Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
September 16th, 2009

Street Preaching — Compassionate, Confrontational and Christian

A young minister reflects on her encounters with evangelism


Shawn preaching in the Union Square subway station

Shawn preaching in the Union Square subway station

Union Square is a historic and lively outdoor space in Manhattan, known for its plethora of restaurants, live entertainment, farmers market, college students and — most infamously — skateboarders. It is a crossroads for all people; a place where the rich and poor, young and old, goth and suits meet for entertainment and leisure. Entrepreneurs, extreme sport enthusiasts and people watchers are not the only ones taking advantage of this unique space; street evangelists are too.

They are part of the two percent of Christians who actively engage in evangelism, sharing their faith with others, according to statistics released by the evangelistic organization, Campus Crusade For Christ. These street preachers are spreading the love and message of Jesus Christ right in the middle of New York City, and adding religion to the mix at this outdoor Manhattan hotspot.

This sparks some questions. How do they have the guts to do what they do in such a city? Are they simply Jesus freaks who should be categorized with the other “crazies” that roam Manhattan? And, is anybody really listening?

I took several different approaches as I watched these street preachers on my biweekly visits to Union Square. As a Christian, I admired their willingness to spread the message and inquired about their motivation. As a minister, I admired their preaching boldness, analyzed their audiences’ responses, and learned some indirect yet valuable lessons about spreading the gospel. And at times, while I respected their mission, I had issues with the message they chose to share (particularly in regards to judgment, hell, and dogmatism) and questioned whether the best and most relevant methods were being used to reach their audience.

Ministering With A Prayer

Youth With a Mission is an urban outreach ministry started in 1960 with the mission of “sending and caring for individuals committed to world evangelization,” says Metro New York director Nick Savoca.

YWAM member Joost Nennie does what he calls “prayer stations” in Union Square. At these booths, there is no direct street preaching. Representatives of the organization simply offer to pray with individuals.

On this weekday afternoon, I see Joost and his fellow workers set up near the farmer’s market. They have red shirts to identify them, and work in groups of two. There is evangelical material at the prayer booth on topics such as how to start a relationship with Christ, and devotional support. There is no pushiness from the group. They are simply there, talking to people and available for prayer. This is what makes them intriguing to me. Instead of seeking to shove the gospel down people’s throats, they stand as a presence, offering to be available.

Joost Nennie's Prayer Station in Union Square

Joost Nennie's Prayer Station in Union Square

How did a young guy like Joost get connected to this type of street evangelism? While some people had a desire at a young age to come to New York to become a star, Joost had a different call. “I was 9 years old living in Holland when God spoke to me about going to New York City when I would turn 18,” he says. “So when I turned 18, I looked at mission-minded organizations and found out about Youth With A Mission.”

Through these prayer stations, Joost and others can meet people in the marketplace. “It is harder to do this type of ministry in the suburbs. People in NYC are upfront, and that is what this ministry is about as well”, says Joost. He acknowledges that some people will not go to a church, so the prayer station puts him where the people are.

How are the booths received by others? Joost cannot put it into numbers. Even the same location on different days can bring different responses. But what he does have are memories. “I have seen a drug addict who was fighting with another man over ten dollars turn his life around after one of our workers ministered to him. He crashed his crack pipe on the ground. We saw him a year later in the same spot; he testified of his life change which was obvious even in the way he looked and spoke.”

But there have been low times as well. “I remember setting up in London, England, in 2005 after the subway bombings,” Joost recalls. “I don’t think we got to talk and pray with more then a handful of people during that outreach.”

Joost has done all types of street ministries but says prayer stations are his favorite. “It’s obvious and not threatening to people,” he says.

And I agree. Out of all the types of street evangelism I have seen in the city, this is one of the most inviting. And while “not threatening” may sound like a passive type of ministry, I believe workers like Joost are simply being sensitive and strategic with their approach to people who may already perceive them in a certain light.

These prayer stations are welcoming, and that is what people, particularly in these hard times, need to see: a welcoming, loving God.

Joost appears very young yet attuned to his calling. When asked why he does what he does he says, “God is real… we believe in a God that wants to have relationship with us and we desperately need him, so we share that with people and allow the Holy Spirit to minister to them.”

And though Joost has good intentions, the fact remains that street ministries are not always well received.  “The gospel, besides it being life-giving, is death to others because it confronts people,” Joost admits. “Therefore negative feedback is expected.” But Joost confronts an important fact as well. “There are many people that have had bad experiences with street ministry because they feel judged by Christians or by the Church in general, and I think a part of that is very understandable because Christians can be.”

Even after years of missionary work, Joost notes that he still gets nervous every time he goes out. “A part of me doesn’t want to get rejected, but when you see God use you because of his purposes, you can’t believe you were scared to begin with.”

Joost’s method of evangelizing is one that I fully embrace. Even as a layperson — doing street evangelism and missionary work as a teen — I never believed in pushing the gospel down people’s throats. And now, as an ordained minister, I still feel the same. I think the gospel should be presented as a “useful” and not a “punitive” option.

These prayer booths remind me of the need to reach people needs as opposed to getting on a soapbox full of convicting and guilty rhetoric. If we do this, then the people will be drawn to our love and open up to the God that we preach about. These prayer stations are welcoming, and that is what people, particularly in these hard times, need to see: a welcoming, loving God.

Joost and his group at the prayer booth inspire me in my private life and in my ministry to be more inviting and less closed in my faith; more prayerful and less preachy; more available and less reserved.

Ministering With A Sign

Fourty-three-year-old Shawn carries a sign across his body in the Union Square subway. From one side it reads “Turn to Jesus, Turn from Your Sins” and from the other, “Jesus Saves from Hell”. His message and means are quite different from Joost and the prayer station. At the Times Square subway station, Shawn’s numerous evangelistic signs are laid out on the ground and on tables, but today in Union Square, he carries a modest two, on his body. When asked why he evangelizes on the streets he responds, “When you become born again, you got to work for Jesus and tell them that God is not willing that anyone should perish… I got a job to do.”

I respect his passion and consistency and I’m somewhat inspired by it. However, I can’t help but think about the message itself. Deep down, I wish he were selling “Heaven” instead of “Hell”.

Shawn is delivering his message not only on his body but through a tract entitled, “What Must I Do To Go To Hell”. Though his method may look like he is just distributing material, he says that it is still powerful. “The message gets in them,” he says.

Shawn is very dedicated to this type of work and it shows in his schedule. He distributes tracts and wears signs in the subways from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. So how did Shawn end up a Manhattan street preacher? “I had a kidney problem for 14 years and even four kidney rejections and after that I have been on fire for the Lord… I was in a need of a new kidney for 14 years… I got it. Now, I got a second chance to live for Jesus.” As he tells me this, he shows me the marks on his left arm from years of being on a dialysis machine.

It’s easy to mistake his zeal and “fire and brimstone” message as crazy. When asked if he was worried about how people would perceive him, he quickly stated no: “I was worried about them going to hell.” So what do Shawn’s friends think about his ministry? “They think I’m gonna snap out of it… it’s been three years… they see I’m not snapping out of it, they know its true,” he says.

Doing what Shawn does on a consistent basis is not easy. He has encountered several obstacles since being a street evangelist. He has had people spit on him — to which, he says, he responded with an “I Love You” — and although it is legal for him to do what he does in the subways, he says the police sometimes bother him.

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The Author : Myisha Cherry
Myisha Cherry, 30, is a literary artist, freelance writer and AME Minister. She lives in Brooklyn.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Dave R

    Signs? What about these signs? Mark 16:17-18 “These are some of the signs that will accompany believers: They will throw out demons in my name, they will speak in new tongues, 18 they will take snakes in their hands, they will drink poison and not be hurt, they will lay hands on the sick and make them well.”
    You know the full gospel? Most of Jesus’ ministry was casting out demons, healing the sick,. Jesus said greater things you will do because I go to the Father. So instead of holding signs and preaching hate.

  • Scott

    Make no mistake who these people are . They are wolves in sheep clothing. And this is a cult of pride that reaches across this country.
    It isn’t that they are selling hell, it is that they have no understanding of grace and they use only bits and peices of scripture to stone others with.
    They attack christians the hardest wth their judgment and condemnation. In their worlds only they have the truth, and they distance themselfs from all else including family if they don’t fall in with the cult.
    I know these people well as our family has been ripped apart due to them once our son feel in with them. Because we didn’t fall in with them our grandchildren were ripped out of our live’s.
    The kicker is we are are christians,but with this cult you are either in or out. There is more, much more.
    Scott Campbell

    • Gene

      I just dealt with two of them today. I am Goth and this guy shouted angrily to me as I passed and we ended up snoot to snoot for several minutes with this yoyo condemning me as a servant of Satan and telling me he knew all about me because of the way I dressed. I pointed out my shirt with an angel on it and a bunch of crosses, but he yelled over me and told my my appearance was evil. I was amused, and I knew confronting him with the falsehoods of his angry judgementalism would go nowhere but I did it anyhow for fun. His assistant tried to order me off the sidewalk and called on Jesus to excorcise me but I stood and defied them for trying to command me. It lasted a few minutes. False ministers, losers, loudmouths, ignorant idiots and they gave me a good laugh. It’s probably on you tube, enough people filmed it.

  • Scott

    Beware of wolves in sheep clothing , these type of people have ripped our family apart , lets call them what they are , a cult

  • Tracey

    Hi Myisha,
    I found your article intrigueing and informative. I have been a believer my whole life, but until 3 years ago I never really knew my faith or even practised it. I moved home after 10 years of being away from home and I live on an indian reservation in Canada. Through a series of life altering events and making a decision to change the way I live my life, I started attending the local Word Church at the nudging of a devout christian cousin. When I first started attending there was conflict between myself and my husband because he preferred the catholic church than the this church…but being faithful in my decision to getting to know God and attending bible studies and church…my husband eventually came full circle, and is now…how some or most christian describe it “on fire” for the Lord!! Praise God for it because it saved us as a couple and our family. Well back to my main point…the reason I found your article so intriguing is because my husband feels like he is being led to do Street ministry in the form of…prayer booth. Kind of like the first guy you talked about. I was mortified when he first told me what he wanted to do! Really and I am beleiver in Jesus. My first reaction was, Oh great now people are really gonna think we are flakey christains…It was hard for me to beleive that he would actually do it. So I prayed for God to give me discernment and revealation on the whole issue because even the members of our church body seemed stand offish…when asked to join the cause, saying things like “Oh I don’t think I’m that bold but I’ll pray for you”. So thus confirming my worst case senerio thinking. Anyway I decided that even though it seems a little crazy to me, I would support him and go out with him!
    Your article helped me to see through objective eyes what “street ministry” is all about and what to expect! My husband is making his signs as I post my comment. So here in small town Saskatchewan, we will see what people responses are to “Street Ministry”. I have more I can say but right now all I have to say is thank you, for you views…it helps, it’s given me courage to stand by my man.

  • myisha cherry

    Hi Rich
    Great Question!
    I will try and respond. I think before I address the “approach” I think its important to address their “theology”. Exclusion and bigotry is not a theme in the gospels. And if thats not what Jesus preached, we should not do that neither. I think a way to respond to them is to become teachers of love ourselves. Perhaps with a combination of scripture, love, and prayer. Its their courage we need in preaching, just not their biogtry. So they are an asset, but they perhaps need to be gently taught themselves.

  • Rich

    Thank you Myisha! I can see that you enountered these particular street preachers with love and understanding.
    But you raised an interesting point that you didn’t follow up on–perhaps because the two folks you featured didn’t quite fit into the problem mode. But you did mention that you had “issues” with some of the more insistant preachers. I wonder what approach you would recommend to those deeply committed and faithful Christians who, as I believe, misunderstand the teaching of Christ by spreading a Gospel of exclusion and bigotry? Challenge them? Counter scripture with scripture? I don’t know. It seems fruitless. But, I would love to hear your thoughts on it!

  • Violeta

    I love street preachers. There’s this guy in the upper west side that is always yelling, “Jesus.” Such a sweet guy. Hey if God makes them feel like chanting, shouting, sharing, to me is all the living breadth of God. Plus, I’m up for a challenge if a discussion ensues.

  • Bobby C in DC

    Myisha, thank you for this insightful article. Very well written. I love that they are doing what God called them to do and not worry about what the audience may think. Afterall, JESUS was a street preacher!

  • Globals

    all good things

  • Mike

    Wow. I really like the article. I think you did a great job of showing the other side of the story. I still think “popular New York spots” was a good title. Great Article !! Keep it coming!!

  • David

    Thank you for this. It gives us all several perspectives to consider when pondering on such a hot, debatable topic. I love following your work!

  • Brian

    Excellent article! I too have seen street preachers, and even had them screaming in my ear that I was going to Hell for not stopping and listening to them. My response is always to continue walking away while telling them to have a nice day. Now I think I will stop and ask them what their testimony is, and if it is similar to Shawn’s, suggest to them that they share that instead of screaming at people.

  • SM Morris

    Pro 9:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.

    Pro 14:27 The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death.

  • G R Feenster

    Well said. Of only the mainstream would recognize that you’ll gain more respect and admiration with spreading good news than fear.

    I appreciate the revelation….

    You go..

  • Quenesha McNair

    I love it! Great article!!!

  • chris brown

    great article! good food for thought

  • lily k

    I’ve often wondered the same thing when I’m at Yonge/Dundas square in Toronto and see these ‘soap-box’ preachers yelling about fire & brimstone to the crowd walking by. Is it at all effective or does it push people further away?

    I’m a YWAMer myself and remember doing street ministry in Honduras. We would perform a dramatic dance called Toymaker & Son. We would get dressed in our costumes and makeup and then walk through town to where we were performing. We didn’t have to advertise at all because by the time we had walked through town, we had a large crowd of followers who stayed to watch the performance. Afterwards, someone would share their testimony and then we would pray with anyone who wanted it. Many people committed their lives to Christ and then we connected them to a local church.

  • Shawna G

    Thank you for your perspective on this topic, Myisha! You’re an excellant writer! I really enjoyed this! Thanks!

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