Lots of places like to claim to be the buckle of the Bible belt in the southeastern U.S. Knoxville, TN isn’t the buckle, but more likely a well used notch on the way to the real thing.
This to say that I’ve seen my share of street preachers, so when I saw one on the streets of Llubjana, Slovenia, it was familiar. He was pacing around a large pedestrian bridge crossing the nearly eponymously named Llubjanica River on a crowded Saturday afternoon. I could pick out the strains of something that sounded like “Jesus Christ” as he lectured to passing wanders who generally ignored him on their way to browse at the Farmer’s Market located just over the bridge.
He was fired up, full of the spirit and not afraid to show it, and I watched him attempt to convert the masses, who were mainly interested in brunch and boat rides down the river.
When I was at the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville, I regularly crossed the plaza outside the student union for classes. It was the 90s, and there was always a credit card company set up out there promising a free t-shirt should you decide it was worth the price of signing up for a high interest student card. Sometimes there were clubs trying to recruit or to get signatures for petitions. I had been out there myself with different organizations.
Often, there was a local street preacher. He found it necessary to use a bullhorn to magnify his already booming voice railing against the evils of women attending university, the use of birth control, and same sex relationships. Sometimes he yelled about the celebrities who had met misfortune and the retribution of God’s wrath for their sinful ways; Christopher Reeve and Muhammed Ali were favorite targets. Some days, for added entertainment, he brought along full sized posters of deformed babies. It was loud. It was aggressive. It was raging with misogyny.
One day I was crossing to head to class when I had to walk right in front of his ranting and wondered to myself why he was allowed to scream and insult people and that no one did a thing about it. And, then I remembered the permit. Our club was required to obtain a permit to have a table and a display outside the union. Inspired, I took a U turn up to the admin offices, and asked if the street preacher had applied and received a permit to be there. They said that he hadn’t, and I asked how long it would be before he was removed. I was sitting in my class when I watched security approach him and ask him to leave.
There are first amendment advocates who may argue with my tactics, and that’s fair. But, at age 20 or so, I didn’t think that I (and 20,000 of my best friends) should have to listen to disparagement or his opinion about women on college campuses. He wasn’t there to save souls or have a fair debate; he was there to condemn.
German surrounds me all the time. Germans aren’t chatters and hardly anyone ever speaks to me randomly in public places so it’s easy to ignore the background noise because it almost never applies to me. It’s the times that I am captive, on a bus or in a restaurant seated close to another nearby table that I listen. For a long time, when I didn’t understand, that I assumed that people were breathlessly describing the interesting details of their extraordinary lives.
Before he spoke French, the writer David Sedaris said, “I just assumed that everyone talked about books and movies all the time. That’s all they talked about, as far as I was concerned. And then I learned a little bit more and I realized that they’re no different than the people anywhere else, that they talk about the same banal things that we all talk about everywhere.”
Not speaking a foreign language renders your self esteem a bit shook, and when you hear it being spoken well and fluently, it’s easy to make the jump that the speakers’ lives are infinitely more interesting too for the sheer reason that they are capable of speaking the language that has flummoxed the rest of us. It’s not true, of course, but in the moment it seems plausible.
I don’t speak a word of Slovenian, but I didn’t need to. When you’re wandering around a foreign city, nearly everything seems very charming and lovely. And, the bridge scene was charming, at first like a sight that vaguely reminds you of home, but with a slightly local twist. But then like his East Tennessean colleague, it became easy to see why people were avoiding him. Most (read: none) people are not going to get religion, as it were, by having it lobbed in their faces, at the Farmer’s Market.
Sometimes a street preacher is just a street preacher is just a street preacher. Knoxville or Llubjana. Charleston or Rome. The city can change but the Evangelicalism doesn’t.
The romance that a foreign language lends most scenarios can often mask certain humdrum annoyances, making it easy to pretend for a few minutes that these banalities don’t exist in beautiful, sunny, far off lands.
The Slovenian Street Preacher’s words confronted me on this internalized, unvoiced belief. He planted a seed, but probably not the one he intended. He was jumpy, bombastic, and just ever so slightly surly, and it was clear that there was only one book he wanted to discuss. And, so we made our way past him, along with the other sinners towards the market to buy postcards and chocolate, and to delight in the understanding that some dialogue is best left alone, in any language.