It’s been three years since I worked in downtown Phoenix. I work out of my home now, and while my wife and I are urban dwellers of sorts (we live about eight miles north of downtown), I don’t see the wide variety of people I used to run across. I miss that. I felt it kept me grounded and a little more human to see the whole range of humanity downtown, from those dressed to the nines to those who didn’t have nine cents to their names.
One of the most intriguing characters was the street preacher at Central and Adams. I knew him only as Robert.
Robert showed up out of nowhere one day, holding a Bible and bellowing out a combination of Gospel and damnation in English coated with a Spanish accent. After about a year, he expanded his repertoire, using a battery-powered organ to accompany himself while he sang hymns or raled on about people making lots of money but not taking care of their souls.
Two things impressed me about him:
- He never missed a day. For Robert, this was a job, and he kept regular hours. He was usually gone by 2 or 3 p.m., but he held forth from my morning run to Starbucks through lunch hour and beyond.
- I never saw him ask for money. There was never a cup or a box nearby. I couldn’t figure out how Robert paid his bills, but he kept body and soul together somehow. (The video above seems to shed a little light on this. He might have received some support from Church on the Street, an impressive ministry I had not known about until finding this video today.)
The truth is, I’m more buttoned-down than Robert in my theology, and more liberal in some ways. I tend to favor liturgies and sacraments, and my taste runs to pipe organs, not electric, at least for worship. I’m not a fan of Robert’s fire-and-brimstone style of preaching; I prefer something more studied and nuanced.
I normally wouldn’t give a street preacher a second look; in fact, I’d normally try to get to the other side of the street to avoid an encounter. But I had a grudging respect for Robert. He obviously had a passion for what he was doing. I’m sure he felt called to do it.
For months, I walked past Robert as he worked. We often made eye contact but never spoke. I noticed that on occasion, he’d take a coffee break at Starbucks. (Don’t be too judgmental here. There are some relatively inexpensive drinks at Starbucks if you look closely.) So the first Christmas I knew him – Christmas 2004 – I bought him a Starbucks gift card. I think it was a $20 card, but I can’t swear to that.
I walked out of Starbucks, crossed the street, waited for a break in his diatribe, and then wished him a merry Christmas and gave him the card.
“Thank you, brother, and bless you,” he said. We didn’t dawdle. I went back to my job, and he went back to his.
Whenever I passed him after that, he never stopped preaching, but he pointed at me, smiled and waved. A few months later, I had an early morning meeting about five blocks away, and as I was coming out, there was Robert, walking to Central and Adams to start his day.
We walked together for a while. He told me he used to be a security guard but didn’t do that anymore. He revealed that he was a big fan of George W. Bush because Bush followed the will of God and looked to God to be his guide. As for me, well, let’s just say I wasn’t such a big fan. But this wasn’t a day to pick a political fight with Robert. I just let him talk, which he had no trouble doing. After a few blocks, our paths diverged, and we never visited that long again. It wasn’t too much later that I parted ways with the company I was working for, and that was the end of my contact with Robert.
A friend who also talked to Robert told me some time later that someone had strung Robert along, letting him believe there was a chance that Robert’s preaching could move to TV. Robert held out hope for a while that he’d be playing on a bigger stage, but he eventually figured out that he was being played for sport.
The last time I was downtown, about four months ago, Robert was still at his post. He’s faithful to his calling. He makes me think about whether I have the same dedication to mine.
(A tip of the hat, by the way, to Cheecho9885, who produced the video about Robert.)
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