What’s a street preacher doing here?
This last Saturday I was doing some audio work at the local Pondtown Festival; a little arts, crafts, and music festival in the tiny city of Rhine, GA about 20 minutes from where I live. As I was sitting behind the sound booth I noticed a sign off in the distance amongst the crowds of people that were about a block down the road that said something about Jesus and Hell. Immediately I knew exactly who it was though I couldn’t quite read his sign yet. This was a street preacher.
His name is Derek, and he is a street preacher that spends most of his time in the Philippines as a pastor and evangelist. Derek is from the same town that I’m from and he visits here every so often to see his family and speak at many of the local churches. On his current visit he’s been going around to various events performing street evangelism with a number of the youth from area churches.
After I noticed this sign in the distance I knew I had to take a few minutes to go talk to him – Derek and I know one another and I heard him speak a time or two back when I was still a believer so talking to him isn’t such a big deal. So, I walk up to him and ready the camera on my phone – he notices me and kind of gives me a smile and a laugh as I snap a picture.
As I approach more closely I say, “Nice sign, but can you prove it?”. We shake hands, laugh, and exchange niceties from here. Derek and I have largely been limited to making small talk – we both know where we stand and we know how severe our differences are. I know that Derek believes that I’ll be destined for an eternity in hell if I don’t come into a “repentant relationship with Jesus Christ.” He believes that and I know he believes that, but Derek doesn’t treat me differently because of it.
You see, Derek isn’t like the typical street preacher. He isn’t yelling at people or berating them verbally – he has a sign on his front and back that states what he believes to be true and he is handing out tracts that tell people how he believes they can be saved and as far as I know he tries to present his beliefs in such a way that doesn’t directly attack people even though his sign is admittedly meant for shock value.
I may find his beliefs to be appalling and I may find his unproven claims to be abusive and absurd simply by their nature – but I’m learning to separate what someone believes from who someone is. Derek, despite what many of my godless cohorts might believe, is a nice guy trying to save people from a threat that seems very real to him. As I was talking to him I recognized that not only have I lived with that same mission in my life, but that he and I have some other very real traits in common even today.
Earlier today (this is two weeks after the picture above was taken) Derek and I met for coffee and we talked about a lot of things that, to me, highlight the fact that Derek and I are more alike than we are different; we both care about our community and want the best for it, we both appreciate critical thought and asking questions, we both prefer sincere questioning and exploring doubt to blind following, and we both believe in doing good things in our community (Derek admittedly has better resources for doing this work than I do, as no one in this area would be inclined write a check to further any cause that was founded by me).
Derek cares about his community, but his fears are misguided and misdirected – he fears that those around him will end up in an eternal fire, separated from god and as a former believer myself it’s hard for me to fault him for it. I care about my community and I fear that my community will forever be known for it’s poverty and the bigotry still spouted by many of it’s citizens or that more young homosexuals and atheists in this will never feel comfortable in their own skin because of the persecution they are likely to face.
My street preacher friend is warm, funny, and concerned. He’s far from perfect, he doesn’t understand the damage he does when he calls something a sin that is outside of someone’s control – he doesn’t know how much that hurts yet. That’s all I’d change about him though, the rest I can live with.
I won’t change that by shouting him down when he’s standing on the street with his signs. I’m gonna change it, and anyone else that I can by showing them the faces of those whom they condemn. That’s something I’ll be focusing on here in the coming weeks.