An AgASA member followed a group of street preachers down to LA to write this article for her journalism class.
The Life of a Street Preacher
by Jennifer Bernstein
We met under the Pony Express Statue. Old Town Sacramento on a Saturday night was crowded with tourists, drunks, and high school students dressed for prom. The eleven us formed a circle and bowed our heads in prayer, asking God to soften and harden hearts. We started to march towards the center of the crowds. On the way, we stopped at a car, opened the trunk, and pulled out a four-foot wooden cross bearing the words “Are You Ready?”
I had joined a team of street preachers for the night. Paul Kaiser, a pudgy yet energetic man who describes himself as a “reformed black evangelist,” led the team. Families walked by with their ice cream cones, candy apples, and confused facial expressions as Kaiser dropped a sandwich board over his shoulders. The board said “JESUS will not be your SAVIOR until he is your LORD. Acts 2:38.”
We marched through Old Town Sacramento and, after taking a break to hand out religious literature, ended up across the street from the Sacramento River. The team set up their equipment on the corner of Front Street and K Street. The yellow-ochre Tower Bridge was glowing against the blue sky behind us. It was time for the team to start preaching.
One of the younger preachers, Ryan Dozier, stood up on a stool and start reading from the Gospel. Most people reluctantly walked around us to avoid becoming part of the display as well as being caught on the camera set up to record the event. According to Kaiser, they record all their outings for security purposes. They also post the good clips on their YouTube channel, ReformedEvangelist.com. A high school aged student, dressed in torn jeans, a studded jacket, and a hat that said “God is just Pretend” walked past.
“The Bible was written by man!” The teenager shouted towards Dozier. Kaiser decided to take over and stepped up onto the stool. He pointed out, loudly, that the Bible being written by man does nothing to discredit its contents. We trust history books and science texts written by man. The problem people have with the Bible has nothing to do with who wrote it, Kaiser told the crowd.
“The Bible claims people reject the book because of what it says about man,” Kaiser shouted to the teenager. “We all fall short of God’s glory. We all will face judgment. That is the problem you have with the Bible, young man.”
In 1980 a nine year-old Paul Kaiser went home weeping after an Easter service at Free Will Baptist Church in Petaluma, California. The Pastor preached that everyone, even little Paul Kaiser, was a sinner who needed to repent. Little Paul was sorry for his sin before God, but spent the next twelve years of his life caught up in a snare of drugs and a sinful lifestyle.
At twenty-two years-old, Kaiser was kicked and partially blinded in one eye during a drug deal gone wrong. Both of Kaiser’s parents had passed, and he had a new born daughter and one-year old out of wedlock. He felt shipwrecked.
“Little did I know it was all part of God’s wonderful plan for my life,” Paul wrote in his blog, The Reformed Evangelist. “You see, I was forgiven so much that it always causes me, even to this day, to love Him more and more.”
Evolution of the Street Preacher
I first met Paul Kaiser outside of the Memorial Union at UC Davis. As part of a team sent by Living Waters Ministries, Kaiser was distributing copies of a newly published edition of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. This edition included a special fifty-page introduction written by Ray Comfort, a Christian evangelist and author of the book You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, but you Can’t Make Him Think. Comfort, in his special introduction, attempted to discredit Darwin’s theory of evolution and replace it with intelligent design.
Ray Comfort became known as the Banana Man after he attempted to use a banana to prove God’s existence. On his television show, The Way of the Master, co-hosted by Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron, Comfort pointed out how perfectly the banana is shaped for the human hand, how it has a non-slip surface, how it has a tab for removal of its bio-degradable wrapper, how it is shaped for the human mouth, how it is pleasing to taste buds, how it is curved towards the face for easy eating, and how it has outward indicators of inward contents: green – to early, yellow – just right, black – too late. His argument may have been more convincing if the modern banana hadn’t been domesticated by man, not God, over hundreds of years. A wild banana is actually nearly inedible because of its short, stubby shape and large, hard seeds.
Though Comfort’s banana argument failed to earn him credibility in the science community, his ministry has been very successful. It was Comfort’s television show that changed Paul Kaiser’s life.
“One afternoon while watching Christian Television I came across The Way of the Master show with Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron,” Kaiser told me in an email interview. The episode posed the question “Would you be willing to evangelize or Open-Air preach?”
“I could never preach in public!” Kaiser thought to himself. The question then shifted. “Would you do it for $100 each time?”
“That question hit to the quick of my faith and revealed my heart’s desire,” Kaiser said. “That single question changed my life forever.” He felt ashamed that he would be willing to embarrass himself for $100, but he was not willing to embarrass himself to preach the Gospel. He made the decision to become a street preacher.
No True Scotsman
Kaiser brought more than copies of The Origin of Species to campus. His team came prepared with religious literature, banners, and sandwich boards. Kaiser uses his sandwich board as a springboard to address various sins and proclaimed truth of God’s justice. But when people see Kaiser’s sandwich boards and signs, they associate him with more hateful preachers, such as the Westboro Baptist Church.
The Westboro Baptist Church is a hate group commonly known for protesting against homosexuality by picketing with signs that say “God Hates Fags.” After the Swedish prosecution of Åke Green, a pastor who was critical of homosexuality, the church picketed a local appliance store for selling Swedish vacuum cleaners. According to the Westboro Baptist Church, the appliance store was supporting gays by continuing to sell Swedish vacuums.
The church has also been known to picket funerals. They were featured on CNN in 1998 after picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a man who had been beaten to death for being a homosexual. In 2006, members of the Westboro Baptist Church picketed outside a memorial for the Sago Mine disaster, an explosion that killed twelve people, holding signs that said “Thank God for Dead Miners.” According the Westboro Baptist Church, the accident was God’s punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality. They bring signs to the funerals of fallen soldiers that say “Thank God for dead soldiers” claiming the war is also God’s punishment.
Although Kaiser has signs and sandwich boards, he is not a fan of the Westboro Baptist Church.
“They’re a cult,” he said. “They give everyone a bad name.”
The Great Commission
Members of the Agnostic and Atheist Student Association were also prepared for Kaiser’s presence on campus. When the association heard that copies of Ray Comfort’s books were being passed out, counter-signs and flyers titled Why Ray Comfort is Wrong were immediately printed and passed out by members of the association along with the books. The group helped draw a crowd, making such an impact that Kaiser found them on Facebook later and joined their group. And so through the Agnostic and Atheist Student Association’s Facebook group, I met the other side of Paul Kaiser.
When Kaiser isn’t out on the street or on a college campus preaching the Gospel, he can often be found in Yuba City serving up New York and Chicago style hot dogs at his family owned and operated catering and sidewalk vending business, Fat Daddy’s Frankfurters. Kaiser considers himself a retail manager by profession, and an evangelist by calling. He even incorporates his faith into his hot dog stand.
“I have a great bumper sticker that says ‘Everyone will believe the Bible on Judgment Day,’” Kaiser said. “I also set several tracts out on the counter, and they go rather quickly and are great conversation starters. Just like on the streets, I don’t force tracts on anyone and only engage in conversations as the customer will allow.”
Kaiser’s family, although reluctant at first, support his street preaching.
“At first they were shocked,” Kaiser said. “It made them very uncomfortable, but how can I blame them for that? I still feel uncomfortable from time to time. As time progressed, they became well adjusted to what I do on the streets.”
Kaiser’s children have even gone so far as to join him.
“My kids are not ashamed in front of their friends when our living room is filled with signs, banners, and sandwich boards. They have all participated on the streets with me from time to time, but sometimes feel it can be too intense,” Kaiser said. “To make a long story short, they think I am completely nuts. But in a good way.”
“Street preaching is a bold witness to my family that I truly believe what I preach,” Kaiser said, “and they will never doubt for a second what is my primary focus in this life – the preaching of the Gospel!”
Though Kaiser gets support from his family, being a street preacher is not always socially advantageous.
“At times you are embarrassed,” Kaiser said. “I can remember co-workers saying ‘Paul, is that you?’ with perplexed looks on their faces, or when your next door neighbor walks by and shakes his head at a public event.”
According to Kaiser, seeing all the public ridicule, rejection, and hatred of the Cross can cause a street preacher to lose the compassion for individuals he once had. It is a continual struggle to not become, as Kaiser calls it, Gospel hardened. But Paul Kaiser will always be a street preacher.
“Over all, evangelism is a daily part of my life,” Kaiser said, “and the best thing about it is my boss won’t fire me for doing it!”
Go Ye Into all the World
Street preaching is not an art that comes naturally. Ray Comfort offers a four-day training program, the Ambassador’s Academy. For three hundred dollars, a participant will receive instructions on successful street preaching including how to listen for questions you can answer, how to transition conversations when you are challenged, how to use hecklers to draw a crowd, how to distribute tracts creatively, and more. Kaiser recently attended an academy and invited me to join on the fourth day, a full day of street evangelism with Ray Comfort at Huntington Beach Pier in Huntington Beach, California.
There were fifty-nine street preachers from all over the country scattered about Huntington Beach by the time I arrived. At the tip of the pier, the street preachers gathered a crowd by offering money for trivia question answers. This is apparently a common method used. When a large enough crowd had formed, Comfort, in his New Zealand accent, took the stand and asked the crowd for an evolutionist to give him some evidence. A tall, skinny young man named James took the challenge and stood on the stool across from Comfort.
“I don’t believe in evolution,” Comfort shouted. “Convert me!”
“If you look at a monkey,” James said, “and then you look at – well – you, for example, you can see the resemblance.”
“I’m offended!” Comfort yelled. “You’ve insulted monkeys!”
The crowd was laughing. And even when Comfort was preaching the Gospel, it felt more like watching a comedy routine than watching a street preacher.
Comfort comes out to the Huntington Beach Pier nearly every Saturday to preach.
“It’s challenging, it’s fun, and memorable.” Comfort told me after he finished preaching. “I’ve preached in million dollar churches, and I’d rather be here,” he said. “At the churches, I’m preaching to the choir.”
Comfort, like Kaiser, feels street preaching was his calling. He recalls sitting on a bus one day, wishing he could share his faith with everyone. Two weeks later, he said, open-air preaching became legal.
Though members of his ministry and the Ambassador’s Alliance heavily admire him, he will always be the Banana Guy to atheists.
“I do regret that,” Comfort said. “I haven’t got a comeback. People come up and say ‘Hey, you’re the banana guy!’ and I say ‘Yep.’ It could be worse though.” Comfort added. “Bananas are pleasant. At least I’m not the skunk man.”
The Truth Sounds Like Hate to Those Who Hate the Truth
The crowd at Old Town Sacramento was a lot less friendly than in Huntington Beach. While marching towards the crowds, a group of teenagers threw Kaiser’s religious tracts on the ground and called him wrong.
“That’s intolerant!” Kaiser yelled back. “That’s hate!”
One of the preachers, Ron Smith, defended aggressive preaching equating it to unconditional love. It is the same as calling out to a blind man walking towards a one-hundred foot drop, Smith told me.
“We’re not getting paid for this,” he said. “We get mocked. We get ridiculed.”
At one point, a fight nearly broke out between Kaiser and a drunken man on a bike. Kaiser kept preaching while the drunken man’s girlfriend begged Paul to stop antagonizing him. The man eventually got back on his bike and rode away, cursing loudly as he left.
Yet they continue to share the Gospel with how ever many people they can get to listen. According to Paul, they like Old Town Sacramento because of the amount of and the mixture of people. Kaiser loves coming to college campuses because students are more learned and ask challenging questions.
The preachers prefer anger to apathy. Passion, in any form, is better than apathy.
Nick Liuzzi works in a shop close to where the street preachers usually meet. He sees them often. He told me he used to heckle them out of anger of religion before he realized he was helping the preachers draw a larger crowd. Luizzi still comes out and watches them preach when he can, but he avoids heckling.
Kaiser told me the majority of the people who get really angry are Church goers who consider themselves Christians. Some Christians feel Kaiser is misinterpreting the Bible and spreading a message of hate. Others agree with the message he is delivering, but claim the method of delivery turns more people away from God than towards Him. According to Paul, he cannot turn anyone towards or away from God.
“Our words without the moving of the Holy Spirit would be empty,” Kaiser said. “We want to glorify God and bring the knowledge of sin by using the ten commandments. We are to be faithful witnesses, and God does the converting.”
The first time I saw Paul Kaiser preach, I saw a crazy, hateful man. Now when I see Kaiser preach, I see a mother scolding her children. The message Kaiser delivers is not a message of hate. It’s tough love.
After the teenager with the torn jeans and studded jacket finished throwing his tantrum, he sat down and quietly listened to Kaiser preach the Gospel.