Shawn Wallace walked along Harden Street in Columbia’s Five Points on a Saturday night. A rowdy group of costumed college girls had just giggled their way into a sorority party at one of the bars.
A few yards ahead, Wallace spotted a man standing near the street corner, just outside the Men’s Warehouse store.
Wallace walked to him, stopped, looked him in the face, stuck out his hand to shake. “You look like a man of wisdom,” Wallace said. “Tell me something good.”
Wallace sleeps in a park and hadn’t eaten in almost two days. He had planned to ask the man for money to get something to eat. But he sensed the man had something more to offer him.
“He looked like an angel,” Wallace said later.
The man started talking about Jesus, his death and resurrection and saving grace.
Wallace said he has fallen. The man told him to get back up.
“When you’re hungry and you hear the word of God, it fills your spirit, not your stomach,” Wallace said. “I needed to have something good to keep me from falling farther. Him giving me the word of God gave me hope just now that I can make it.”
When you’re hungry and you hear the word of God, it fills your spirit, not your stomach.
Wallace’s angel was soon joined by a dozen other men dressed in suits and carrying Bibles.
They took up their corner spot, the one they command most Saturday nights in Columbia’s downtown district notorious for college students’ late-night revelry.
For more than 20 years, the street preachers from Gethsemane Baptist Church in Lexington have peddled religion in the place where many go to lose theirs.
Offering pocket-sized Gospel pamphlets, they try to strike up conversations with passersby.
One at a time, they step up to the street corner and raise their voices and their Bibles above their heads, proselytizing about sin and condemnation and redemption.
They don’t come only to share the Gospel and plead for sinners’ repentance.
They’re also making a point about religious liberty. They believe they have to use or lose their right to stand on street corners and preach about Jesus.
“You don’t back off a principle when it’s right,” said Stephen Williamson, Gethsemane’s 45-year-old pastor. “I never want to choose a path of ease over true conviction or principle.”
There was a time when Williamson and others were arrested for doing what he does nearly every weekend now.
The pastor keeps a photograph tucked in his Bible showing him handcuffed as a teenager, one of the 17 times he was arrested. It’s a reminder “that I’d do it over and over again,” he said.
I never want to choose a path of ease over true conviction or principle.
Stephen Williamson, Gethsemane Baptist pastor
The church fought and won its battle for free speech and religious liberty in federal court more than two decades ago, Williamson said, and they’ve been left alone since.
Many people ignore the street preachers. A few dodge them purposely. Some smile politely or cut suspicious eyes toward them. Some take their tracts and keep moving. A few stop and listen or talk.
Out with a bachelorette party, 24-year-old Victoria Chandler and an ensemble of young women huddled at a crosswalk near a man shouting that Jesus loves them. They took the pamphlets but were eager to move on.
“I don’t see how people would react positively to that,” Chandler said. “There’s always a sense of resistance toward people who are yelling their beliefs at someone, because it’s definitely not something you receive with grace.”
“I don’t think that’s the best way to preach the gospel,” echoed Ryan, a young man who declined to share his last name because he didn’t want to seem overly critical of the men. He attended a cocktail party in Five Points the same night Chandler and her friends encountered the street preachers.
As a Christian himself, Ryan said, he believes building relationships with people first is a better way to go about ministry. Shouting on the streets “doesn’t give people a positive impression of Christianity at all.”
But what some people see as abrasive, the preachers see as dutiful and courageous.
“I know it’s kind of bold, but you’ve got to be bold as a Christian,” said Jimmy Marsh, the man who yelled to Chandler and her friends about Jesus’ love.
That nightlife, that pleasure, you ain’t going to find nothing in it. I don’t want people to make the same mistakes I made.
For years, Marsh said, he sought alcohol and drugs as an escape from a painful life. For the first time recently, the 30-year-old stood on the familiar streets of Five Points preaching the Gospel and his own story of redemption.
“You ain’t gonna find your answer in a bottle. … It took everything I have,” he shouted from the sidewalk corner, the words rising from him with passion that bordered on anger. “You got somebody that cares about you: Jesus Christ.”
His message came from a heart that doesn’t want to see other lives end up where his has been.
Marsh’s change started with a pamphlet similar to the ones his Five Points troop disburses each weekend. That lead him to Gethsemane Baptist.
From there, the word of God did all the work, he said.
“Thanks to the good grace of God, I’m standing out here on a corner telling somebody about Jesus,” Marsh said. “That nightlife, that pleasure, you ain’t going to find nothing in it. I don’t want people to make the same mistakes I made.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307