Freedom of Speech on Parade

I had an interesting chat with the Pope on Sunday.

I was walking along Monument Avenue during the annual “Easter on Parade” event—smiling at the dogs wearing bunny ears and the parents pushing strollers—when suddenly there he was, standing with six or seven other guys in black T-shirts.  At first I mistook him for a bishop, but he said, “No, man.  I’m the Pope!”  He pointed to his hat as evidence.  It did look something like the Pope’s hat.  It was the right size and shape.  But it was made out of some kind of padded polyester material and I’m guessing the Pope’s hat is not.  “Where did you get it?” I asked.  “Costume store,” he answered.  But he told me how much fun he’d had wearing it to the bar where he’s a bouncer.  “I see a couple of Catholic priests sitting at a booth and I say, ‘Hey, you two!  Get back to work!’  And they almost jump out of their skin.” 

I laughed at that, but it was odd coming from a guy pretending to be the Pope while wearing a T-shirt that said, “Jesus Hates You.”  In fact, all these guys were wearing T-shirts with atheist and anti-Christian slogans on them, including one that said, “Thank God I’m an Atheist!”  I remembered last year’s Easter on Parade, when there was a street preacher screaming at people, telling them they were going to Hell if they didn’t accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.  I wondered if there was any connection between that kind of aggressive evangelism and this kind of in-your-face backlash.  I also wondered what Jesus would make of all this, Jesus—who died for atheists, street preachers, and the Pope.  Wouldn’t he put an arm around the guy in the black T-shirt and say, “You’ve got it wrong, friend.  I don’t hate anybody“?  And wouldn’t he put an arm around the street preacher and say, “Stop screaming, friend.  I came because God loves the world”?

I tried to keep that in mind as I strolled on down Monument Avenue.  I had just come from a worship service where I had preached the good news that “Christ is risen!” and the choir had closed things out by singing the “Hallelujah” chorus.  It was one of those days when a few guys in black T-shirts weren’t going to spoil my mood, when I was sure that in the end the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ,

“And he shall reign forever and ever.”

Street Preacher

456984652_dd7b5870b4Easter Sunday was a glorious day in more ways than one.  Not only did we gather for worship and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at First Baptist Church, but God himself was in a celebratory mood, festooning the city of Richmond with sunshine and soft, swirling breezes in honor of his Son.  Or so it seemed as I strolled along Monument Avenue with family and friends that afternoon, soaking up the joyful ambience of an event called “Easter on Parade.”

“When does the parade actually start?” I heard someone ask.

“Um, this is it.  YOU are it.”

And so we were: a great throng of happy people—friends walking arm in arm, parents pushing strollers, children in Osh-Kosh overalls, and dogs EVERYWHERE, many of them in costume.  I loved the three Greyhounds wearing tiny hats; the Dalmatian whose black spots had been supplemented with pink, green, blue, and yellow ones; and the Yorkshire Terrier who looked up at me over the frames of her very stylish sunglasses. 

I couldn’t stop smiling.  Christ had risen and everywhere I looked people seemed to be grateful for the gifts of warmth and sunshine, friends and family, children eating ice cream cones and dogs wearing funny hats.  But then I came to that corner where the street preacher was plying his trade. 

He stood on a stepladder, holding a microphone and shouting words of judgment at the crowd.  “Are you perfect?  Do you think you’re perfect?  Well, you’d better be, because if you’re not there will be hell to pay!”  I could see people cringing, complaining, and moving away from the sound of his voice.  I cringed and moved away, although I felt a little guilty about it.  Shouldn’t I be supportive of someone who would stand in the midst of that secular crowd and try to preach the gospel?  Shouldn’t I admire this young man for his courage, and at least give him a collegial thumbs-up? 

Maybe I should have, but I didn’t.  I winced and walked on by, my perfect afternoon tainted by that encounter.

I don’t think I would have minded so much if he were preaching the gospel, if anything he were saying sounded like good news, but all I could hear for as long as I could hear him were words of judgment and condemnation.  If I were strolling down Monument Avenue and knew nothing about God I might assume that the Maker of All Things was really mad at me, and wanted to roast me in the flames of hell forever.  Where is the good news in that?  The street preacher did mention Jesus occasionally, but only in the context of “bleeding and dying on the cross” to save me from my sins.  Again, if I knew nothing about God, I might gather that the Maker of All Things was really mad at me, but took his anger out on his Son instead, nailing him to a cross where he bled and died.  “Yikes!” I would think.  “This is one angry Maker!  And if I get saved I get to spend eternity with Him?  With someone who would send people to hell and nail his son to a cross?  No thanks!”

I said to a colleague later, “People like that make our job harder,” and he agreed, because reaching people who don’t know much about God and don’t want to have anything to do with Him is a little bit like coaxing wild deer to eat out of your hand.  You have to stand very still, and hold out that handful of grain in the least threatening manner possible.  Any sudden movement, any noise at all, will cause the deer to turn and bolt.  You have to earn their trust, and you do it by approaching them gently, offering them something good, and meaning no harm.

Here I was, walking among my fellow Richmonders on Monument Avenue, within sight of First Baptist Church.  I was speaking to people, smiling at people, trying to open myself up in every possible way to friendly conversation that might, in time, turn to important things.  But then the street preacher showed up, shouting judgment at the top of his voice, and it was like watching a herd of deer turn and bolt. 

What will those people think the next time God comes up in conversation, or the next time someone invites them to church?  How long will it take to undo the damage done on one sunny afternoon by a street preacher?