"Excuse me, ma'am," I say to a middle-aged woman, a tourist probably, who's stopped beneath the massive NBC screen on the 43rd Street traffic island to mop her brow and remove her sweater. "If you think you're warm today, imagine how hot you'll feel when you're burning in hell!"
"What?" the woman says, looking up to see me clasping a large red Bible.
I offer her a pamphlet. "Here, maybe this will help you understand the dire condition of your soul."
She glances at the tract briefly. "You've got to be kidding."
"No, ma'am," I reply. "Hell is no joke."
"Obnoxious," she mutters, and turns to walk away.
Of course, the woman is right. Telling someone they are doomed to spend eternity choking on sulfur fumes and bobbing like a cork in the lake of fire is obnoxious. I've often had spiritual counsel screamed at me, and I sympathize with her completely.
Yes, reader, I was a street preacher. Well, for a day. Actually, I was a street preacher for three days, but I struggled with my nerve the first two. I mostly hung out at the WWF's new theme restaurant and bar on Broadway, watching taped wrestling matches and trying to assure myself that in a world full of idiotic stunts, fake preaching is pretty harmless.
My experiment was intended to answer one question: Why would anybody want to be a street preacher? It's a very unpleasant job. The pay is lousy, the work potentially hazardous. Even dentists are better liked. I figured the act of street preaching must be fulfilling in itself. And there was one way to find out.
Where to preach was obvious. Times Square is a street preacher's paradise. Prophets and evangelists flock to the Crossroads of the World for the same reason corporate advertisers have claimed every inch of billboard space--it's all about eyeballs. At any one time, more people from more nations are milling around than at any other spot on the planet.
A successful street preacher needs to have an eye-catching handout. One guy quietly distributed a simple red and white religious tract. After five minutes he had given away two, one to me, the other to a homeless lady. Now, the guy handing out cards for Legz Diamond's (also red and white) had more success, maybe one taker for every 15 refusals, and he said far less to passersby. Of course, his handout depicted a woman's long bare legs on one side and had the words "XXX All Nude Super Stars" inscribed on the other.
Nonetheless, their message is a little hard to follow. Basically, white people are evil, and only blacks are the true descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel. But no matter: The look in one little old lady's eyes told me the Black Israelites had positively put the fear of God into her.
The next time out, I assembled my other props: a black folder in which to carry my tracts, and the Good Word--my big, red New Oxford Annotated Bible with The Apocrypha. I wished I had something less elitist, leatherbound, and well thumbed. But it was the expanded scholar's edition, edited by Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger. I thought it might give me extra authority if somebody knowledgeable started asking me questions and I got into a pinch.
The courage to preach came haltingly. Last year, I tried stand-up comedy on a lark, and I found telling jokes onstage for five minutes oddly less daunting than this. At least at The New York Comedy Club, I was confident my routine wasn't too offensive, and I knew I had planted a friend in the audience who would laugh. In Times Square, I had no assurances.
I started asking, "Excuse me, do you know the Truth?" I fared no better. So I tried, "Hey, you're going to hell!" as I whipped out a tract. This got more of a reaction, mostly annoyed and alarmed looks.
Then one guy told me to "go f---" myself. For some reason, he boosted my confidence. There wasn't much worse anyone could say, I realized. Or maybe I'd been out there long enough to be sure I wasn't going to get beat up. I developed a bounce in my step and felt almost giddy as I boldly told people they're damned. I was experiencing a "street preacher's high," if you will--the freedom that comes with defying humiliation. Beyond that wall, there's the rush that self-righteousness gives.
Now, sickly, I selected my targets: I avoided anyone who exuded attitude or moved with purpose, preying instead on people who looked lost. A well-dressed businessman stepped out of the lunch-hour stampede along Broadway to make a cell-phone call. Before he finished dialing, he snapped the phone shut, sighed, and gazed skyward, a mixture of fatigue and frustration written across his face.
"Excuse me, sir," I said. "Did you know you're going to hell?"
He looked at me. "What?"
"According to Scripture," I said, hoisting my Oxford Annotated, "it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." I paused, unable to read his expression. Uncertain, I added, "I'd say you look well off."
"Go to hell," he said, and walked away.
"Good for you, sir!" I shouted after him, and somewhere deep inside, I meant it.