In Defense of Street Preachers

The ungrateful child gets sent to bed without dinner, after all, and our Father in Heaven is, in some ways, much like our fathers here on earth. But it does not serve us well to forget that both will forgive us and welcome us back to the table with open arms if we’d only repent of pulling our little sister’s hair or defying our mother.

On more than a few occasions during my time here as a Wolverine, I’ve found myself traipsing through the Diag, more often than not on my way to class, but sometimes just meandering about, enjoying the outdoors, the scenery, the people. And on a few occasions, there has been a preacher, a sidewalk religious man or woman (sometimes with a small child) holding up colorful signs.

These signs inform me that I am damned unless I repent. Repent of what? A whole list: fornication, drunkenness, licentiousness, gluttony, thievery, and the list of sins goes on, seemingly endlessly. The question then confronts me, whether I want it to or not: What haven’t I done wrong? In what ways am I not inadequate?

Even though these people verbally accost me with the God of Jonathan Edwards—an angry, fire and brimstone chap—they are quick to pair that, ahem, uplifting injunction with a JESUS SAVES message. And right they should, because He does.

The passers-by are always more interesting to me than the preachers themselves, however. They heckle and snap pictures and capture video and generally act as boors to these people who are doing nothing more than simply informing these students of The University of Michigan—the Harvard of the Midwest, mind you—that perhaps they don’t have it all figured and that there is something more that they ought to recognize and then follow, something—a Someone, actually—to which they ought to devote their whole life.

We should be thanking these men and women who endure our glares, our scorn, our (silent) judgment, and our not-so-silent judgment—our embarrassment for them (Do you hear what he’s saying, really?)—because they rip us from our carefully crafted facades. They rudely intrude on our delicately assembled fantasy—that yes, the universe is massive and so why would a deity really care what you do with your genitals or about what you think of that insufferable loudmouth in your Thursday afternoon lit theory discussion?—and remind us that what we do and say and think and believe matter, for goodness’ sake.

In a world where there is always—always!—something to distract us from our own impending death, they remind us that there is life after death, but that it matters how you live now, that one must live a life worthy of life eternal. The ungrateful child gets sent to bed without dinner, after all, and our Father in Heaven is, in some ways, much like our fathers here on earth.

But it does not serve us well to forget that both will forgive us and welcome us back to the table with open arms if we’d only repent of pulling our little sister’s hair or defying our mother.

These individuals function as stand-ins for God. In a world that has forgotten what it means to truly love, that is, to sacrifice, even to die, for another, they present a vision of a way to love more deeply than modern Man will ever care to admit is possible, or (if it were possible) even desirable. They brave the cold and the sideways looks because they have a found a Lover worth their entire existence: everything they were, are, and could be.

In a world which proffers a certain anthropological vision of Man, namely, that he is the type of creature possessed of a radical autonomy, one that brooks no imposition on his absolute freedom to do whatever he pleases and therefore privileges selfish experiences over somewhat intangible (though nonetheless real) obligations to those in our lives—these people demonstrate that a faithfulness to those who have gone before us is as real an obligation as what modern Man believes to be potentially his only real obligations: his own self-actualization and contentment.

Even though these people verbally accost me with the God of Jonathan Edwards—an angry, fire and brimstone chap—they are quick to pair that, ahem, uplifting injunction with a JESUS SAVES message. And right they should, because He does.

The street preacher, in his or her functionary role as messenger of God, is intrusive. A bother. A drag. What they present to me is messy and challenging, even if so only because it angers me. They irritate me. And this is as it should be. For God often behaves quite rudely. He bursts into our lives when we don’t feel He belongs. He refuses to be tamed, shunted into a corner or stowed away in  box. He stubbornly refuses to disappear from people’s imaginations or from civilization no matter how sex positive a society we create and certainly despite any new discoveries about quantum theory we make. For some, He presents Himself to them in their darkest moments, when they’d much prefer to be left alone in their misery. For others, He waits patiently until they discover Him as the answer to everything.

These preachers serve to prod my conscience (dormant though it might be), calling me again to recognize a timeless truth: that I am weak—a broken, sinful human being in need of a Savior who can understand me even when I am too afraid to confront myself because of what I might find. A God who will be the answer to questions I didn’t even know I wanted to ask. A Lover who will love me when I can’t love myself.

In this snowy, frigid, enchanted time of year, we hope with a hope uncommon to other seasons. We wait, expectant for something we dare not name. It is in this season that we confront the truth: that the Ineffable Encounter broke into our world, a mere baby, born of a virgin. If that is true, then why is it impossible to believe that God is speaking to us even now, calling out to us, inviting us to share in His life through these nutjobs on State Street, near Mason, or on the way to the Big House on a Saturday afternoon?

Why do we pretend that God is not real? And that if he is, that He doesn’t care about us? Why do we fool ourselves into believing that the cavernous longing we experience, bordering on unbearable, that our intense yearning for perfect truth, goodness, and beauty are mere quirks in our psychological make-up, rather than “signposts” pointing us to the Divine?

Let us recall the street preacher, the individual who reminds us, even when we don’t wish to hear it, that our world is more enchanted than we recognize, that things are not as bad as they might seem, and that there exists more Love than we can possibly imagine.

Merry Christmas!

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About Deion Kathawa

Deion Kathawa studies philosophy and political science at the University of Michigan. He enjoys ice skating and binge watching Netflix (who doesn't, though?) in his spare time. He can be reached via email at kathawad@umich.edu. Deion tweets @DeionKathawa and invites you to friend him on Facebook.