Streetside salvation

Streetside salvation

Men tell Riverbend festival-goers of their sin

June 13th, 2009 by Adam Crisp in Fyi Riverbend2009

Staff Photo by Dan Henry WIlliam Taylor Sr., from Durham, N.C., preaches to the crowds at the intersection of 2nd St. and Market St. on their way into Riverbend on Thursday.

Staff Photo by Dan Henry WIlliam Taylor Sr., from...

Meet Patrick O'Connell. He's the guy who stood on street corners outside Riverbend this week, telling festivalgoers they were going to hell for laundry list of sins.

He says he just wants to save souls -- even if he hurts feelings in the process. His tools include a big wooden cross, a bullhorn and plenty of thick skin to deal with throngs of music lovers who just don't want to hear it.

"I would rather get a positive response or a negative response because at least you know you're igniting something in their heart," said Mr. O'Connell, who traveled from his home in New Bern, N.C., to preach at Riverbend.

Mr. O'Connell, who travels with a group known as the Crossbearers, preaches on college campuses and at festivals all over the country. He's headed today to Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn., after spending three days in Chattanooga.

To get the attention of passers-by, Mr. O'Connell and his cohorts don't mind pointing out what they see as sinful behavior.

One evening, while preaching on streets, they called out a teen couple that was holding hands, deeming them "fornicators." One Crossbearer -- all of them in Chattanooga were men -- pointed out a young man with long hair and said he was doomed for hell for his effeminate appearance.

Turning away the Crossbearers' literature will prompt a streetside lecture, and they don't shy from arguing or questioning drunken Riverbendgoers. It's all legal, protected under free speech, officials say, but that doesn't mean people like it or find it very effective.

"It just gives me the heebie-jeebies," said Carol Long, a Rossville woman attending Thursday's B-52s concert. "All the fire-and-brimstone stuff just turns me off."

"I heard them calling out one young man they believed was homosexual the other night," said Holly Press, of Chattanooga. "That hurt my heart. First, they don't really know if he is or not, but even if he was and you didn't agree, I don't think Jesus would want to publicly embarrass someone in that way? Do they think that young man is actually going to go to church now because of that?"

Not everyone sees it that way. Joseph Livingstone, a Hixson resident, said he likes it.

"I'm a believer, and I think a lot of other people could listen to some what they say," Mr. Livingstone said Thursday, just a few feet from where he accepted some of the street preachers' literature.


This sort of streetside salvation is nothing new, said Dr. Charles Lippy, the Martin Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies emeritus at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

"This style really dates back to the 18th century with the urbanization of cities," Dr. Lippy said. "These men think they have truth with a capital 'T.' And what do you do when you have truth like that? You try to spread it. They see themselves as a righteous remnant, sent here by God to bear witness to the truth."

Not all religious leaders agree that the streetside preachers are relevant or even effective.

"It's less effective than it once was," said Dillon Burroughs, a writer for evangelist Jon Ankerberg. "Today, with the Internet and television and everyone having iPods on their hips, people are less likely to want to be stopped in this way."

The Crossbearers aren't the only streetside preachers at Riverbend. Just a few feet from that group was Pastor Marty Tate, who ministers to Peaceful Valley Baptist Church in Rising Fawn, Ga.

"I agree with what they are doing wholeheartedly," Mr. Tate said, who brought his family to hand out Gospel tracts at the intersection of Market and Second streets on Thursday.


Getting pushback from drunken partygoers or even those who just don't like being told that their behavior is sinful is all part of the process, Mr. O'Connell said.

"The real Gospel, as it should be preached, will offend some people," Mr. O'Connell said. "The Gospel will always come between the sinner and the sin they love so much, and that's the problem."

That pushback also inspires Mr. O'Connell and others with similar messages to keep going, but for some in Mr. O'Connell's entourage, the encounters can be unnerving.

"Yeah, it's scary," said William Carey, a Crossbearer from Burkesville, Ky. "It makes me nervous, but that's what happened to Jesus."

Riverbend officials have short patience when the men enter the festival. They ejected two preachers from the festival Thursday evening, and the Crossbearers say they have been thrown out every night since they arrived in town.

Chip Baker, Riverbend's executive director, said he wasn't familiar with the group, but he admits they will eject festival patrons if they bother other guests.

"We have a simple policy: be nice," Mr. Baker said. "If you aren't being nice, we'll throw you out."

There's nothing illegal about standing on a street corner with a bull horn, said Chattanooga city attorney Crystal Freiberg.

"As long as they aren't violating any other city ordinance or state law, they are free to engage in free speech on any public grounds," Ms. Freiberg said.