Who Is the Street Preacher
Way back in college, well in the beginning as it kind of took me 15 years to finally get a BS degree. I had at least double the hours needed for a BS. I have had, if nothing else, a very liberal education. Look at that digression in the very first sentence, wow. Okay, I’ll try to get to the point, if I have one. Way back in the beginning of my college career I had an idea to show how I see certain aspects of the world.
My girlfriend, Carla, was a videographer, or was studying to be a videographer–in those days it was all analog and linear. Carla was also a photographer. Through her photography I saw that she could communicate how she sees. I thought then that maybe, just maybe that through photography I could attempt to show those aspects of the world I wanted to show. So, I enrolled in photography classes. I really liked it. Photography was my art in school, satisfied that requirement. I haven’t thought about this in a long time. You see I gave up photography in the late 80s when I left the photo editor position at Vienna In Progress, an award winning prison newspaper. Mostly because I couldn’t afford it after I got out. Then as time distanced me from it… It just went by the wayside. But I was reminded the other day when I read Sarah Moon’s blog I Saw Love Win Today in which she talks about a street preacher.
How are my past interests in photography and Sarah’s blog related? Well, the way my mind works they don’t necessarily need to be for me to recognize a connection (although IF I felt like taking the time I could trace it all back and reveal the relationship, again I digress). But, that isn’t the case in this instance. The relationship is that in one of my more advanced composition classes I accepted an assignment to photograph street people.
In the town in which I grew-up there was a man who would stand on the corner of Genessee and Washington streets downtown and read out of the Bible. He was a little, older, black man who always wore a black fedora and black trench coat. He was always well dressed. There he would be everyday, always on the same corner, the Northwest corner of the intersection. Preaching. The little street preacher. Most of the people I knew and hung around with just dismissed him as some sort of nutcase, as a religious zealot preaching hellfire and damnation. But these were assumptions we made without even taking the time to hear a word he was saying. I have no excuse for my dismissal and judgment of this man reading and talking to passers-by, both those on foot and those in their cars. Seems no one really paid much attention to him. He was one of Waukegan’s legendary street people.
After accepting the street people photography assignment. After shooting some seedier things such as people shooting up dope, being drunk and passed out, the drug culture I decided that such images, while powerful were just too cliche. I went down into Chicago and hung around Union Gospel Mission shot some of the homeless and hungry. This too was too cliche. Not that these things aren’t important enough, they are. We don’t see enough images of the suffering that goes on right in out own backyards. But this was for an assignment, I wanted out of the box. I walked out of a dingy little dive bar on Washington St. one day and saw this little man preaching. For the first time I actually noticed him. I came back a couple days later, sober, and watched him preaching on his corner, reading from his Bible. I watched from several perspectives. I heard what he was saying. He was NOT preaching hellfire and damnation. He was reading messages of love. He talked about the love of Jesus. This man was no cliche street preacher. I found the subject of my assignment, if he would agree.
One Wednesday afternoon I returned with my equipment. I asked him whether he would mind if I photographed him while he preached on his corner. He readily agreed. I shot him from all of those angles I had scoped out a couple days before. I got some new angles, up close. I probably shot two rolls of black & white. (I bought in bulk). When I was done the sun was setting, dusk was arriving, this man was getting ready to head home for the day. I asked him if he’d let me buy him a up of coffee, as payment for letting me photograph him.
We sat at the rail in the nearby restaurant/coffee shop (this was before the St. Arbuck’s craze, this was in the early 80’s, so this coffee shop was more akin to Monk’s from Seinfeld). I asked him about who he was, where he had come from. This little street preacher told me his story. I cannot remember his name, but I will never forget him.
In my initial description I mentioned that he was black. Normally I wouldn’t include that as a descriptor because to me it is irrelevant, but it is integral to this man’s story. You see he told me that he was the first black man to graduate with an engineering degree from Illinois Institute of Technology. He had been married for many years. His wife died after he retired. He lived in the Waukegan Hotel, an SRO now that his wife was gone. In talking to him you could tell he loved her very much and missed her terribly. He found his reason to continue on in reading the Bible to strangers, most of whom weren’t listening. Telling people who could care less about the love of Jesus. Out of loneliness and despair he found solace in God and just wanted to share what he had found, a new raison d’etre after the passing of his wife.
Too many people were like me, dismissing the crazy preacher man on the corner. Too many failed to hear what he said and assumed he was like the rest telling passersby that they were damned and going to Hell. Too few, including many who served him in the restaurant where he ate several days each week, failed to get to know him, to hear his story.
Those who stand on corners telling passers-by that they are damned, that they are going to burn, that God hates fags, please stop. You see my frined from years ago was a lonely man. A man who found the love of Jesus and wanted to share that love with everyone. But because of you, all of you who preach hate in God’s name this man was ignored. People painted him with the brush you created and handed them. They know no difference between this lonely, loving, older man and you. You are not the same. Please just stop. You are hurting people and not just those you hate in the name of love. You hurt my friend and those like him.
Passers-by, not all the street corner preachers are the same. Some are lonely and just trying to share the love of God. Share God’s love with them too.