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My Life as a Street Preacher — Part One

bruce-gerencser-street-preaching-september-7-1990

Bruce Gerencser, preaching on a Zanesville, Ohio street corner, September 7, 1990. This photograph was on the front page of the Zanesville Times-Recorder.

I was a street preacher in the 1980s and 1990s. Yes, one of those guys standing on a street corner, Bible raised high, preaching to anyone and everyone who passed by my corner. I often preached on the street several times a week. I preached at Ohio State University, on the Short North in Columbus, and at numerous local festivals, including the Holy Trinity Catholic Church Garden Party in Somerset, Ohio, the Perry County Fair, and the Moonshine Festival in New Straitsville. I preached on the streets of Ohio communities such as Bryan, Crooksville, New Lexington, Zanesville, Lancaster, and Newark. I also preached on street corners in Washington, DC, near the Mall. Sometimes I preached by myself, but most of the time congregants and Christian school children went with me. Their duty was to hold Bible verse signs and hand out gospel tracts. Every week, the students of Somerset Baptist Academy would load into a dilapidated green fifteen-passenger van and go with the man they called Preacher to reach sinners for Jesus. Their appearance on street corners during school hours (once a week) was disconcerting to one school superintendent. He telephoned me and let me know that the kids should be in school, not on street corners hustling for souls. I asked him if the students in his district had extra-curricular activities during school hours. Of course they did! So that put an end to his objection. A short time later, I stopped taking the younger school children with me out of concern that it looked bad. The older students still went along with me, as did several of the teachers.

Don Hardman, an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) evangelist from Fishersville, Virginia, came to Somerset Baptist Church annually to hold what is called a protracted meeting. The meeting would start on a Sunday and last for fifteen days (18 services in all). The Hardman meetings were the highlight of the year. The congregation loved the Hardmans, as did Polly and I. Our youngest daughter, Laura, is named after Don’s wife. (Please read The Preacher: The Life and Times of Donald A. Hardman, A Book Review and Laura’s Light by Laura Hardman, A Book Review.)

Don was a street preacher extraordinaire. I would go with him when he preached on the streets. I didn’t preach at first due to shyness and not wanting to give an inferior performance in front of my friend and mentor. Eventually, the Holy Ghost got a hold of me and I knew I had to start preaching, so I did. Now, the Holy Ghost, of course, didn’t really get a hold of me in any shape, fashion, or form. I did, however, feel a burden for reaching unsaved people and ministering to the homeless. I “felt” a calling to reach the dregs of society for Christ, not only through my preaching, but also through feeding and clothing them. I suspect that my experiences with poverty growing up played a big part in the empathy I had for homeless people.

Some of my readers might want to know what good was accomplished through street preaching. As far as souls being saved, it was a big bust. This didn’t concern me. I saw myself as more of a John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness. In 1739, John Wesley, a street preacher himself, wrote in his journal:

I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.

Much like Wesley, I viewed the world as my parish, and preaching on the streets was just my way of being a faithful witness to people who would likely never darken the doors of Somerset Baptist Church. I also believed, that by preaching on the streets, I would shame and embarrass preachers who contented themselves with being Sunday preachers, hirelings who cared little for the lost around them. I learned, however, that most preachers were either afraid to preach on the streets or didn’t care one bit for the spiritual condition of those outside the doors of their churches. Some preachers would compliment me for my zeal, but then say that they weren’t “called” to be street preachers. I reminded them that Jesus, Paul, John the Baptist, and the disciples were all street preachers. This fact did not sway them. I suspect the real issue was that street preaching would interfere with their golf game or their attendance at fellowships and conferences. Laziness, indolence, and indifference are quite common among pastors. Of course, now that I look back on the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry, I wish I had spent more time leisurely attending to my own wants and needs and those of my family instead of street preaching. These days, when I see a street preacher I make sure I share the good news with him — that there is no God, so let’s get a beer.

Stay tuned for Part Two.

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.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

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.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

My Life as a Street Preacher — Part Three

somerset baptist church mt perry ohio street preaching schedule

My primary focus as a street preacher was to loudly preach the gospel so that passersby could clearly hear me and ponder my words. Doing so, required me to make sure I preached from a spot that used nearby buildings to amplify my voice. Making sure that vehicle noise didn’t drown out my voice was also important. The goal was to be clearly heard one block away from where I was preaching. Some men didn’t have a voice suited for street preaching. My voice, on the other hand, had tonal qualities that allowed it to carry and to be easily heard farther down the street. My mentor, Don Hardman, also had a voice that carried.

Preaching six to eight times a week, over time, took its toll on my voice. I, at one time, had a nice tenor voice. For many years, I led the music in the churches I pastored, and Polly and I would, on occasion, sing special numbers. Our three oldest sons not-so-fondly remember being roped into singing Jesus is Coming Soon with their mom and dad. (These sons later started playing guitar and bass, and became quite proficient musicians.) While I will still belt out this or that tune, my frequent preaching gave my voice a roughness from which I have not recovered to this day.

Publicly standing on a street corner with Bible held high, preaching to passersby, I naturally attracted a lot of attention. Previously, I mentioned my interaction with law enforcement and business owners. I also had opportunities to interact with several news reporters. A reporter for the Newark Advocate wrote a story about my street preaching and my use of Christian school students to hold signs and hand out gospel tracts. As I reflect on the quotes that were in the article from Somerset Baptist Academy students, I find myself thinking these children sounded an awful lot like the children of Westboro Baptist Church and the Phelps clan. My notoriety as a Fundamentalist street preacher and pastor also gave me opportunities to share my views in Zanesville Times Recorder. I wrote frequent letters to the editor, decrying the very sins and behaviors cultural warriors decry today. My letters attracted a lot of attention — so much so that editor of the Times Recorder asked me to write a regular column for the paper’s editorial page.

Of course, not all Christians were thrilled about my street preaching. They thought of my street preaching was vulgar speech, unworthy of the name Christian. More than a few “followers” of Jesus were embarrassed by my preaching. I reminded them that Jesus, Paul, Peter, John the Baptist, and other followers of Jesus were street preachers. Some of the most revered names in American Christianity were street preachers (open-air, public) too: John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, D.L. Moody, and George Whitfield, to name a few. British preachers such as William Booth and Charles Spurgeon were also street preachers. The question then, for me was, why every pastor wasn’t a street preacher? Not one of my colleagues in the ministry joined me on the streets. They preferred the safety and the security of preaching to the choir than the wildness and unpredictability of the streets. Some of these men of God attempted to use the “I’m not called” copout, but I reminded them that Jesus commanded us to take the gospel to the whole world, and staying comfortably inside the four walls of the church, safely evangelizing the few unsaved people who wandered in, was not what Jesus had in mind. Truth be told, I think some of my fellow pastors were embarrassed by my street preaching. One year, I spent an evening preaching to the crowd attending the Bryan Jubilee in Bryan, Ohio. A pastor whom I knew well was also at the Jubilee, but he spent the night pretending he didn’t know me. I thought, at the time, Peter denied Jesus too.

jimmy hood charity rescue mission columbus ohio

Jimmy Hood, Charity Rescue Mission, Columbus, Ohio

While my preaching was loud, direct, and filled with Bible verses, I did not attack people or call them names. I preached a simple version of the gospel, reminding people that hell was real, death was sure, and only Jesus saved. Other street preachers were not as respectful as I was. Some men loved calling names and arguing with people. One Saturday, I was preaching near the City Center Mall in Columbus, Ohio with the late Jimmy Hood and a group of men from his church. While we were preaching, several Mormon missionaries engaged some of the men in discussion. Soon, the discussion became heated, with the Baptists vehemently arguing with the Mormons. The missionaries politely excused themselves from the discussion and walked away. The Baptists jeered and shouted repeatedly, there goes the MORONS! Their caustic behavior angered me to such a degree that I told the men who were with me that we were heading for home; that I wasn’t going to be a part of any group that treated others as Jimmy Hood’s men treated the Mormons.

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I briefly was friends Jed Smock, the infamous college campus preacher. Jed had a small church in Columbus, and he asked me to preach for him, which I did. I later observed Jed street preaching, and after doing so I concluded that I wanted nothing to do with him. Jed loved to call names and berate people. On several occasions, Jed got his ass kicked for calling college women whores. Jed and I may have shared a commonality of having been street preachers, but our methodology was very different. Jed’s approach was to attack and warn, whereas I took a friendlier approach, desiring to engage people in thoughtful discussion. Our end goal desire was the same: to evangelize the lost. Jed, along with his fire-breathing wife Cindy, continue to preach at numerous college campuses. Their shtick hasn’t changed. (The Smocks, by the way, believe in sinless perfection. That’s right, they don’t sin. According to them, they haven’t sinned in years.)

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Sometimes, my street sermons led to conversations long after I was finished preaching. Let me conclude this post with a story I think readers will find entertaining.

One spring day, I was preaching on a street corner in downtown Zanesville with Polly and our children. Pulling up to the traffic light near my corner with his window down was a young man I knew from seeing him race dirt track cars at Midway Speedway in Crooksville, Ohio. I knew I had less than two minutes to preach to him, so I quickly tailored my message to the man, reminding him that race car drivers needed Jesus too, and hell awaited them if they did not repent of their sins and put their faith in Jesus Christ. The man had a shocked look on his face. How does that preacher “know” I am a race car driver? Several weeks later, I ran into him at a car show and he let me know that I had scared the living shit out if him. I chuckled a bit, and then I told him that I was a regular patron of Midway Speedway, and that I had seen him race many times. The man laughed, and then we spent a few minutes talking about racing. I am sure diehard street preachers will say that I should have pressed the man on his need of Christ, but I decided, instead, to be an ordinary, decent human being. By this time, my Calvinistic theology had affected my approach to street preaching and calmed some of the angst I had over humanity needing salvation.

Stay tuned for Part Four.

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.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.