Front Page - "The Commercial Appeal"
Memphis, Tennessee, Saturday, May 8, 1999


Evangelism gives festival revelers case of the blues

By Tom Bailey Jr.   The Commercial Appeal

A national street-preachers' convention has drawn about 100 of the hardest-core Christian evangelists to Memphis this weekend and, through no coincidence, to the Beale Street Music Festival. After a morning of workshops on such topics as "Effective Sermon Preparation For The Street," "How To Give Out Tracts Effectively," and "Using Scripture Signs and Bumper Stickers in Publick (sic) Ministry," the uninhibited evangelists mounted a shock-troop attack on Beale's mid-afternoon crowd Friday.

The mellow throng of sun-drenched funseekers was enjoying its head start on the music festival that would begin in a few hours. Many sipped large cups of beer and wore skin-tight or scant clothing, common issue for warm-weather outdoor festivals.Memphis in May

Blues from a Handy Park band lapped in waves down the street.But joltingly, at 2:53, dozens of street preachers invaded the scene. The disruption lived up to their weekend convention's name, Beale Street Blast.

The preachers demanded attention, and used a variety of ways to get it.

"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son ..." boomed Bill West, 49, a welder from Valparaiso, Ind.. as he marched from Second to Third.

Doug Coates, a 41-year-old firefighter from Broken Arrow, Okla., shouted scripture down the hill from Second and Beale. He held his closed Bible to one side of his mouth to get the most megaphone effect he could engineer.
Another played the bagpipes.

About a dozen toted large banners painted with such scenes as a bloodied Christ or a sinner with a pained face.

Many others, including wives and children, handed out pamphlets warning sinners about hell and how to make it to heaven.

A few minutes after the evangelists' stunning entrance, some of the Beale crowd moved to regain the street.

A young Little Rock couple stepped onto the brick pavers near where Coates was shouting. Latham Vaughn and Alicia Kay embraced and kissed.

"Freedom of speech is acceptable, but pushing it? It's not," Vaughn, 24, said later. "We came down here for a good time." .

"We're just wanting to be out enjoying ourselves and don't want a bunch of people yakking at you as you walk down the street," Kay, 19, said.

A few minutes later Coates screamed his message at the other end of the block. A stern-faced Bud Parrish, 30, of Bentonville, Ark., sat listening with friends on a concrete wall in front of Silky O'Sullivan's bar.

Parrish could take it no more. "Hey!" he yelled at Coates. "Whooooooo! Go get out of here, dad gum!"

Afterward, Parrish told The Commercial Appeal, "I'm not an atheist by no means. But we're here drinking and partying. We didn't come here to be preached to. I believe there's a time and a place for everything."

The intimidating street preaching moved Carl Morin to tears; the angry kind. His eyes welled up as he complained about the in-your-face preaching to another evangelist who offered Morin a pamphlet.

"I just buried my daughter this morning," said Morin, still dressed in his funeral pants, shirt and shoes.

His 6-day-old Linzey Mae Morin died after a premature birth. Morin, 34, of Memphis said he was on Beale having a wake.

"I explained to him I don't need somebody screaming and hollering right now telling me I'm fixing to go to hell because I'm drinking."

For their part the evangelists said they realize their style upsets many people, but they believe they're working to save people from an eternity in hell.

"I understand when I go down there I'm not going to be popular," said Galen Hall, 46, a Union City pastor. "You have to have the skin of a rhinoceros." Ken Lansing, a Memphis certified public accountant, organized the Beale Street Blast. Lansing has preached on the street for years.

The conference is being held at a retreat center near Northaven.

The event provides both a spiritual rally for the preachers and a way to exchange ideas. Other workshops include street preachers' free-speech rights and how best to street preach in a small town.