The Sacramento Bee - Sacramento, California 2/20/99
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Aloe juice. A seasoned street preacher never leaves home without it. After all, saving souls can be tough on the vocal chords.

Take it from Gerald Sutek, who preaches on curbsides coast to coast. Moments after winding down a high-decibel appeal to K Street passers-by on Friday, he pulled a bottle of the amber balm from a pants pocket and took a sip.

"The Bible says, ‘Lift up your voice like a trumpet,’ " Sutek says. "But it is extraordinarily taxing."

Wonder what’s the best way to hand someone a religious tract when proselytizing in public? (Approach from the side; never dead-on.) Having trouble being heard when the wind kicks up? (Project your voice away from the gusts.) Need to spiff up your sidewalk sermon? (Stick to a few memorized verses and focus on salvation.)

Then the 1999 National Street Preachers’ Convention, held at Marysville Bible Baptist Church through Sunday, could be for you. At lunchtime Friday, nearly 200 conventioneers, from as far away as Texas and Tennessee, came to put their lessons to use.

The horrors of hellfire echoed through the canyon of the K Street Mall as men fanned out in twos and threes to preach, each holding a Bible to his mouth as a makeshift megaphone.

"What the hell? Is this Judgment Day or something?" asked Ryan Kealy, 18, as he rounded the corner from 11th Street.

As the men got louder, wives and young children trailed behind, handing out leaflets. Sutek alternated between playing hymns on his accordion and urging passers-by toward Christian salvation.

"Heaven is better than the finest restaurant in Sacramento," he bellowed, moments before conventioneers moved to the Capitol steps for songs and prayer.

"And you just don’t walk into the finest restaurant in Sacramento and sit down," he said. "You must have a reservation."

Sutek, a 30 year veteran of street preaching, is the convention’s featured speaker. He has a Florida post office box, but spends most of his time crisscrossing the country in a motor home with wife and 5-year-old daughter.

In a vocation usually thought of as solitary, Sutek is creating a sense of community. This is the sixth national gathering organized by his group: S.W.A.T. Team for Christ International. He posts updates on the World Wide Web. Even his 27-page "Street Preacher’s Manual" is online, covering everything from sermon preparation - plan on a 60-second audience at most - to U.S. Supreme Court rulings on public speech.

Many of those who take part in street preaching don’t make a living at it. One participant in Sutek’s group is a postmaster from Arkansas. Another is a Sacramento salesman. The convention is a "boot camp" of sorts to hone their skills, said the Rev. Brad Weniger of Bible Baptist Church. It is not an easy calling, he says.

"I am, by nature, an introvert, so everything in me revolted against this," said Weniger, who got his start on the streets while attending Bible college in Wisconsin.

"Everyone of us explained the same opposition. Our flesh does not want to do it, but our commission is from our commander in chief,’ " he said.

A half-dozen times a month, Weniger organizes up to 30 of his church members to preach from Yuba City to Grass Valley and Auburn. The tradition of "open-air preaching", as it is called in some 19th-century writings, dates to the days of Jesus Christ. "Biblically, it’s everywhere," said Chuck Campbell, an associate professor of homiletics at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga.

Campbell studies public ministries, including the Vincentians, a Catholic group from the early 1900s that went on "motor missions" thoughout the Midwest in an attempt to create stronger ties with Protestants.

Historically, public efforts such as the Vincentians or the Salvation Army have allowed women to assume larger roles than in more structured church settings, Campbell explained.

That’s not the case with the group that converged on Sacramento on Friday. Most are Baptists. And most believe the Bible says women shouldn’t "usurp authority" from men. "What we do is stand on the sidelines, singing and encouraging our men," explained Deann Dearman of Marysville, who agrees with the scriptural interpretation.

Rejection is also a large part of the game. "We don’t take it personally," Dearman said. "You have to be bold to be out here."

One must also have to be able to project, said Chuck Zander of Union City, Tenn. When Pope John Paul II visited St. Louis last month, he went as well to hang out on the streets and preach. "You work at it - like an opera singer would," he said.

If so, it was not music to Jennifer Stanley, a state worker who passed several evangelists on her way back to the office Friday. "It was a bit of overkill," said Stanley, who attends St. Francis Catholic Church in midtown Sacramento. "I just wanted to get as far away from it as I could."

Weniger says he is compelled to utilize the unorthodox venue. "If I were walking down a street and a building were on fire, I would kick in the door, raise my voice, drag the people to safety," he said. "Lost souls are on their way to a real hell."