My friend Robert Goss-Kennedy, a Salem artist took the video. The young man in preaching is a local boy (Austin Coppock – turns out he was just hanging with locals for a couple weeks, and is from Dalton, Georgia – this is an update from my first posting), who I believe attends The True Gospel Baptist Church on Bridge Street pastored by Stephen Brock. I have had a few encounters with the young man. I cannot say that they were discussions. They were fairly monologic encounters, with little actual give and take.
The True Gospel Baptist Church calls itself a “fundamental Baptist church,” and appears to be a King James only type of church. I have spent quite a bit of time in Pastor Brock’s neck of the woods. He and his family sacrificed quite a bit to move to Salem, MA from Waynesville, NC. Waynesville is just up the hill in the Great Smokey Mountains above Asheville, which is a kind of second home to me. Pastor Brock moved here in 2010, and began his street preaching almost immediately. It seemed that before I could even blink, he and his little crew (which included his son, maybe 11 years old at the time) were calling our church a cult. Sometimes they would stand outside the church preaching and make those declarations to crowds passing by each Halloween. They used their bullhorns poorly, driving the tiny amplification systems too hard and getting an ear-splitting distortion with often threatening sounding declarations of Hell, and rather personally directed announcements of sin. People would get irritated, and often come to talk to me, knowing that this was not the way The Gathering behaved.
We already had a great deal of experience with street preachers from out of state by the time Pastor Brock arrived. Sometimes the local Witch Shops would call us, and ask for help with the street preachers, and some of our crew and associated friends of ours would don monk outfits and try to make peace in the almost violent situations. Each year, we would try to persuade the Bullhorn street preachers that there was a better way to share their faith, and we did this, because I made a promise to the city and the licensing board, when I moved to Salem in 1999, that we would do our best to de-escalate the crazy drama of nearly violent spiritual combat found on Salem’s streets each October. Consequently, we are the little Christian Church, which is always caught in the middle between the Christian Fundy Street Preachers and the rest of the city, and unfortunately, for the sake of being “peacemakers” we have to agree with the people in our little city who find much (but certainly not all) the street preaching obnoxious and rude. It is not easy to be a peacemaker, but according to Jesus, the peacemakers are blessed and are described as “the children of God.” So, we didn’t have much of an option but to stand in the middle of the fray.
Getting back to the video: It is hard not to see the video as funny. On the other hand, it is hard not to see the video as sad. I feel bad for the young man preaching, and somewhat so for the little girl yelling. They are both locals I believe, and will see each other downtown over the coming years.
Some of you reading this, probably side with the little girl, and consider her a type of hero. I’m not sure that I would have been that encouraging to my son at that age, when we came across Hell-fire and Brimstone preachers, and he and I were on the streets talking to people (sometimes crowds of Mormons) when he was young, and we met the unrelenting, obnoxious preachers back in the early 90s. I don’t think learning to berate people is ever a positive social skill, and in this case it is a bit like fighting fire with fire – it was an exchange of one young street preacher for another. But, this time the girl was the winner – if winner is the right word for it, and in some small way, she resembles our city itself: frustrated with the invasion of judgmental invaders, and wanting to shout back.
Others of you might be siding with the young man, and thinking that the little girl is terribly misbehaved. The young man kept his composure the entire time, and if you listen to his words, they were not aggressively judgmental words. Of course, the video does not catch the more judgmental times of the Street Preaching in Salem.
Whatever side you stand on in viewing Robert’s video, which has gone viral, I want to suggest that standing on anyone’s side here is not what this should be about. The video has given us a picture into the tensions surrounding the fundamentalisms of our day: between the Fundy Christian and the Fundy Oxford Atheist (as atheist philosopher Alain de Botton describes them), between the Fundy Liberal and Fundy Conservative, and between so many expressions of people being unwilling to hear each other out, but rather blaring through their own bullhorns. Even the Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta took sides here, calling this the “Greatest thing you’ll see all day.”
This year, Salem resident Jared Robinson initiated a Facebook group called the Salem Street Peace Alliance, and through it a group of locals began doing something our little church has been doing for about 8 years. Bringing a party to the violent interactions of the street preaching, in hopes of de-escalating the situation. In some cases it worked, in other cases it got a little rowdy, but on the whole it was a wildly diverse group, simply hoping to win its streets back from an angry circus, and bring it into an artful, fun carnival of acceptance and respect. My prayer is that that will be the result in the coming years. I am hoping this was the last year little girls feel they have to defend their city against an image of a god, which screeches through distorted horns with personal invectives.
After all, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”