published Sunday, November 24th, 2013

Her cross to bear: The story behind the street preacher trying to save UTC

Preacher Angela Cummings declaims from behind a barricade defining the free-speech zone Friday at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Preacher Angela Cummings declaims from behind a barricade defining the free-speech zone Friday at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Photo by Tim Barber.

Street preacher Angela Cummings has waded through Seattle rainstorms and yelled over partygoers in New Orleans. She cleans her wiry brown hair in Starbucks bathroom sinks and sleeps in 24-hour fitness centers when she can. If there's a spare outlet nearby, she makes coffee with a drip-filter pot she keeps in her hatchback.

The 43-year-old lives in her car and hopes to make it to Miami by Christmas -- if she can find the money.

Cummings, who was born and raised in Chattanooga, became a self-described nondenominational street preacher in 2001. She has toured college campuses from Los Angeles to Athens, Greece, spreading her interpretation of the Bible and God's will.

Her recent appearances at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus have made her second coming anything but secret. And after a Nov. 15 incident involving student Cole Montalvo, who was arrested after riding his bike into Cummings' secured free-speech zone, the academic community has been paying full attention to Chattanooga's native sermonizer and how UTC security monitors her presence.

"Let's read the Bible!" she said on Oct. 29, during her first stay on campus.

She pulled out her leather-bound book and announced 1 Peter 4:17 to UTC students. "The time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God!"

A few boos followed.

"Are we in the house of God?" a female student asked.

A male student jumped in with, "Who are you?"

An observer from the back jokingly replied "She's a demon."

Cummings calls herself a saint and likens her style to that of John the Baptist, a biblical "street preacher" who called for all to repent of their sins. When not addressing an individual student's question, she often tilts back, screams upward and uses her surroundings to drive a point home.

"God gives you such a beautiful city in Chattanooga," she beckons to the sky. "Why don't you serve Him? His creation is all around you, yet you do not serve Him?"

In fact, Cummings is educated and trained in the ministry. She has studied under Jed Smock, a nationally renowned preacher known as the Father of Campus Evangelism, and was friends with Dan Martino, then Chattanooga's most notorious street preacher and anti-abortion activist, who frequently made national headlines in the 1980s for wearing mock fetuses around his neck and preaching anti-gay sentiments.

And she draws as much inspiration from the road to destruction she was once on as she does from the Good Book, all delivered through echoing shouts from the bottom of her lungs -- until her voice becomes raspy and thin.

"I was incredibly surprised by the booming voice she has," Smock said. "There's not a man or woman in this country who has a voice like hers."

•••

Cummings' collegiate audiences -- often circling her by the hundreds between class periods -- tend to dispute her talking points or engage her in debate. The topics range from marijuana, gay marriage and even hair-cutting, something mentioned as a sin in Leviticus.

Most students stay only for a few minutes or observe on the way to a lecture. But Cummings is usually within the designated campus free-speech zone at Heritage Plaza for at least three hours on each scheduled afternoon, standing under the sporadic rain and shrill winds of autumn to preach.

She would stay there even if nobody listened, she says.

Cummings made the decision to return to Chattanooga three weeks ago after an old friend from Red Bank High School spotted the evangelist $150 via PayPal to spread the message at home. She used the money to buy three nights in a Chattanooga economy hotel at $30 a night, and put the rest away on food and fuel.

"I am so lucky," she said. "At least, for now."

Cummings has used her time back in the Scenic City to target college kids -- her favorite demographic -- at UTC. Her confrontations with students are pronounced with dooming hollers.

That's her signature.

"College students stop because it's a show," she said. "Some street preachers are boring, and it's no wonder why they don't get a crowd.

"But once I get a crowd, I point to Jesus."

She is known to shout about damnation at the top of her lungs. Just meters away, students prepare for quarterly and final exams in the University Center and the Lupton Library, and have voiced their complaints directly to both Cummings and James Hicks, UTC's dean of students.

However, longstanding university policy prohibits public speakers altogether during finals week. Some official university programs cease operation so students will focus on studying.

"Even the paper stops publishing," Hicks said. "It's just a different time altogether."

On Monday, Lt. John Boe of the UTC Police Department, which provides Cummings and her audiences with security, stood near the preacher with a loudness meter. Her voice occasionally spiked higher than 70 decibels in volume, in the same league as lawnmowers and workshop vacuum cleaners, but tended to stay in the 60s range.

Hicks said the university has been using Chattanooga city code as its noise volume model, which states that no permitted unamplified activity should exceed 70 decibels.

So far, Boe says, her sermons have not reached the volume necessary to be legally classified as a "distraction to the educational process."

Hicks himself has been addressing students' complaints in person from the Lupton Library's third floor -- a frequent complaint zone -- and he felt that the noise was audible, but tolerable.

"Annoyance is in the ear of the beholder," he said.

Cummings honed her abrasive street preaching skills three years ago after teaming up with Smock -- known as "Brother Jed" -- in California.

Smock made national television appearances on the "Sally Jessy Raphael" television show in 1988 and is scheduled to debut in his own CMT reality show later this year. The nationally known pastor has preached behind an 8-foot crucifix staff for more than 40 years, and he makes it a point to keep in touch with Cummings, a favorite colleague.

"She's quite the brave and courageous lady to be traveling by herself," Smock said. "But she's very effective in relating to college campuses."

Smock says Cummings is successful because of her ability to improvise: most people who give sermon for multiple hours each day must stick to "one-liners" and biblical anecdotes drive the point home, but Cummings relies on decades of personal problems.

"Each time I hear her, I learn something new about her sordid past," Smock said. "She's really pretty much of an open book, she tells it all.

"It's pretty shocking."

•••

Cummings can't point to a single moment in her life that led to her decades of problems. The adopted girl who spent years in and out of troubled youth homes said she was a "complete mess" by the time she reached high school.

A close friend with whom she lived committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, and a family friend molested Cummings as a teenager, according to her website at www.preacherwoman.webs.com.

The alcoholic Motley Crue fanatic kept a cooler of various liquor bottles in her car at age 18. She moved in with a man 11 years older than her and two years later, she became pregnant. She planned to get an abortion at a Vance Road clinic near the airport, but couldn't afford the procedure.

"I only have a son today because I was $100 short," she admits.

But while she was there, she saw Martino sermonizing outside the clinic.

She claims to have felt the power of guerrilla evangelism for the first time that day in 1990, when one of Martino's female colleagues outside the abortion clinic yelled at Cummings through her car window, "Don't kill your baby!"

That was the moment Cummings said changed her life, convincing her to turn to religion and later to street preaching.

Cummings decided to have the child -- Nicholas, a biblical name that translates to "Victorious One" -- and raise him as a testament to her frustrations as an adopted child.

But after Nicholas was born on Dec. 1, 1990, Cummings developed a crack cocaine habit. Nicholas went to live with his grandmother while Cummings went to rehab.

Martino, meanwhile, was labeled a hypocrite when he admitted to 45 separate homosexual encounters and revealed he had HIV. Cummings kept in contact with Martino, and the two met at a Burger King in Pensacola before his death in 2003.

"He fought such hard battles all the time," Cummings said. "I think he might have struggled, and backslid in the end. God forbid I do that.

"I would rather take a year off than lose my salvation."

She would eventually establish "Compulsive Cleaning," a $20-per-hour maid service in Chattanooga. She used the small business as a lifeline during her 12-step program before moving to Pensacola, Fla., for seven years. The recovering alcoholic says she has been sober since 1998 and abstinent since 1999.

Cummings and Nicholas, now 22, do not talk.

Occasionally, self-recorded video of Cummings' sermons will go viral on YouTube, and her son will create a Google Plus account to speak against her testimony. After her UTC incidents, he stepped in to comment directly on her video account to rebuke her sermons and criticize her parenting. Nicholas claimed he often went hungry in her care -- a statement Cummings adamantly denies -- then deleted his remarks after Cummings replied directly.

Aside from the postcards Cummings sends Nicholas -- never returned -- that's their only form of contact today.

"I love Jesus more than my son," Cummings said. "I mail him every year letting him know how Momma's doing. ... I don't know if he cares."

•••

Cummings accepts money through her nonprofit "Highways and Hedges Ministries, Inc." -- a name similar to several unrelated religious ministries -- but the donations are few and far between.

Since she started preaching at UTC in late October, she has received only $75 -- two PayPal donations from Texas, she said.

"I don't have a savings account where I'm piling up money, rings and houses," Cummings said after her preaching session ended Tuesday. "I sometimes have no money at all."

Rarely, empathetic students offer to buy her a meal, but Cummings says she only accepts if it's their idea.

When her 2007 Honda Fit -- affectionately called the "Motel Honda" -- broke down on the East Coast, a supporter gave her $500 to keep going.

She has lived in the car since 2009, sleeping on a $60 children's bed and shifting her clothes around at night to make room. At 5-foot-2, she "fits perfectly." She puts up a sunshade during the night to avoid attention while she sleeps at rest stops and parking garages. A tucked-away bottle of Febreze rejuvenates her back-seat bedding.

By and large, the campus crusader stays under the radar, moving from school to school, taking pride in her resourcefulness.

She is writing a book about her lifestyle -- "Motel Honda," if the corporation doesn't mind use of the name -- and Smock plans to write the introduction.

But controversy over her fiery preaching in Chattanooga, which raised issues regarding campus security, has triggered student and community protest.

Several videos of the Montalvo incident went viral, creating palpable tension between students and UTC security. Montalvo and others on the scene called the incident an act of brutality. The university disagreed.

"Our Campus Police acted under their best judgment at the time to maintain order and to ensure the personal safety of all in attendance," UTC Chancellor Steve Angle said in a Nov. 19 letter addressed to students.

As an internal review continues into the matter of police procedures, the arrest and the charges, UTC's students have instead largely switched from religious interaction with Cummings to demanding she leave.

Disgruntled students frequently bring cardboard signs, and coast their bicycles around the area in which Cummings is designated to speak to make a statement of their own.

"I have to admit that I like stuff like that," Cummings said. "I worked very hard in Bible school to be a history maker. I wanted to change the world. I sat in the front row. I worked very hard as a single mom. So if 12 years later, people want to make signs and be mad at me, it actually makes me feel good."

Since the Montalvo incident, an online petition at Change.org addressed to UT system President Joe DiPietro requesting the removal of Cummings and other "verbally abusive protesters" has accumulated more than 3,600 signers.

However, UTC has no plans to remove Cummings, who has filed two separate permits to use the property -- which any student, faculty or outside speaker may apply for.

Along with other campus preachers like John McGlone, who successfully sued UT-Knoxville in 2011, Cummings will continue to appear on the UTC campus through Tuesday afternoon before venturing off to Birmingham, Ala.

Cummings may file paperwork for more UTC visits, if she wants to return.

"Although the manner of the preacher's presentation is offensive to many and causes strong responses, the freedom of expression so valued in this country requires enduring protected speech with which we disagree," Angle wrote in the same public letter. "At this time, the campus has no legal basis upon which to deny permission for the speakers to access campus."

On Tuesday, after standing guard for nearly four hours on a chilly, dark autumn afternoon, UTC security personnel removed the steel guardrails that defined a 20-foot square where Cummings preached.

Cummings tapped the chief guard on the shoulder and thanked the crew for the day's work. She told them to go home, rest up and eat chicken noodle soup after a long day outside. She would need them again at 1:30 p.m. Friday.

After every daily sermon, the security personnel offer Cummings an escort to her car. When not escorted by other traveling street preachers, she accepts their offer and walks with protection to her Motel Honda.

She sets her Bible down, then rests.

"I'm only here to help them through Jesus Christ," she said. "Why would I come back and put up with all this if I wasn't trying to offer hope?"

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at jlafave@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow him on Twitter at @PressLaFave.

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