The Street Preacher
On St. Patrick’s Day (March 17), I took the train from New Haven to New York, where I had a two-hour layover before boarding another train home to Charlottesville. On my first stopover in Penn Station a few days earlier, I remained below, enjoying the sights and sounds of the subterranean semi-city. This time, however, I decided to emerge from the “safety” of the train station to the busy streets above. I actually thought I might be able to catch a glimpse of the thousands of revelers.
When I asked directions to the parade, I was directed towards Fifth Avenue, three blocks away. Crossing 34th Street, I saw a middle-aged man standing not far from the corner, speaking to no one in particular as the crowds hurried by.
I was about to pass him also, and did, but something in his manner and his message drew me back around to where he was standing, and I just stood there, quietly listening for almost ten minutes.
This was my first real exposure to a street preacher. I’ve seen men haranguing a crowd, but never have I stopped to listen.
Holding a little green Gideons’ New Testament in his hand, he cried out with a loud voice as he looked straight ahead and poured forth his message in steady, rhythmic cadences. I was skeptical, and sought to find fault with him. Not that I am opposed to such endeavors, which have engaged the energies of many great servants of God over the centuries, included John the Baptist, George Whitefield, Hudson Taylor, and Jesus himself. It’s just that I see these people as perhaps you do, maybe a little nutty.
He was dark-complexioned, about my height, though a bit heavier, and with more gray hair. Simply dressed, even a bit shabby, he stood in front of a couple of large plastic bags whose contents I could not discern, but which just might have held his all his most valuable earthly possessions. Clearly, he was not getting rich by thus occupying himself.
Nor was he acquiring fame. Tourists and travelers like me had other places to go and see, and headed for their destinations with cheerful determination. New Yorkers are too sophisticated, I suppose, to waste their precious time on a non-entity like this, or to halt long enough to hear a message that challenged their fundamental values.
For that is what he did, non-stop and with great passion.
“Friends, you can cancel your appointment with your hairdresser. You can cancel your appointment with your lawyer. You can even cancel your appointment with your doctor. But you can’t cancel your appointment with death.”
“The Bible says that there is a hell, and that those who do not repent of their sins and trust in Jesus Christ are going there.” For his Roman Catholic listeners, he warned, “I have read the Bible many times, and in it I find no mention of Purgatory.”
“But you say, ‘I have lost my job. My wife has left me. My children have gone off the right path. Cancer is eating up my body. I am already suffering enough. I am already in hell.’ Friend, I tell you that the pain you endure now is only a slight foretaste of the eternal misery you will encounter in hell if you do not turn from your sins and put your faith in Jesus Christ.”
He spoke of his own previous experience – drug addiction, immorality of all sorts, pride, envy, hatred. “But Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit, saved me; he forgave my sins and made me a child of God. Friends, he can do the same for you.”
The more I listened, the more I admired – no, envied – this man. He had it all: a firm grasp of the entire Bible, it seemed; up-to-date knowledge of current events and cultural trends, to which he referred frequently; oratorical eloquence of a very high order; and fearless zeal for God’s glory and the salvation of souls.
He paused only to take the shortest of breaths, so at length I just had to break in (for I did want to see the Empire State Building), and said, “God bless you, Brother. I am a preacher, too, but you are far better than I am.”
At that he ceased speaking and put his arm around me.
“Thank you Brother, he replied with a warm smile. Let me pray for you.” And he did, passionately, asking God to give me the fullness of the Spirit as I shared the Gospel.
There we were, two middle-aged men, with our heads bowed and arms on each other’s shoulder, enjoying the immense gift of instant friendship. He was from Puerto Rico (I learned), where I lived for two years as a child. Maybe we were in San Juan as boys at the same time, unbeknownst to each other. At any rate, God had brought us together on a crowded and noisy street corner in Manhattan for a few brief and blessed moments.
He returned to his preaching, pouring out his heart in the hope that some would find the freedom and joy and peace which had come to him, perhaps through another preacher on another corner.
And I – I made my pilgrimage to the Empire State Building, symbol of man’s pride, and then into Macy’s, a place where all our material wants can be supplied (for a price). To be sure, I enjoyed myself thoroughly as a tourist in the big city.
But in my heart the insistent voice of that faithful, courageous, street preacher, pleading with all his heart, drowns out the din of downtown New York. At least for me, he re-defines success, and true joy, and the real purpose of this transitory life.