In late September, about 20 men and women sat on folding chairs on the back patio of a large, colonial house in Ohio. The youngest in the group were in their mid-20s; the oldest were in their 70s and 80s. They’d traveled from New York, Nevada, Montana, California, as far as away as Calgary, Canada, to this small city 38 miles northeast of Cincinnati. Many of them wore bright yellow T-shirts with bold red letters that read “JESUS SAVES” or “TRUST JESUS,” and they sat facing a makeshift pulpit, decorated with signs reading “HEAVEN OR HELL?” and “PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD.”
“I’m not running for mayor. I’m not here to kiss babies and pass out cigars,” a barrel-chested man named Ruben Israel told his audience. “I’m here to preach God’s word, whether you like it or not.”
The Street and Open-Air Preachers of America (SOAPA) conference is held two to three times a year, typically in a different U.S. city. Open-air preaching is a style of Christian evangelism, known for being loud, confrontational, and often bigoted. Though venues, tactics, and personal backgrounds may vary, what these open-air preachers share is a literal interpretation of the Christian Bible and a born-again zeal for public proselytizing.
And, judging by the increasing presence of preachers seen on streets and campuses across the country, their numbers appear to be growing.
The Ohio SOAPA conference attendees came to offer personal testimony, compare notes, and fellowship with other preachers. I spoke with a 29-year old man, Nick Hilliker, who had traveled from Iowa. He had only recently begun public evangelizing, and this was his first time at SOAPA.
“Anybody that’s read the Bible will know that’s exactly how we’re supposed to approach people when it comes to sin,” Hilliker told me. “We’re called to make disciples among all men, among all nations, teaching them to observe the commands of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Though their sermons can be misogynistic and intolerant — not much different in message and tone than, say, a Trump rally — it’s surprising to learn that open-air preachers are not exclusively white or male. This discrepancy, between message and racial or gender identity, apparently does not affect them. For them, their message is their identity.
Jannina Parker, a 27-year-old African-American woman from Ohio, told me why she preached in the streets.
“It’s just like the story in the Bible, when Jesus healed Mary Magdalene,” she said. “She ran to the town and told everyone about her healing. Why would you not do the same? Why would you not go and tell the world what Jesus has done for you, in hopes that it could help heal someone else?”
Many at the conference were regular SOAPA attendees, giving it the feel of a family reunion. Others, like Hilliker and Parker, were relative newcomers, here to meet and learn from some of the veterans of open-air preaching in America.
One of these veterans, Ruben Israel, is the conference’s host and organizer. A Hispanic man in his late-50s, with thick arms, shaved head, and a gray beard, he better resembles a biker than a preacher. But Israel, born and raised in Los Angeles, has been a street preacher for over 35 years, and is also perhaps the movement’s most provocative, infamous, and controversial figure.
As well as hosting the SOAPA conferences, Israel leads a group called the Bible Believers, a national, nondenominational, aggressive alliance of street preachers, who have become regular fixtures at pride parades, Mardi Gras, awards ceremonies, sporting events, and other events across the country, where they face routine arrests, threats, and physical assault.
Israel and his acolytes are often accused, by bystanders, spectators, and other Christians, of distorting Jesus’ message, of preaching a gospel of intolerance rather than love and acceptance. Israel told me he doesn’t necessarily dispute this charge.
“Not one time, in the entire Book of Acts, did those men preach ‘Jesus loves you,’” he said. “The theme has always been — in the Old Testament, to the Gospels, to the Book of Acts — repentance. The love of God was not mentioned at all.”
Israel believes confrontational open-air preachers shouldn’t expect instant rewards. Their role, he explained, is to “plant seeds,” using strong, hurtful, and sometimes appalling language, in the hope that it’ll stick with their listeners and later convince them to change their lives.
“Everyone knows that we live in a very horrible, wicked generation,” Israel said. “The Bible says in Proverbs 17-11: ‘An evil man seeketh only rebellion, therefore a cruel messenger shall be sent against him.’ A cruel messenger. We live in a wicked, evil society, and we need more cruel messengers.”
Many of the attendees told me they learned about the SOAPA conference on the internet. With Facebook and YouTube followers numbering in the thousands, Israel and other open-air preachers take advantage of social media to not only reach a wider audience, but to gain new members and build a national network of aspiring street preachers.
And while political divisions today have grown wider, public incivility has deepened to historic lows, and when the line between evangelical Christianity and nationalism often seems blurred, many of these young and aspiring street preachers are becoming more intolerant, more xenophobic, and attracting more violence.
In January 2017, during a protest at the Portland International Airport, following the announcement of President Trump’s first attempted ban of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, a street preacher named Grant Chisholm came to the airport to preach to the hundreds of protesters. He was knocked unconscious by an assailant and taken to the hospital on a stretcher.
A far-right conservative group called Patriot Prayer, founded by Washington-based Joey Gibson, has held multiple “free speech rallies” throughout 2018 in Portland, Ore., and Berkeley, Calif., inevitably devolving into violent clashes between right-wing demonstrators and antifascist (Antifa) counter-demonstrators. Patriot Prayer was joined by members of Proud Boys as well as a small, Oregon-based group called Hell-Shaking Street Preachers, led by Allen Puckett, a former MMA fighter and self-described “confrontational evangelist.” Puckett and HSSP have been filmed punching and kicking counter-demonstrators, usually while outfitted in “JESUS SAVES” shirts and “Make America Great Again” hats.
Not all open-air preachers agree with the aggressive behavior of these younger preachers. I recently spoke with Jim Webber, a pioneer of street preaching in America, who started in the early-1970s and was one of the first to make the banners and T-shirts that have become ubiquitous among street preachers.
“I disagree severely with this militant approach that the street preachers have nowadays,” Webber told me. “I’ve made a lot of bold signs: ‘Jesus Saves from Hell.’ But it’s not with an antagonistic spirit. It’s not like with a chip on my shoulder, ‘Let’s go out there and see who we can piss off.’ That’s not the motivation. But, sad as it is, that’s the motivation of what some people think street preaching is all about. They don’t really feel like they are accomplishing anything unless they get a bunch of people screaming and mad at them. That’s not the purpose. It never was the purpose.”
I asked Webber about the street preachers who’d joined the political demonstrations and had participated in the wave of recent violence in Portland and California.
“I’m not comfortable with that type of stuff,” he told me. “You had all these cops and these Homeland Security people there, and you had a bunch of people from Antifa and other groups like that, and then you had these Patriot [Prayer] guys on the other side of the street, and everybody’s screaming and shouting at everybody. It’s incoherent. What’s the purpose?”
The Ohio SOAPA conference coincided with the annual three-day “Oktoberfest Zinzinnati,” the largest Oktoberfest celebration in the U.S., drawing an estimated 500,000 visitors. Friday and Saturday night, after morning and afternoon sermons, about a dozen street preachers made the 45-minute drive to Cincinnati to preach to the crowd of a half-million.
On Friday night, before heading out to the festival, Ruben Israel stood and faced the preachers, adopting the role of a military lieutenant.
“In Matthew 10, when Jesus sent out his disciples, they had marching orders,” Israel said. “They were told where to go, they were told what to say, they were even told not to go into certain cities. It’s time to think as a unit, respond as a unit, act like a unit, walk and talk like a unit.”
Israel then directed their attention to the equipment being loaded into the van while instructing the preachers what to do on the possibility of violence.
“If there’s a wacko out there in Cincinnati, he might do something tonight — those banners are to remain up,” he said. “You don’t fall down, you don’t drop them, you don’t run away. … Personally, I’m more concerned about the megaphone and the signs than you. You can be replaced. But those signs, that’s what’s going to testify for eternal life if somebody gets shot out there.”
Standing about 20 feet from entrance to the festival, each preacher got a 15-minute turn at the megaphone, while the others stood in a row behind, holding the large, vinyl banners that read “REPENT OR PERISH” and “DRUNKARDS DESERVE HELL.”
“The God of the Bible says if you are a drunkard you’re not allowed in God’s heaven,” Israel said through the megaphone. “All drunkards will burn in hellfire. You care more about alcohol than you do anything else. Alcohol has become your god. What a bunch of losers. Time for you to cry out to God before you burn in hell. Time for you to repent, drunkard. This is your wakeup call, Cincinnati.”
Dozens of people, driven by curiosity or anger, exited the festival and approached the preachers, either to debate them, mock them, or pose for selfies with them as though they were part of the entertainment.
One man in his 20s, following a heated one-on-one with one of the preachers, turned and walked away, joining a young woman who’d been watching the interaction from a distance.
“What did he tell you?” she asked him.
“He told me I need to be saved,” the man said, hurrying back toward the festival. “What I need is another beer.”