They’re having “prayer meetings,” as my elders used to say, about street preachers in Lincolnton.
Preachers started showing up at downtown street festivals in the Lincoln County seat of nearly 11,000 souls between here and Charlotte. After city elders shored up a noise ordinance to ward off the heavenly heralds, one defiant preacher offered himself for arrest in an incident widely viewed as a prelude to a court challenge.
We used to have street preachers here in Elkin. The laymen champions of the Gospel took to the streets here in the hometown before preaching became such a fixture on radio and TV.
Clad in Sunday suits, white shirts and narrow ties, the preachers who normally did not have a church to pastor would gather under the bank clock on Main and Bridge streets as downtown filled on Saturday mornings in the days before shopping centers. The preachers would yell in a staccato style popular in the day in order to be heard above the passing cars and the commercial hustle and bustle.
Once in a while someone would stop and listen. But for the most part Elkin shoppers just passed on by, ignoring the modern-day Jonahs and their pleas for repentance and salvation as well as their warnings of doom. Police and town leaders did not get involved.
I don’t know what happened to the street preachers. Some would say that we’ve become more sophisticated in matters of religion. But I don’t think that’s it. My guess is that the ministers turned to more effective methods and venues for their messages.
It’s not because there’s no longer a need to point out publicly the sins of society.
At Lincolnton’s fall street festival nearly a year ago, a street preacher brought biblical condemnation down on a woman buying a beer. Her husband took exception and words were exchanged. The Downtown Merchants Association began getting complaints.
“I’m afraid that it is going to escalate,” Mayor Ed Hatley told a reporter at the time, “with people carrying concealed weapons, even worse.”
So city officials added to a 1997 city noise ordinance a prohibition against yelling, abusive or threatening language at festivals in the central business district. But the change came only after spirited debate from both sides at city meetings. Police began enforcement in the spring.
“I don’t know how you can compare a street preacher to a noise ordinance,” Randy Gantt complained during a city council session, as reported by a Lincolnton newspaper. “I think that we can use more preaching in the United States.”
Then this summer preacher Jeffrey Dean Shook got himself arrested during an outdoor downtown street concert featuring The Band of Oz. Another man with a video camera fed speculation that evidence was being recorded for a lawsuit. Shook is scheduled to appear in state District Court on Sept. 17.
“I’m not sure that street preaching has ever been popular, culturally relevant or socially acceptable, but it is a biblical means of Christian ministry by which many have come to know the Lord,” commented the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the N.C. Christian Action League, which frequently weighs in on such matters. He called the Lincolnton action a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom.
Pacific Justice Institute, a legal practice based in Sacramento, California, reported similar cases involving street preaching in California, Nevada, Washington, Pennsylvania, Texas and Michigan.
As America grapples with issues of religious freedom, free speech and censorship, the street preachers can serve as a conscience that jolts us into examining our ways.
We await to see if the Lincolnton preachers fade as did the Elkin preachers of yesteryear, or instead they are the start of something.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.