. So build your foundation and from that foundation project love, compassion, and kindness to the people that have been put in your life, whether your friends who always support you or your mortal enemies who test your patience and beliefs. As Cedarville should, let them speak. Do not be a human sponge or a mirror simply absorbing and reflecting the views of those around you. Be a light.
4. You are valuable
There have been countless times in my life when I have felt worthless. I felt directionless and broken. But what comforted me was clinging on to my commitments. I owed it to myself to set new goals for growth and reach them. I owed it to my friends to be there for them like they had so many times. I owed it to my family to be the son and brother and uncle I had failed to be for so long.
But more importantly, I realized that just like everyone else, my life had value and meaning. Even if I felt like I was going nowhere, everything—good things or bad things—happens for a reason. Every single valley I’ve walked has transformed me into the person I am today. The mistakes I make, the failures I have, even the pain I feel, they are all tools that mold me into the person I’m meant to be.
Take the reigns of your life. Point toward your goal and don’t give up until you’re there. You will be diverted. You will face obstacles. You will fall down. You will make mistakes. But that’s what makes the journey valuable. Just know that you are valued, and if you ever find yourself with no resource you can always reach out to me through my page or my personal account.
Thank you all for the last 616 days of my life—for your support, for your criticism, for your love, for your hate, for your attention, for your patience, for your thoughts, and for your kindness. It means so much to me. I’m so glad that I got to share this journey with all of you.
Until next time,
Editor, Cedarville Interpreter