Reflections on open-air preaching

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By C. Patrick Granat, Major –

The phrase “start where you are, use what you have, do what you can” became part of my philosophy for living and Salvationist service. Since we can’t accomplish what we desire all at once, this provides a framework. Of course, what we aim for should be what God has gifted us to do and called us to attempt.

When I was a teenager I sensed a call from God to become an officer. As part of my preparation I needed to learn to preach. On one occasion I was assigned to preach at our usual Sunday evening open-air meeting on the corner. My message was designed to encourage people to believe in Christ for their souls’ salvation. I did my best, but the only listeners were the other Salvationists in the open-air group, and they were already saved. No one else walked by our meeting or listened; the buildings nearby were a bank and a store, and in those days both were closed on Sunday. Cars drove by with the windows rolled up, so no one inside was able to hear my message. At least it was an opportunity to practice public preaching skills.

As I matured, and developed my skills to draw people to Christ, I considered the tactics used in the past by people of God to reach the public. I read of the old Methodist street preachers, the revivalists, and the early day Salvationists. These were stories of great success; they energized my thinking.

Some of you may have seen the Broadway musical “Guys and Dolls,” or the movie with Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando. The story is based on a real person, Captain Rheba Crawford. She was a petite lady with a charming personality stationed at The Salvation Army corps in New York City’s Times Square.

There were a lot of people on the streets every night of the week. Salvationists helped sing and pray, and Crawford preached on the corner, urging passersby to consider the claims of Christ on their lives.

One night the crowd was so large that traffic could not pass through the intersection, and a New York City police officer unceremoniously arrested Crawford for obstructing the free flow of traffic.

Radio personality Walter Winchell heard about the arrest, and presented his program with words to this effect: “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, can you believe that a big New York cop has arrested a little Salvation Army lady? In a city of crime and drunkenness and sin, this little Christian soldier was telling people to stop being bad and to start being good. She was telling them to obey God and not to follow their sinful ways. She was trying to get people to become better citizens, and because so many people found her interesting, informative and inspiring, she was arrested and thrown in jail. Fellow Americans, is this what we hire policemen for—to stop rescue workers from making our citizens better? I think not! This is an outrage! We should demand that Captain Rheba Crawford be released, and encouraged in her mission to save sinners.”

People responded. City Hall received so many phone calls and letters that Crawford was released and all charges were dropped.

It became my dream to reach such a crowd.

In 1978, to my great delight, I was appointed to the Times Square Corps. Several times each week soldiers from the corps would join me in singing and praying when I preached on the street corners. One evening at an open-air meeting, a New York policeman told me I would have to close the meeting.

“Why?” I asked. He replied, “Because there’s so many people here listening to you, people can’t get through the intersection.” The soldiers returned to the corps somewhat chagrined, but my heart was praising God for a dream becoming reality. With limited preaching skills and modest musical talent, we Christian warriors began where we were, used what we had and did what we could to glorify our Lord.

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