Religion isn't always a formal affair in the United States. As VOA's Maura Farrelly reports, many Christians feel compelled to take their faith outside the institutional settings of a church or a congregationand into the streets.
Fordham Road is one of the busiest thoroughfares in the Bronx, one of five boroughs that make up the city of New York. The street is in the center of a major shopping district where hundreds of consumers gather every day. Thrift shops and jewelry stores line both sides of Fordham Road, their window displays teaming with thick gold necklaces, fancy shoes and dresses and the occasional practical collection of laundry detergent and toilet paper. Vendors clutter the sidewalks in all kinds of weather, enticing shoppers to buy t-shirts, books, and roasted nuts coated in thick layers of honey. But not everything the vendors sell comes with a monetary price tag.
"Try God for 30 days! And if you're not satisfied, we will give you a full refund, plus shipping and handling!" Minister Dukes tells passerbys.
He doesn't have a church or a congregation of his own, but he does have a strong calling to preach about Christianity to anyone who happens to walk down Fordham Road. Minister Dukes also has a day job as a teacher in the New York City Public School system. That's why he has a partner, James Bannister, who fills in on the street while Minister Dukes is in the classroom.
"My primary focus is to come out into the street and to evangelize. I do it every day. He does it on weekends. I say America is so blessed, because the Gospel is given freely, out on the street corners. In other countries, where they hunger for the Word of God, they're persecuted for it, as well. And they're not able to come out and proclaim it freely. This is one of our constitutional rights, first amendment, that I like. Praise God," he said.
James Bannister said street evangelists such as himself are needed in America's cities. He said people are looking for spiritual guidance, but they're often reluctant to walk into a house of worship.
"People need Jesus Christ in their life. And there's a lot of crime going on in the communities. People are depressed, confused. People want God in their life, but they don't know how to seek God, because there are many religions out here and people say 'I don't know which religion to receive.' So we come out with the Word of God and the Scriptures plainly, to tell them 'Don't believe in a religion, but trust in what the Bible is plainly saying.'" Mr. Bannister said.
James Bannister and Minister Dukes have been preaching on Fordham Road every day for the past three years. And Mr. Bannister said he believes they're having an impact.
"When I first started, it seemed like everyone was just walking past and ignoring me. And then when I go shopping, 'Hey Preacher, I like what you said.' One guy said, 'I was following you for four weeks.' I said, 'You were? I didn't see you.' He said, 'Every where you would go, I would look for that place where I'd think I would see you.' He said, 'Man, you been doing a great work in my life.' I have here in my wallet numerous addresses of people I have met over the years. And I pray for them daily," Mr. Bannister said.
It's certainly hard to ignore James Bannister and Minister Dukes. Their evangelism isn't a quiet affair. Minister Dukes shouts his message into a microphone that's plugged into a speaker running on battery power from his car. But an informal survey of shoppers in the area reveals that while most people like the evangelists, they also think they're largely ineffective.
Man: "Eh, he's good. He's doing a good job. He's talking about Jesus Christ. Bless him."
Reporter: "Why is that good?"
Man: "It's good."
Woman: "He's talking about God."
Man: "He's talking about God. That's good. We need that. They plan to blow New York up, you know? The guy's doing a good job."
Reporter: "Do you think he's having an impact on people? Is he gonna get them to think?"
Man: "No. But the way I see it, he's doing a good job. He's in the corner. He's preaching good. God bless you.
Not all street evangelists choose the method used by James Bannister and Minister Dukes. In fact, some evangelists believe it's counterproductive to proclaim the message of Christianity so loudly. Ricky Hobbes is a computer analyst from Arkansas who has published a handbook on street evangelism and takes another approach to it.
"I've been in the streets myself, and there's been someone that is screaming at the crowds, and I felt that I would move on. Because it was often condemning, and often preached down towards me. It shouldn't be in a voice that is screaming. It should be in a voice that is caring. Jesus said, 'I didn't come to this world to judge it. But that it may be saved.'" Mr. Hobbes said.
He prefers to approach people on the street and attempt to have a one-on-one conversation with them about God. He said he often talks to homeless people, because he thinks they're the ones most in need of God and the people most willing to listen. Ricky Hobbes said he often buys these people food, and then shares a meal with them while he talks about Christianity. He said there's a precedent for this type of ministry in the four Gospels of the Bible.
"I think the ministry, as I read Matthew and Mark and Luke and John, I see a Jesus that was so mobile, so caring. Where he would cry with the people, he would laugh with them, and he would feed them. And that is my hope, is to allow him to live more of his life through me," Mr. Hobbes said.
In recent years, Ricky Hobbes has taken his evangelism beyond city streets, into the avenues of cyberspace. His evangelical website is one of hundreds that can be found on the internet. Some of these sites attempt to spread the message of Christianity. Others are designed to help people begin their own street ministries. Ricky Hobbes said that's the beauty of street evangelism in America. You don't need a formal degree and you don't need anyone's permission to do it.