Preaching in Times Square

[World, October 1, 1994]

Sexist treatment is blatant on Broadway. Street hawkers hand women, not men, fliers advertising nail salons (with puzzling semi-English names like “Tanning Nail”). Men, on the other hand, get fliers advertising the “World’s Hottest Dancers.” The latter fliers suggest that a woman who hopes to attract men by investing in her fingernails has chosen one of the least likely sites of interest.

At the corner of 42nd street a slight, city-pale man is handing out pamphlets freely, without regard to gender. I hear the tinny blare of an amplified voice and see, nearby, a black man preaching into a hand-held microphone. A worn folding table has been set up under the canopy of the defunct National Hotel, and covered with neat bundles of Gospel tracts and large posters of aborted babies.

I hurry past, embarassed; it isn’t that long since I left off being Episcopalian, which has been described as “so nice it’s almost as good as no religion at all”. But a few blocks later I turn back. A woman with a kind face is sitting behind the table; a few freckles dot her smooth cafe-au-lait complexion. As I thank her for her witness, she stands and smooths her cotton sweater and flowered skirt, breaking into an easy smile.

“I was raised Episcopalian,” Brenda Milliner says, “and I came to New York 19 years ago to be an actress.” After graduating magna cum laude she worked for ITT and the government, but lost her job when Gov. Cuomo was elected, 12 years ago. It was God’s timing.

“You know that Andrae Crouch song, ‘Tell them, even if they don’t believe…’ God was using it on me; I would take the needle off the record so I didn’t have to hear it! Then one day I was reading a tract that showed angels throwing people into the Lake of Fire. I thought, ‘My sister is going there! and everybody else who doesn’t know Jesus!’

”First I preached on my lunch hour, and when I was laid off I started doing it full-time.“ For twelve years she has been here every weekday from noon to 6:00, snow, heat, or scarey encounters. ”I’ve had my microphone smashed, the cord cut, the amplifier kicked in twice, and I’ve been hit a few times.“ The last weeks were the worst, during the Gay Pride festivities; hostile homosexuals screamed at them (explaining, ”You’re hating us!“) and flipped over their table. But Brenda is prepared for anything, and pulls out a battered portfolio of tracts in German, French, Spanish, and Italian but also Hausa, Romanian, Vietnamese, Telugu, Urdu, and ”something that begins with an S.“ The last one, which bears an image of the Good Shepherd reaching for a sheep, is festooned with loopy letters that baffle her; she gives it to me saying, ”If you find out what this one is, let me know.“

I ask about finances. ”I live by faith,“ she says. ”One time at the beginning my unemployment was exhausted, I had no savings, and my faith was low. A friend told me, ‘You know what your problem is—you’re doubting God.’ We prayed and I asked God to forgive me for not trusting; he did too (he was homeless at the time). And do you know,“ she says, ”Not five minutes later God let our eyes fall on a $20 bill. We went straight in a deli and bought a sandwich, and then he bought me an ice cream cone.“

The contrast pinches me a bit. I am in New York in my role as a public speaker, my fourth engagement this month. I stay in a luxurious hotel, am well-fed and flattered, and pick up a check at the end. Brenda, with her engaging manner and buttery voice, has honed her public-speaking skills on the gritty sidewalk, endangered, insulted, grateful for an ice cream cone. Just to make it worse, Brenda remembers seeing my face on the cover of a magazine; the issue is produced for me to autograph.

As the man with the microphone turns it over to a newcomer, Brenda brings me over to meet her husband, Solomon. He has been preaching for five years, and they were married last October. (”I think he fell in love with me,“ she confides, ”one day when he saw me preaching all by myself; it was so cold and I was just bundled up from head to toe.“)

I had always pictured street preachers as intense and hostile, like the Flannery O’Connor character who pulled into town ”shouting before he had the car door open,“ but Solomon shares his wife’s easygoing good humor. He tells with self-deprecating humor how he was riding the subway one day and heard a voice in his spirit commanding him to get up and preach. ”’Lord, you want me to do that? Look at all these people!’“ he’d protested, and stayed in his seat. ”It seemed like the Lord was whipping me all day after that,“ he grinned.

The next day he managed to stand up, a bit wobbly, and begin. ”I started, ‘The Lord Jesus…’“ he says, ”and my voice was so light and shakey. But as I walked into the next car my voice gained strength. By the time I got to my stop it was so strong, like the Lord was using my body.“

Solomon tells a story that still delights him: ”One really cold day I handed a tract to a junkie sitting hunched over on the sidewalk; I said, ‘Jesus Christ loves you, he died for your sins, but you must be born again.’ As I walked on he followed me—all bent and hunched over, and grabbed at my hand. He was whispering, and I bent down to listen; he said, ‘I’m a backslider.’ We prayed the sinner’s prayer and I told him, ‘Now, you have to mean business this time.’ He was crying and praying from his heart. Then suddenly he started to straighten up! He stood straight up and started jumping up and down, rejoicing, shouting, ‘I feel good!’“ Solomon laughs at the memory. ”It was a miracle before my very eyes.“

I meet others who’ve dropped in to assist the ministry. Joey, who I first saw handing out tracts, was an alcoholic, drug addict and dealer: ”When I started preaching I was having the shakes, but I’m okay now. I’ve been beaten up, hit, knocked down, kicked in the back and face. All of us have been hit.“ Dorian is a handsome young white man in clean-cut, preppy duds; before, he was a TV psychic with a phone-in show. ”I was just supposed to keep them on the line as long as possible, making stuff up. But when I started reading the Bible, I started telling them what it said. My ratings dropped so low! I got fired, and that gave me a chance to get saved.“

Another member of this loose band, Yolanda, comes up deep in conversation with a pint-sized Hispanic woman wearing enormous earrings; she is trying to lead her out of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yolanda is a statuesque black with ropes of glossy braids; she dropped out of law school when the administration wouldn’t allow her to do her field work with a pro-life organization. Brother Clifton, who is working the microphone energetically as I prepare to leave, is a spiffy-looking black with scultped grey hair and beard, dressed in natty attire, multicolor suede shoes and a thin black tie.

A late-afternoon storm is sweeping in and the sky turns yellow and gray. Light shifts abruptly, glinting the glass buildings onyx and silver. A hundred pigeons release from their ledges and sweep around and around frantically, filling the canyon between the tall buildings, seeking an escape.

Yolanda and Joey begin to cover the table with a plastic tarp, clipping it to the chrome legs. Brenda offers to walk me back to my hotel, sharing her umbrella. We pass a billboard three stories high, a man naked but for his jockey shorts, head tipped back and eyes blissfully closed. I imagine it was popular during the Gay Games. ”Calvin Klein’s going to have to answer to God,“ Brenda observes.

As we walk back in the pounding rain, she talks about her work. ”Some people think we preach too hard, but look what soft preaching has done for America. We know we’re living in the last days; we shouldn’t fold our hands and sit in the pews. There should be an urgency within every Christian breast—souls are dying and going to hell! If we really loved our enemies, we’d be zealous.“

We say goodbye at the hotel, and soon after I slip inside I am seated at the head table, waiting to be introduced after the cheesecake. I tell this pro-life Christian group that they should give their lives to Jesus Christ and be active in the pro-life movement. I am interupted a couple of times by applause, and see women dabbing at teary eyes. At the end I am buoyed by a lingering ovation, then crowded by grateful well-wishers.

Five blocks away, Brenda peels the plastic back from the table and straightens the tracts. She takes the microphone once more and prepares to speak.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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