Preaching the Word on Foot and Knee
Just returning from my week-long trip to Louisville, Kentucky, I wanted to share with you all a little taste of my first hours on the ground in this fine bourbon state. After taking the airport bus into downtown, I walked along Liberty Street toward my hotel. At the intersection of Liberty and 4th, I encountered a street preacher, shouting passionately the word of God at an unspecified rush-hour crowd. I snapped a few photos and then discovered a street fiddler just a few feet behind the preacher. The fiddler asked me to photograph or film him, so I did. But I also managed to capture a few bites of the street preacher's biblical evocations. I chatted for a few moments with the street fiddler and dropped a few dollars in his fiddle case. Then I strolled up next to the street preacher, tugging my bags like the weary traveller I was.
I was curious and wanted to know something about this public preacher. Who was he? Why was he standing at this corner preaching... shouting out to the world in stentorian tones? How long had he been doing it? It was still quite hot outside, and I had all of my luggage. But I saddled up next to the preacher and waited for a pause in his shouts. Other people simply gawked from other corners, or passing him by, giving him curious looks. Finally, as I stood there, inching closer, he gave me a quick, cautious look while he continued with his incantations. Then I inserted a question between his rapid fire pronouncements: "hey, brother--how long have you been doing this?" He paused and turned to me, out of breath, and sweating crystalline pearls of perspiration down down his face. I'd imagined he'd say "for a couple hours," but he returned with "for a few years!" "What's your name?" I asked. "Greg," he said. "Anthony," I returned, "good to meet you," I added. "You too." I wanted to ask him more, to learn why someone went out and stood on a corner and shouted this word of God. But I was hot and holding cumbersome luggage. And I needed to meet some folks from my conference shortly. I decided to head on and wish the young man well. "Keep up the good work...," I started. We shook hands and a "God Bless" hung in the air like a child's lost balloon. Within no time I was off around another corner, the gawkers now at a bus stop behind me; and then I was at the hotel lobby. After settling in, I thought of returning to that street corner, and inviting the young man out for a drink or sandwich to talk. But when I returned a little later, he was gone. The curiosity of such events or people as the street-corner preacher are treated simply as that: curiosities, oddities, people on the margins, who belong to themselves alone, because they somehow jar the boundaries and comfort zones we are familiar with. Why shouldn't these be "normal" people, after all? When the young man "broke" from his preaching mold, he seemed as normal as anyone I'd met before, in college, or grad school, or at a national conference of theological librarians...perhaps even "more normal!"
My impulse to acknowledge this young man seemed to come from the yaps and stares he was getting from bystanders; and I think he appreciated it. I know that I'm glad to have stopped and exchanged a few words. I did not fulfill his goal, perhaps, of succumbing to some "word of God" on the street. But the brief exchange of a smile, a handshake, and a momentary human interaction without scorn, without disdain, and without mockery may have been "word of God" enough... and an unintended result of preaching on a street corner in Louisville, Kentucky.