My Life as a Street Preacher — Part Two

bruce gerencser street preaching crooksville ohio

Bruce Gerencser, street preaching, Crooksville, Ohio — with his son Jaime.

The First Amendment grants U.S. citizens freedom of speech and freedom of religion. These two freedoms are very close to the heart of men who preach on the streets. There is no freer piece of property than a public sidewalk. As long as a street preacher isn’t hindering people walking on the sidewalk or crossing the street, he is free to say pretty much anything to people passing by. Unfortunately, many local business owners and police officers are not well versed in what the law does and does not permit when it comes to street preaching. Many business owners wrongly think that if an obnoxious street preacher – an excessive redundancy if there ever was one — is standing in front of their store preaching or handing out tracts, a quick call to the police will remove the annoyance. However, the street preacher is exercising his First Amendment rights on a public sidewalk, and this means his actions are protected by law.

Sometimes, street preachers get in trouble with the law over evangelizing on private property, or preaching in public places that don’t allow preaching or politicking. For example, street preaching is banned near monuments such as the Lincoln and Washington Memorials. Another forbidden venue is Ohio county fairs. Fairs? Aren’t they public events? No. The various county governments rent/lease the fairgrounds to county agricultural boards. This means, technically, that the fairgrounds become private property for the duration of the fair. The same can be said for many street fairs. Years ago, I entered the Perry County Fairgrounds to preach and hand out tracts to fair-goers. I wasn’t there ten minutes before a fair official and two sheriff deputies told me I had to leave. I told them I wouldn’t be leaving. The fairground is public property, I said. Not wanting to make a scene and arrest me, the officers left me alone. I did what Jesus had “called” me to do and then headed home. Several months later, I received a personal letter from the Ohio Attorney General informing me that the fairgrounds were private, not public property, and that any further preaching or handing-out of literature on my part would result in my arrest. The next year, I stood outside the fairground entrance and, with Bible held high, preached the gospel. I was watched closely by fair officials and law enforcement, but we had no further conflict.

In the late 1980s, I would take a group of men from the church to help me evangelize at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church Garden Party in Somerset, Ohio. The Garden Party was an annual fundraiser for Holy Trinity featuring food, beer, and gambling. The beer and gambling, according to the IFB preacher Bruce Gerencser, were sins against God, so what better way to let those hell-bound Catholics know the truth than by loudly preaching at them. I would stand across the street — about sixty feet away — from the venue, and from there everyone at the Garden Party could hear my sermon. The men I brought along with me either held Bible verse signs or walked the sidewalks handing out Fellowship Tract League tracts.

One year, two sheriff deputies came up to me and said, Sheriff Dixon says you have to stop doing this and go home. I replied, tell Dan I plan to keep on preaching. If he wants to arrest me, go ahead. Imagine what that will look like on the front page of the Times-Recorder. The officers left, and spent the rest of the evening glaring at me from across the street. Later that night, the church’s priest came over to talk to me, asking if I thought I was accomplishing anything by preaching at people. I gave him my spiel about being a God-called preacher, and that I was following in the steps of Jesus, Paul, and the disciples. He smiled, and then said, have a nice evening. As he turned to walk away, he said, By the way, I want to thank you for your stand against abortion. 

Several days after the Garden Party, I had a sit-down with Sheriff Dixon at his office. I made it very clear to him that I intended to continue preaching on Perry County street corners, and that no matter how much his officers harassed me, I was going to continue doing God’s work. Dan, himself, was quite opinionated and bullheaded, so we came to an agreement about my street preaching, with each of us clearly understanding the parameters of what was legal and illegal behavior. (I visited county prisoners on a weekly basis, so Dan knew me in a larger context than just street preaching.)

Over the decade I spent preaching on the streets of southeast Ohio, I had numerous run-ins with law enforcement. I was resolute about going to jail if necessary. No one was going to stop me from preaching the gospel. One weeknight, as I was preaching in front of the Crooksville, Ohio post office, a police car stopped in front me and the officer told me that I had to IMMEDIATELY stop what I was doing. The business owner across the street, the officer said, called to complain, so you have to stop. I looked at him and replied, “No.” NO?” the officer responded. “We’ll see about that!” He hopped back into his car and hauled ass down the street. Ten minutes later, the officer returned, got out of his car, and with bowed head and mumbled words, said, the police chief says I have to let you do this. Just do me a favor, don’t be here after dark. I can’t protect you if you are. I replied, I won’t be. I’m not stupid (though my behavior suggested otherwise).

Street preachers are, to the man, arrogant assholes who have no regard for others. But, they have a constitutional right to be Assholes for Jesus®. Don Hardman taught me from the get-go that I had to be prepared to go to jail if need be; that many law enforcement officers were ignorant of the law and might wrongly arrest me for preaching on the street. The good news was that there were Christian lawyers who would make sure I was released from jail as soon as possible; that no one had been successfully prosecuted for street preaching. Much like Paul and Peter, I expected to be arrested one day for preaching the gospel. There’s no greater feather in the cap of a street preacher than to be arrested for preaching or handing out tracts. Want to make a name for yourself in the street preaching fraternity? Get arrested and spend time in jail for proclaiming the gospel.

Being questioned or harassed by law enforcement was a sign, at least to me, that I was doing exactly what God want me to do; that if God wanted me to suffer for his name’s sake, so be it. I was already somewhat of a local celebrity, so getting thrown in the pokey would only have increased my celebrity status. Little did I know at the time that, sure I was a celebrity, but locals thought I was a fool. That’s okay too, right? The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 4:10, We are fools for Christ’s sake. Praise Jesus!

Stay tuned for Part Three

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

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Series Navigation<< My Life as a Street Preacher — Part OneMy Life as a Street Preacher — Part Three >>

11 Comments

  1. Steve

    Amazing how gambling used to be a sin with the IFB, but now that their messiah is president, it isn’t anymore

    Reply
  2. Florent

    This is actually so sad to read. How personal conviction can totally blind someone from reality and other’s thinking.

    But did those street-preaching yield any tangible result at all ? Was it truly effective ? I wonder if it wasn’t just like a junkie getting a fix, fueling your mind that you were right, because if no one listened to you, it actually just enforced your conviction that the world was lost… and that you needed to street-preach more.

    Reply
  3. ObstacleChick

    Pardon me, Bruce, but your description of your street preaching males it sound like you were an arrogant, stubborn jerk. The attitude was like, “I am right, you are wrong, and I am going to make you hear me even though I am well aware you have zero interest in what I am saying.” You were bullying all those bystanders. That priest showed a lot of class in his engagement with you. It can’t have done his fundraiser any good having Pastor Bruce and his troops causing a ruckus outside his garden party.

    It shows how messed up evangelicalism is. Evangelicals believe it is their duty to convert the lost. Infringement on other’s rights is not even a consideration – in fact, it is a sacrifice for the greater good. Sad.

    Thanks for sharing! I always had the impression that street preachers were mentally ill. I guess some are just zealots without the mental illness. Or they are just crazy for Jesus.

    Reply
    1. Brian

      With deserved respect to Bruce (who has challenged his own life path and sought ongoing guidance to help himself through counselling) I do believe that it is not wrong to term what Gerencser was doing as the act of someone quite out of balance, almost unhinged. It does not reduce a man to know that he suffers a mental illness; in fact, it is the foundation for good health. It is those men in the world who are unaware of their own illness that become true dangers to us. The president of the USA is an example of a sick man completely in the dark about his sickness.
      The man you see on the sidewalk, exposing his helpless son to the abusive experience, was a nut-case, indeed and totally unreachable by simple reason and the pleas of others to cease his diatribes. This is an exceeding sad photograph. As the son of a Baptist preacher (who was not as crazy about evangelism as Bruce) I cannot help but simply weep as I observe the little fella well away from his father, his hands folded in front of himself and staring into the street.
      You are a good man, Bruce, a brave man who has taken hold of your lost life and tried to make amends for the harm you have done in being a preacher. I admire your brave heart. I am so sorry that your own history was so full of abandonment and extremes, that you were trained to pass that on to your own children and did for many years, a brutal salvation. Consider this, Bruce, when you look back and feel shame and guilt for what you did in Jesus’ name. The real guilt we live with, each of us, is not for what we have done to deserve guilt but what was done to us in our lives, especially as babies, as youngsters, what we were completely helpless to prevent. Meditate on that when you feel badly or some preacher’s son calls you an asshole 😉
      (The guilt observation comes from the short series, Alias Grace, screenplay by the actor, Sarah Polley, from the Margaret Atwood novel.)

      Reply
      1. Rebecca

        Brian, I agree that there should be no stigma attached to mental illness, and people should be encouraged to seek help. I realize that some of the street preachers may be mentally ill, but I don’t feel this is true for all these people. They simply may feel very strongly concerning their convictions and feel this is God’s calling in their lives, and the best way to express this.

        I do think this requires an extremely strong and outgoing personality, someone who is not too concerned about how they come across to others. There are people who are atheists who speak, and hold up signs in the street. I would support anyone’s right to do this, but like I said, I don’t think this is the best way to communicate a message in our culture today.

        Reply
      2. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

        The problem, of course, is that harm and dysfunction is normalized by using the Bible as a proof text for normalizing behavior. For example, an honest reading of the New Testament reveals that street (public) preaching was the preferred way of evangelizing sinners; that early NT churches primarily met in houses. So, when a preacher says his church follows the beliefs and practices of the early church, I ask, do you preach on the street and meet in homes? Of course not.

        My editor asked me why I stopped street preaching? I’ll deal with this in an upcoming post, by the short answer is that I started caring what people thought of me.

        The root problem is believing that the Bible is an inspired, inerrant book meant to used as blueprint/manual/guide for life. This kind of thinking leads to irrational behavior. And it’s not just Evangelicals. Think of the bizarre things done in the name of God at Catholic Churches. Religion, in general, causes people to believe and act irrationally, be it Bruce Gerencser, Bill Hybels, Billy Graham, or the Pope.

        Reply
  4. Rebecca

    My only personal experience with street preachers is while attending the local Wiccan celebration/festival around the time of the spring solstice/Earth Day. The preachers and those holding up warning signs are a stark contrast to all the brightly colored dress and happy spirit of those attending the gathering. (The police are usually on hand to ensure things don’t get out of hand.)

    Again, I don’t doubt the sincerity and good intentions of my brothers and sisters, but apart from a miracle from God, I seriously doubt they are winning anyone to the love of the Lord.

    Reply
  5. ObstacleChick

    Brian, the “Alias Grace” series on Netflix was excellent!

    Yes, as someone who has always lived with family members dealing with mental illness, recognizing, acknowledging, and getting treatment is key. In NJ there are a lot of towns promoting themselves as “stigma free” to encourage people to seek the help they need. Mental illness is every bit as debilitating as physical illness, just in different ways. And it is every bit as much not someone’s fault as physical illness.

    And Bruce, you have come a long way!

    Reply
  6. Rebecca

    Meant to say Beltane not the spring solstice.

    Reply
  7. Ami

    I have always been very uncomfortable being shouted at in public, whether it’s preaching, politics, hucksters trying to sell me stuff… all of it makes me feel afraid, upset, angry and off-balance.

    Always wondered why people did that.
    Interesting.

    Reply
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