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"Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men." Acts 5:29
"Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well." 1 Peter 2:13-14
There must be some way to reconcile the seemingly contradictory verses given above. And, yea, there is. When man's laws cross God's laws, God's laws are higher. At the top of the chain of command is the Lord just like you have a lower and higher court system in America.
Now, at the very start of this chapter, I want to lay out some guidelines for street preaching that will help keep you out of jail. This chapter is written with this intent. Any idiot can go to jail; any drunk can be belligerent and obnoxious enough to go to jail. The Lord did not call me to defend the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution; He called me to preach the gospel. However, I am a man and I am an American, and I do have some rights and liberties which I intend to exercise for the glory of my Saviour.
1. Stay away from private property. I know some have fought and bled for the right to preach in privately-owned malls, etc., but I am telling you how to preach and stay out of jail.
2. Do not use a public address system. There may be a very few exceptions to this, but make sure you know what you're doing. If you preach correctly, there really is no need. Besides, no preacher before 1920 had this luxury.
3. Avoid preaching at night. Again, there may be exceptions, and I have violated this rule several times in order to accomplish a particular goal, but remember I am trying to tell you how to stay out of jail.
Now, if you observe these rules and preach in broad daylight, with no P.A. system, standing on public property, you have the lowest risk of going to jail or even of having an encounter with the police.
This last charge was made against a crippled, preacher-friend of mine who was preaching on the street.
It is impossible for me to list all the local city ordinances for every town. Circumstances vary from town to town. Ordinances in one town may not apply to preaching in the next town.
My advice to novice street preachers, or pastors who have the time to check out their local laws, is to go to the police station and describe to them what you are about to do. Give them location, time of day, and a full description of activities. If they give you liberty, then write down the officers' names, ranks, and serial numbers, and have that on you when you go to preach. Then, if you are stopped by an officer, kindly say that he may want to check with his superiors. At that time, supply him with a copy of their names, ranks, and badge numbers.
In the case of the police not giving you liberty, ask specifically what law you would violate. Then, if you can make some alteration to your activities which would bring you back within the limits of the law, take care of the matter. If the law seems, after consideration and prayer, to be unfair, obtain a copy of that law or ordinance and read it carefully. You may have to test the law by getting arrested and letting the judge decide. If it comes to this point, keep in mind that it is only a misdemeanor and is usually thrown out of court. Also, if you anticipate an encounter with police, be sure to have I.D. on you, and it is a good idea to have enough cash to bail yourself out.
Police encounters are eventually inevitable if you are going to have a public ministry. If you are going to preach in a certain town many times during a long period of time, then follow the instructions under the section entitled "City Ordinances." Whenever you have the time to check out the local laws do it. I preach in so many towns that such a task is impossible.
When we preach, we observe the first three rules, and limit our time in one place to thirty to forty minutes. Usually this is so perfectly timed, that we are packing up the accordion just as the police arrive to tell us we can't do that. We delight in these guerrilla warfare tactics, realizing that the gospel went forth and the people were warned. Sometimes we will have a confrontation with the police. Again, the one not preaching tries to run interference, and the preaching continues as long as possible. If the police officer demands that you stop preaching, then you stop.
The next two illustrations I'm about to use violate the third basic rule of street work: avoid preaching at night. The conflicts which arose only serve to prove the wisdom of observing the rule.
Albany, Georgia, fall of 1987, Banana's Bar on Slappy Drive, 9:30 p.m. Six of us (five preachers and one wife) preached to a parking lot full of cars, but no people. Ten minutes later there were thirty-five to forty folk who had come out to hear us. A black policewoman arrived very authoritatively wielding a flashlight. She started out of her car toward the one preaching when I headed her off. Following is our conversation:
Policewoman: "Are you in charge here?"
Myself: "Yes, Ma'am"
Policewoman: "Would you mind moving just a hundred yards down this way?"
Myself: "Well, Ma'am, there is no one down there, and there are people here. Are we not on public property? Is there really any legal reason why we cannot remain here?" (Remember, the preaching is still going on.)
Policewoman: "Well, these folks really don't want to hear what you have to say."
Myself: "Well, Ma'am, really, if you know where there is a group of people who want to hear what we have to say, I'll move the whole crew there."
Policewoman: "I see what you mean." (Then she was joined by a backup patrolman. A wimpy sort of fellow.)
Wimp Cop: "But these folks are drunk, and they might come out of the bar and start something."
Myself: "Sir, if that happens, you may rest assured that we did not start it and that it is not what we are trying to accomplish. Also, you may consider that they may come out of the bar and hear the gospel and get saved, and never go back in the bar."
Wimp Cop: "Yes, I never thought of that."
Policewoman: "Well, just how long do you plan to be preaching here?" (At this point I know I have won the liberty to continue and it really didn't matter what answer I gave. In order to save face, the policewoman had to have the last word.)
Myself: "We have already been here for quite a while, so we'll probably stay for about twenty minutes more."
Policewoman: "Well, if that's all you'll be here, then that's fine."
(The preaching never stopped.)
Jacksonville, Florida, October 1987, Fantasee World Topless Lounge, Cesary Boulevard, 8:30 p.m. My partner and I parked on the public street in front of the lounge just thirty feet from the front door. We didn't realize that this lounge had been the center of heated controversy for the past two weeks. The owner's interpretation of the law prohibiting toplessness was that it was inseparable with the alcohol license. He relinquished his license to allow toplessness and invited seventeen-year-olds in as well. The papers had kept it hot, and several groups had already protested and demonstrated against it. We had a 4x6 utility trailer with a steel top for a preaching platform, and it was richly and attractively lettered with a bold witness. When we parked, we looked at a parking lot full of cars and one bouncer at the outside of the door. We sat and discussed whether it would be beneficial to preach or not. We decided to pray about it.
When we finished praying, we opened our eyes and there at my partner's door stood four enormous bouncers. They asked if they could help us. We replied in the negative and asked if we could help them. To say we were intimidated would be a gross understatement. They asked what we planned to do, and we said, "We're going to preach." They said, "You can't preach here. This is private property." We said, "We're going to preach on our trailer from the street, and this is our private property." They said, "We can have you removed." We said, "You do what you have to, but we're going to preach." They left to call the police.
I looked at my partner and said, "Well, there's no more debating about it, we gotta preach now." He agreed and got out on top of the trailer. I almost wish I had gotten there first. I grabbed some tracts and stood on the curb. My partner began to preach, and within ten minutes, the lounge and the pits of hell both vomited their contents into the parking lot. The vilest, most demonic group of sinners I have ever faced stood before us mocking, jeering, gurgling, prancing, growling, and threatening to end our ministry with a martyr's crowning. A whore stood half clothed with sun glasses on at 8:30 p.m. and said in a valley girl accent, "You guys are ridiculous. You know that, don't ya?" Presently, a young male drove his car up and blocked the driveway between us and the front door. He opened all the doors and turned his stereo full volume with heavy metal rock. One of the huge bouncers was prancing about the trailer and us, growling and making other virtually inhuman noises. Then, he would stop and say, "You're going to jail. I hope you like jail. Maybe we'll come and see you down at the jail." Traffic had now slowed considerably on the four lane street we were parked on, and there was a general disturbance in the area. My partner never stopped preaching, and I, with clammy hands, was offering everyone a tract, with no success at all. This was one of the few times I have actually prayed for the police to come.
Then it got worse. The owner came out, cheered by the crowd, who expected him to be successful in scaring us off. He was a sight! He was about fifty-five, with long, bleach blond hair. He had a dame on each arm and, on a choker chain, a 175 pound Rottweiler looking for preacher meat. The owner told us that we were parked illegally and that we'd better leave before the police got there, or we would go to jail. I told him we'd wait and let the police decide. So, he decided to give us a stress test. He ordered his dog to attack my partner, who was still preaching on the trailer. The dog went wild trying to get on top of the trailer, and might have been successful but for the choker chain. My partner never flinched; he was full of the power of the Holy Spirit. The owner then commanded the dog to attack me on the ground. Oh, how I felt the call to preach. The dog was fourteen inches from my body and ferociously following the command of his master. Wishing I had on a Depend diaper, I offered everyone another round of tracts, but no takers not even Poochy.
The parking lot was now crowded, the lounge was probably suffering from lack of patronage, the traffic was at a crawl because of the riotous situation, and finally the police arrived. Oh, was I happy to see that policeman. He pulled right into the parking lot, and was immediately thronged by the lounge people, who were urging him to throw us in jail or make us quit. He hushed them quickly and gave sharp orders to get the music turned off, the car moved, and the dog out of the way. Then he just got in his car for a precious few moments while my partner continued to preach. He got out, straightened his uniform, walked slowly over to me, and said, "Is this your outfit?" I answered that it was. Then he said very slowly, even hesitantly as if to stall as long as possible, "You're parked in an emergency zone." I stalled, too, allowing maximum preaching of the gospel, then I replied, "My goodness, is that right? I saw no markings to indicate that. What about all these other cars parked along here?" He answered, stalling yet another sizable pause, "Well, I don't know who they belong to, but they'll have to move as well." I said, "Well, if we are really parked illegally, I guess we'll have to move then. Come on, Bear." Bear, my partner, got in the car and we drove off quickly to a rest room. The bottom line is that there were forty to fifty folk who heard the gospel and who knew that there had been a prophet among them (Ezek. 2:5).
O.K., suppose you've done everything you could do to avoid it, but they still arrest you. Now what? First of all, don't panic; it's only a misdemeanor, and most likely, if you handle it right, it will be thrown out of court at the arraignment. But, if you have the time, money, and inclination to fight for the open door to preach the gospel in that community, then I have listed some people to contact for help, advice, and information at the end of this section.
Please make sure, however, that you have been arrested for preaching on the street. Several years ago in Birmingham, Alabama, I was preaching with five other preachers. We had been standing on a cement newsstand on the corner. The police came right up to us and said, "You may preach on the sidewalk, but not on the newsstand. If you continue on the newsstand, I'll have to take you to the station." Three preachers got up on the stand in the presence of the officer and were arrested. As they gleefully rode away in the caged back seat of the police car, I thought to myself, "What a bunch of idiots." They were not arrested for preaching on the street; they were arrested for violating private property and disobeying a police officer.
Gibbs and Craze Law Firm
Cleveland, Ohio (216) 696-3900
Transcripts of interesting court cases involving street preaching may be obtained from:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
Oren G. Briggs
Court of Common Pleas
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