Billy Stewart wants to know if I am ready to accept Jesus Christ into my heart.
He stands under a cluster of palm trees along the Prado in Balboa Park. A navy-blue ball cap with a quote — “Jesus, one way, the only way, John 14:16” — conceals most of Stewart’s gray hair. His T-shirt is tucked into a pair of pleated slacks. It, too, is Christ-themed. It depicts Jesus dying on the cross; its caption asserts: “Jesus died for a reason.”
Every Saturday morning in Balboa Park, Stewart sets up a neatly arranged table with a multitude of biblical tracts. This particular Saturday, Stewart is accompanied by a toothless gentleman. I overhear him disclose to a tourist that he was blind, deaf, and dumb before Jesus healed him.
A banner behind Stewart’s table proclaims in ominous crimson letters, “Jesus Christ Is Lord, Not a Swear Word!” Another, much larger sign states: “A.. ‘Blood Donor’.. Saved My Life His Name Is ‘JESUS’” And He Is Waiting & Wanting To Save Yours!” I am too distracted by the layout of the sign, its lack of punctuation and bizarre use of quotation marks, to take in what Stewart intended to convey. Air quotes come to mind. As a result, when I read the words “Jesus” and “Blood Donor,” they come out dripping in sarcasm. Stewart is among a growing group of Balboa Park evangelists. They are drawn by the park’s heavy foot traffic and mix of local and out-of-town visitors. The day I visit the park, there are three other evangelical Christian groups handing out fliers or brandishing signs asking park goers to repent or to trust Jesus. Nearby, a group of Hare Krishnas hand out the Bhagavad Gita in exchange for a donation. Not far from them, the atheists under a shade tent offer humanist literature. A few feet away, a pagan woman offers palm readings, also in exchange for donations, and near the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, Jehovah’s Witnesses have a folding book case holding multilanguage religious booklets.
Balboa Park allows religious groups to gather without a permit as long as they are not selling anything. As a result, Stewart has been setting up his booth in Balboa Park for the past two years. Last year, the atheists showed up. To his disappointment, they have continued to make regular Saturday appearances. Like Stewart’s sign that reads, “Ask a Christian,” they have one that says, “Ask an Atheist.”
“We used to set up down there, where they are now,” Billy says pointing down the Prado to a spot in front of the House of Hospitality.
“They came one day and set up right across from us. It was really uncomfortable. People would walk through. They’d stop mid-way, they’d look at our table, and then look at theirs. They’d walk away shaking their heads.”
Recent Pew research found that as of 2012, roughly a third of adults under 30 are religiously unaffiliated. Likewise, a third of U.S. adults surveyed stated that they do not consider themselves a “religious person.”
Statistics like those are what drive Stewart to continue street evangelization. He has four adult children.
“One out of four is saved. I have three that are in the world and of the world. They think that [their] Daddy is a little kooky, but that’s fine. I don’t preach to them. My witness to them is my walk. It’s a parent’s greatest nightmare to see his own flesh and blood not walking with the Lord,” He says with a deep sigh.
Stewart makes an effort to talk to all the other religious groups in the park about Christ.
“I have talked to the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Krishnas, trying to have a general conversation about the truth. It doesn’t go over well. They get very fixed in what they believe. They try to do the same to me. I am here as an ambassador for Jesus; I’m not here to fault other people. I am here to present the gospel to them. We let them do their thing. We aren’t against them, we love them.”
But when Stewart talks about the atheists, he tenses up. “They walk up to my table and profess, ‘I’m an atheist!’ ‘Okay,’ I say to them, ‘that’s what you’re professing, but… there is no such thing as an atheist. God says in his word that he has put the innate knowledge in the heart of every human being to know that there is God.”
Standing near the atheist booth, I overhear a man in a Hawaiian shirt chuckle after reading the banner hung on their canopy. Above orange and red flames a caption reads: “Relax, Hell Does Not Exist, Or Heaven Either, Live Your Life.”
“That’s funny,” the man says to his wife, “What an oxymoron: atheist evangelists.”
His wife rolls her eyes so hard that I can almost hear them rolling back in her head. She is not amused.
Two atheists wearing bow-ties are playing chess at a small card table. One of them is holding a black umbrella as protection from the blazing hot sun. Hung on the front of their table is a banner that reads, “Ask an atheist, you might like the answer.” Nearby, another table is manned by four men. They are having an in-depth conversation with a couple of pretty teenaged girls. The girls, who are dressed in matching pink T-shirts and yoga pants, attend a local Catholic girls’ school. They are arguing over the existence of Jesus. A smile spreads across one of the atheists’ faces as he encourages the young women to question what they have been fed. The teens appear exasperated.
A bold-lettered banner behind their heads reads, “Atheism, a Personal Relationship with Reality.”
A thick balding man wearing Blublockers jogs past. He slows down in front of the booth and shouts, “Way to go, guys! Way to represent nothing!” His voice is thick with hostility.
Rob Hudson, an older man with a gray ponytail and a thick unruly beard, shrugs. Clearly he is accustomed to that kind of behavior.
“We call that a drive-by,” Jesse Woodrow, whose salt-and-pepper hair is all business in front and a party in the back, says with a hearty laugh, “It’s common. Sometimes people will walk by us, slowly, while holding up a picture of Jesus. Or, they will shout, ‘Jesus loves you!’”
“We get a lot of people that seriously want to save our souls, people that want to pray for us. Someone will walk by and say, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and I’ll say back, ‘I’m going to think for you.’ One person told me not to bother. I thought that was a little sad,” says Hudson.
Tommy, who would rather not reveal his last name and instead would like to be referred to as “Tommy the Asshole Atheist,” says, “People get angry because we are stealing their imaginary friend. We’re taking away their binkies, their Santa Claus.”
Tommy is wearing rainbow suspenders and a small round cap with a propeller on top featuring a patch that reads, “Nerd.” He looks more like a Disneyland resort worker or a guy who makes balloon animals than an “asshole atheist.”
Continues Hudson, “For the most part, we get more thumbs up than negativity,”
The group has certain rules of decorum when dealing with the general public. Hudson lists them: “No screaming. No yelling. No profanity — I mean, if you’re going to use profanity, use it accordingly. We can always tell when we have won an argument. That’s when the volume in the other person’s voice starts to go up and up.”
Hudson recalls a run-in with a “Jerk for Jesus” from the previous week, “This gentleman got frustrated because he couldn’t get his point across while attempting to convert us. So, he got out his Bible and at the top of his lungs starts reading off, ‘In the beginning God created the world, the universe,’ and then he just starts screaming, ‘God is real, I believe in God!’ and walks away, and we were left shrugging and saying, ‘Okay…?’”
Not long ago, a Christian man, distressed after coming across the atheist group in the park, offered a hundred dollars to any group member who would attend church with him.
James Hutson, a balding young man in his late 20s who is so pale that he is nearly translucent, took the bait.
Hutson tells me, “I did it for two reasons: first, I could use the money. Second, I like to discuss [religion]. It was a small evangelical church in Encanto. It was mostly old people. We had lunch after church and he just started preaching to me. Apparently, he received an associate degree in theology from San Diego Christian College in El Cajon, which teaches conspiracy-theory nonsense about Russians not being able to buy Bibles and how Iran is going to invade Israel next week. I was, like, ‘Dude, let me inform you on some stuff.’ But, in his defense, he doesn’t want to hear it and he isn’t that bright. I told him, ‘Dude, I’m not going to turn around.’ He was pretty shocked. I found out at some point he didn’t really know how to have a conversation. People that don’t get the value of learning and looking at the information and analyzing it are the biggest problem.”
I point to the “Ask an Atheist” sign, “So, what do people usually ask?”
“Honestly, they mostly want to know where the bathroom is or they need directions,” Hutson answers before adding, “People also want to know about our morals...”
Woodrow interrupts, “They assume we have none since we are atheists.”
Hutson continues, “They want to know, ‘What are your foundations for ethics? Were you ever religious? What are your beliefs? Are you afraid of death?’”
“So, what about death? Are you worried about it?”
In answer to my question, Tommy retorts, “I’m just pissed off that I’ll be missing the party. But everyone has to leave the party at some point!”
The other atheists laugh at his response. In a more serious voice he adds, “But, I do focus on it sometimes.”
James Hutson gives a more judicious response, “It’s a scientific question, really. You have to find out what the experts say on it. I think we are pretty much at the point where we can say, reasonably, that we are a product of what our brains are doing. When our brains shut down, then we cease to exist. I don’t have a fear of that. I worry more about living life with honor and integrity. [That] is much more important than how I die.”
Rob Hudson adds, “The process of dying and death are two different things. Being dead doesn’t bother me in the least. I will be dead and not even know it. To steal Mark Twain’s quote —‘I was dead for millions of years before I was born, and it didn’t bother me one bit.’”
Jesse Woodrow pipes in, “I spent most of my life fearing [death] but I have come to terms with it.”
On the topic of Christianity, Rob Hudson points out, “The funny thing is, it’s an ongoing joke with all of us here. Many Christians will walk up to us and assume we have never read the Bible. When asked, ‘Have you even read the Bible?’ all of our hands will go up in the air.”
Statistics back up the idea that atheists’ knowledge on religion often surpasses that of the non-secular sect. A religious knowledge survey conducted by Pew Research in 2010 found that atheists and agnostics in the United States outperformed evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and Catholics on questions about the core teachings of major world religions. Atheists scored the highest, followed by Jews and Mormons. Mainline Protestants and Catholics came in at the bottom of the list.
Atheists, Evangelists, and Prophets take over Balboa Park
A short tour of the selection of evangelists who congregate on El Prado, in Balboa Park, San Diego to engage with passers-by.
When I ask the atheists why they set up in the park every Saturday, Hudson tells me, “We are an outreach group. We are here to let people know that there is a community of nonbelievers in the San Diego area. We don’t try to convert anybody. That’s not something you can really do. What we want to do is plant a seed of thinking. We want to teach [believers] how to use critical thinking with their own beliefs. We want them to consider, if it doesn’t make sense in a different religion, why does it make sense in yours? If you’re going to believe in a perfect God, then, really, we shouldn’t even be here. A perfect God, sitting in his perfect little world, doesn’t need or desire or want anything. So, creating a universe doesn’t make any sense. A lot of [religious people] can’t get around that.”
Tommy’s answer is a little different.
“I’m here for selfish reasons. These people go into a voting booth. If they want to believe in an imaginary guy, that’s cool, but making plans for our society and not dealing with global warming because you think it’s going to end in, like, 45 days anyway, and voting that way, is a problem. When you look at any religious group and how they interact with the planet, it is pretty fucked up. These people come to their knowledge through faith. That means, they believe in things without any evidence. Faith as a pathway to knowledge is a failed process. My objection is: how do you know?”
He starts to say more but his voice is drowned out by a man nearby who is dressed in head-to-toe black. The man is kneeling on the ground in front of the fountain adjacent to the Timken Museum. He is holding a Bible in one hand while shouting out a lengthy Scripture passage. A woman and her young son rush past him. The mother looks terrified.
A tall blonde man wearing cargo shorts and a pale blue T-shirt that reads, “I believe in Pluto,” approaches the atheist booth to quip, “You guys would be a hell of lot more entertaining if you read Darwin like that!”
One of the bow-tie-wearing atheists snaps back, “Darwin was a Christian. Do your research.”
Tommy leans in closer so I can hear him over the Scripture reading.
“You want to talk to someone extreme? Go talk to that gentleman right there.”
Tommy and Hutson walk me over to the sidewalk preacher for an introduction. He is preaching so loudly on the topic of circumcision that my ears ring. Meanwhile, to my right, a middle-aged man poses in front of the preacher. He sticks his thumb up in the air as his friend snaps a photo. The preacher doesn’t notice. He is immersed in his reading.
When he finally comes to a stopping point, Tommy says, “Excuse me, Paul, I would like to introduce you to someone.” I am relieved to discover that Paul’s conversational tone is much quieter than his Bible-reading one.
Miles Livingston is Paul’s given name, but he would like to be referred to as Paul the Prophet.
“In a bathroom in Tennessee, God the Father appeared to me in a vision. That’s when I decided to go by Paul. Because I am like him, a prophet.”
Livingston has a strong body odor — so overpowering that I take a couple of steps back. His scent is understandable. He lives in Balboa Park and doesn’t have the opportunity to bathe often. For food, he eats the lunches that groups of field-trip kids throw into the trash. “I’m not squeamish,” he says. “I trust in the Lord.”
Livingston offers two reasons for his homelessness. First, “God put me in this position. Another reason is because the churches...none of them obey God. They are actually supposed to lodge the prophets. They won’t lodge me. They don’t believe I am what I am telling you I am. They just think I am a zealous guy with a big voice. I am not here for fame, fortune, or money. I’m here obeying God. I don’t mind being poor to the end.”
Livingston’s Christian message differs from Billy Stewart’s. His message isn’t as urgent. He isn’t trying to convince me of anything. Livingston is very matter-of-fact. And his message is much more doom-and-gloom.
“End Times are upon us,” he proclaims as if discussing something as ordinary as the weather. “The reason I am [in Balboa Park] reading God’s word is so that people hear. My job is not to convince them. I am to blow the trumpet and sound the warning. There is a tract table down there. They call themselves Christian. They have the posters and got the paraphernalia. They don’t heed the warnings I have given them that God hates idols. That man Tommy who brought you up here, in the past he claimed to believe in Jesus. Now he’s an atheist. It’s because he didn’t get rooted and grounded in God’s word. He didn’t have true apostles or prophets.”
During our 30-minute conversation, Livingston covers many subjects and quotes the Bible from memory incessantly. He makes grand predictions and statements such as: “Just like Moses, soon I, too, will part the Red Sea,” and, “Barack Obama is the antichrist!”
Livingston’s reasoning for the last statement is based on the idea that Obama has read all seven Harry Potter books, “It is witchcraft which is evil and God hates it!” Livingston says.
Another point Livingston would like me and other park goers to understand is, “We are very close to the end. When God’s power kicks on, something very dramatic is going to happen. All the disobedient children of God, the hypocrites, will be judged first. There are going to be a lot of dead bodies in churches.”
After Livingston reads me a lengthy Bible verse on sin, I ask him if it’s hard to live as a prophet. For the first time, Livingston appears vulnerable and more down to earth.
“The Lord is with me always, but yes, I have a very isolated life. My immediate family, they all know that I live upright in the Lord, but they don’t believe I am the prophet. There have only been a few people in my life that believe I am what I say I am. All my life I have been the outcast. My family has been aloof [with] me. I never understood why, but it’s normal for me. I preach publicly, sometimes for four hours. I have suffered persecution because of this. My life has been threatened night and day. But the Lord has kept me alive. He has sent me here to warn and I will continue to blow my trumpet.”
“All of us here in the park feel bad for Paul.” Billy Stewart says when I ask him about Livingston later. “He is his own worst enemy. Really, he creates more enemies and he hurts more people than he does anything good whatsoever.”
While we are talking, a woman in a sari approaches Stewart’s tent. “You know the idea of being born again is borrowed from the Hindu faith,” she says in response to Stewart’s sign that says, “One heartbeat away. Trust Jesus now. You must be born again.”
The woman is visiting from India. Her daughter lives in San Diego. The woman launches into a lengthy description of her Hindu faith.
“Christian religions are incapable of grasping the idea of reincarnation because Christianity is too dogmatic. You see, there is not just one birth but many...” by now she is fired up and speaking quickly. A balding man who has stopped to listen engages her in conversation. I continue on my way.
I walk further down toward the Reuben H. Fleet museum, past a man standing on a small stepladder. He is with a teenager who I assume must be his daughter. She wears a delicate flower crown in her long hair. They are each holding signs that say, “It’s Hell without Jesus,” and, “Jesus stands at the door and knocks, Repent and Be Saved!”
Near the butterfly garden, I find two men sitting leisurely on folding chairs. They have a wheeled traveling bookshelf situated next to them. It is set up off the main throughway. The gentlemen, who appear to be in their late 60s, or early 70s, wear matching powder-blue button-downs, ties, and beige fedoras. The location of their seats offers them little to no foot traffic. Above their grouping of fliers, it says, “What does the Bible really teach? Free Bible literature published in over 300 languages. Take a copy. Ask for your language.” I thumb through a couple of different pieces of literature. Neither of the men acknowledges me.
“Are you Jehovah’s Witnesses?” I ask.
The man sitting closest to me nods politely.
“May I keep this?” I ask, holding up a large pamphlet titled, “Would you like to know the truth?”
The other man responds with an indifferent but polite, “Take whatever you’d like.”
I wait for a moment, anticipating a long monologue on their beliefs. I am surprised when I don’t get one. The two men look bored. Their method of evangelizing is hands-off. I place the pamphlet in my purse and move on.
Back on El Prado, Miles Livingston’s voice booms over the sound of three Hare Krishna monks playing bongos on the grass under a brown canopy. Their pale orange robes shine in the late-afternoon sun.
Bhakta Larry, a young man with a traditional Krishna haircut, is sitting behind a table. On display are numerous books for purchase. Larry offers me a cookie. He is wearing white-rimmed sunglasses and a thin paisley printed scarf around his neck. I can barely hear him over Livingston’s preaching.
“We come out every Saturday just to share the love and spread the transcendental knowledge,” he tells me with a smile so bright it should be featured in a toothpaste commercial.
Bhakta Larry says one of the keys to spreading the love is handing out cookies.
“We hand out cookies and people are happy, even the atheists. The atheists set up across from us once and we just gave them cookies to make them happy,” he says simply.
Bhakta Larry stresses that the Krishnas don’t come to Balboa Park to drum up converts.
“It’s about sharing the truth. Truth is universal. The knowledge from the Bhagavad Gita gives us the purpose of human existence. Every step is like a…” he stops mid-sentence. He is distracted by a pretty girl with long wavy brown hair. She comes over to say good bye. She has been playing bongos under the canopy with the Krishna monks. The young lady wears a tie-dye with a marijuana leaf in the center.
“Thank you so much,” she gushes to Larry, “This was so relaxing.”
“Yeah,” he says enthusiastically, “you should come [to the temple] sometime and help make cookies.” He reaches in his pocket for his cell phone. Handing it to her he says, “Here, put in your information and I will hit you up sometime,”
She obliges. After Larry is done following her with his eyes, he says to me, “I want to help people achieve their ultimate happiness and potential.”