It is easy to believe that Southern evangelists, especially the more outlandish types, are all homegrown Southerners who proselytize around their home region, but that is not necessarily the case. While the forms that Christianity has taken in the South have their own regional flavor, which is sometimes unorthodox, there are nonconformists and zealots in the South who have come here from other parts of the world. In this interview with a “sign carrier” in Nashville, we encounter a new narrative about a man whose distinctive variety of Christianity comes from many sources, including hippie-era cults, but also retains commonly Southern features like anti-Catholic bias and apocalyptic rhetoric.
by Jack Wallace
If you’ve driven in the area of Harding Road and White Bridge Road in Nashville, Tennessee, with some regularity over the summer and fall of 2020, you’ve probably seen him standing in the traffic island, where other sign carriers are often found. Their signs are typically small and ask for money or proclaim in support of a cause or a political party. His signs are handmade, and he holds a big one on a pole that shouts in large letters: THE VATICAN IS THE SEAT OF SATAN. POPE FANCIS IS THE BEAST 666. He wears a sign that says: MOST CHURCHES AND ALL TV MINISTRIES ARE FRAUDULENT. I, like probably most who drive through this intersection, find these views offensive. But he also seems to be a relic of a bygone era, when street corner preachers yelling at passersby about the approaching apocalypse were more common.
As I waited at the traffic light, I studied the white-haired man holding the sign. Perhaps I read too much into his facial expression, but he didn’t seem angry or agitated, or even particularly prayerful. Less a zealot and more a simple message-bearer. What motivated him to stand on this corner and deliver this message of hate and condemnation? Was he delusional, or just cranky? What was his journey that brought him to this busy street corner? Did he believe his message changed minds?
His sign listed a phone number and said, LET’S TALK. So, I took him up on his invitation. I recorded our conversation, which I’ve edited it a bit for brevity, but these are his words. He gave me permission to share them.
Me: Is this the sign-carrier from the corner in Nashville?
Me: Do you mind telling me your name and your age?
Him: My name is Ron, and I’m 72.
Me: Are you with a religious organization?
Ron: I’m not with a religious organization, but I do assemble on Sunday with other Christians. I live about eighty miles west of Nashville, near Lobelville, and I go to a meeting with other believers that are mostly – their background is Amish and Mennonite. I’m not a member, but they allow me to worship with them.
Me: When did you start your street ministry and carrying your signs?
Ron: I started in 1978 with signs in Hawaii. I’ve been using signs – off and on – for over forty years.
Me: What brought you to Nashville?
Ron: My daughter lives near Nashville, so I try to come here and stay with her for at least two days every week or so. I want to use my time wisely. I believe we are living in a dire time. I have to be responsible for whatever God has shown me – taught me – in understanding His truth. It’s something I have to do. I lived in South America for twenty-one years, and I came back about four years ago. Since then, I’ve carried signs in various places. I’ve been going to that place where you saw me for about four months. I try to come several times a month if the wind isn’t too strong.
Me: Do you consider yourself a Prophet?
Ron: No, no. I’ve had different people say I’m a Prophet, but I don’t go around telling people I’m a Prophet.
Me: You said you started your street ministry with signs in 1978. What inspired you to start at that time?
Ron: I came into the faith in 1975. I was influenced by a group called the Children of God. It was a cult that started in Huntington Beach, California, in 1968.
Me: Yes, I know it. David Berg, or Moses David, was the leader back in the late ’60s and ’70s.
Ron: Their emphasis was on preaching and evangelism and making disciples. I left the Children of God in 1977. I was living in Samoa with them, and my wife and I had our first child there. We left and went back to Hawaii. She’s Japanese but from Hawaii. I could not jump back into the world of making money, so I started preaching on the streets of Hawaii. I labored on the streets in Hawaii for about three years.
Me: Have you been financially supported by fellow Christians throughout your preaching career, or have you worked?
Ron: I am not supported by others. Very little. I’m not a hireling. That’s my conviction. Most preachers today are hirelings. I want to stay clean about the money. Most religions today are a business, and that’s their downfall—the money. I’m kind of judgmental on that. Not trying to be critical, but that’s what I believe. Presently I just get my Social Security check, and that’s what I live on.
Me: When you left Hawaii, where did you go?
Ron: We moved to Minnesota and lived in a community called Ben Israel, led by a man named Arthur Katz. They emphasized what they called the Five-fold ministry: Apostle, Prophets, Pastors, Teachers and Evangelists. They weren’t denominational. They were normal, not cultish. They taught some good things. That’s where I first met some Mennonite folks, and I’ve been mostly involved with people of that sort of background all around the world ever since. They teach living holy. They’re god-fearing people. The big megachurches of today I don’t agree with at all. They’re not set up in a Biblical way. It’s more personality. They teach a prosperity gospel.
Me: After you left Minnesota, where did you go?
Ron: I did missionary work along the Mexican/Texas border, near Reynosa. After that, I moved back to Tennessee with my family. I have nine children. Then I moved to Bolivia, where I lived for twenty-one years.
Me: Why did you decide to move to Bolivia?
Ron: When I was living here, my mother, who had been bothering me for years, would say things like, “Ron, you have a big family. You can’t save the world.” She said if I settled down, she would give me my inheritance, so I finally succumbed to that. I bought a piece of land with an old farmhouse. I lived here for about three years. We’re homeschoolers and not vaccinators. Are you familiar with those types of people?
Me: Yes, yes.
Ron: They’re real targets for Social Services because you’re not going along with the same line. I had some neighbors who were persecuting me. I was in contact with a family that had moved to Bolivia to do missionary work, so that’s why we went. Why be under the pressure of Social Services if you don’t have to?
Me: So, I guess most of your children grew up in Bolivia.
Ron: Yeah, most of them. And one was born there.
Me: Where are your children now?
Ron: Five are in Hawaii, two are here in Tennessee, one is in Florida, and one is in Holland.
Me: Do they all have families now?
Ron: No. Only two of my children are married and have families.
Me: Are you still married, or are you by yourself now?
Ron: I’m married. To the same woman for forty-four years. But my wife is presently in Bolivia.
Me: You’ve led an interesting life (laugh).
Ron: Yeah, I’ve been a lot of things. I used to be a surfer. I raised horses and played polo. I was a ‘60s hippie guy, grew marijuana, sold LSD. I’ve lived in Malaysia, in north Australia, worked on a big cattle station there. I’ve been around and done a lot of things.
Me: Do you plan to join your wife in Bolivia?
Ron: She wants to stay there. She’s living in fear of these times. I don’t want to go back there, but she moved there several months ago with one of our daughters. She’s with a lot of friends, but I think I should stay here and try to share the Gospel. I don’t know anything else to do but try to warn people and encourage people.
Me: Your signs talk about the Pope and the Vatican and have some pretty harsh words for Catholicism.
Ron: I believe that true believers should warn the Catholics and try to get them to come out of what I say is a strong delusion. I hold to the historical view that many people used to hold, that the Roman Catholic Church is the Mystery Babylon the Great, the mother of all harlots from the Book of Revelation. I also hold to the historical view that the office of the Pope is the Anti-Christ. I talk to many Catholics, and I have nothing against Catholic people, but I’m supposed to speak the truth and warn people who have fallen under false teaching.
Me: Have you suffered persecution throughout your street ministry?
Ron: I’ve been beaten, punched, had beer poured on me, eggs thrown at me, (he laughs) but nothing that was too much. I’ve been cursed, threatened.
Me: You’ve been back in Nashville doing your street ministry for a while. What’s the worst thing that’s happened to you here?
Ron: Nothing. Just screaming, yelling.
Me: Do you feel like you’ve converted some folks since you’ve been ministering here in Nashville?
Ron: Uh, no.
Me: It’s got to be a lonely ministry.
Ron: It’s lonely, but I let the scriptures comfort me.
Me: Does your family support you in your ministry or do some of them disagree with you.
Ron: I only have two of my children that are converted. I have a bunch of them that have backslid. So, yeah, I would love to have more of them support me. I have a good relationship with some of them that are not converted, and some of them I don’t.
Me: Your wife in Bolivia, has she been supportive?
Ron: Oh yeah. She’s more fanatical than me (laughs). I met her through the Children of God. She gave up college to follow Christ when she joined the Children of God.
Me: When you look back on your life, do you feel good about all you’ve done?
Ron: That’s a big question. With my failures with my children, I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t spend enough time with them. Maybe I was too spiritually minded, but all of us should have a zeal for God.
Me: You certainly have zeal. You’re out there on the corner, even at 72.
Ron: In the winter, I go down to Florida and stay with my daughter in Deerfield Beach. There’s a boardwalk there, and I do my sign ministry by walking the boardwalk slowly on any day that there’s not a lot of wind. It’s a harder environment there. Sometimes it gets a little violent. Very aggressive people there. But I’m okay with that. I don’t live in fear. I’m not into getting hurt, but, you know, I’ve experienced some of that, and I’ve also experienced God’s blessing. I wish there were more brothers and sisters out there testifying, it would be better, but I can’t change that.
Me: Well, I wish you well in your ministry.
Ron: You’ve been a blessing to talk to. Your spirit is great, and encouragement is always good.
Despite the hateful message of his signs, I like this street preacher. It’s easy for me, and probably most who pass him by, to ridicule him, to be disdainful of his message, to make a caricature of this man. His beliefs are far different from mine, but he didn’t seem filled with hate, or so dogmatic that I would find him repellant. He seemed capable of self-reflection and honesty. He’s narrow-minded, but not obtuse. His life’s journey was a long, strange trip, and his choices have shaped who he is today.
When I was a student at the University of Tennessee in the mid-‘70s, several odd cults and religious groups hung around the edges of the campus, including the Children of God. Occasionally, I stopped to listen as they preached and panhandled, intrigued by their hippie brand of evangelism. As a son of the South and the grandson of a Pentecostal preacher, I found that the scriptures they quoted and their belief that we lived in the end times rang familiar in my ears.
That old-time religion and its variants, such as Ron’s message, has long been a dominant force in Southern culture. Religion is the lens through which many of us interpret our human experience. We are more open than most to spiritual forces at work in our lives and seem to have an innate need for salvation and fear of eternal loss, as southern writers such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner have observed.
H. L. Mencken wrote that the South consists of a “cesspool of Baptists, a miasma of Methodists, snake charmers, phony real estate operators, and syphilitic evangelists.” Mencken was known for his hyperbole, but I think he was on to something. For many generations, the South has been fertile ground for cults and off-brand religious movements.
Today’s evangelists promulgate their gospel from virtual street corners such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. There, they gather suggestible followers who find a “religious” community in the alternative reality of conspiracy beliefs. I am perplexed by these newly converted True Believers in my beloved South who choose to discard any fact or reality that does not align with their worldview. But I also believe we must sit with those who hold views that are polar opposite to our beliefs, and we must listen to them. It’s hard but necessary.
As Southerners, we know how to accept the weird family member. We also know that conversation, not confrontation, is the only way to keep our family intact.
Jack Wallace has spent most of his career in the social service and early childhood education fields. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife Joanne and his red Lab,Lucy. He also spends many long weekends at his cabin in Flat Rock, North Carolina. He is most at home on a trail or fishing a stream somewhere in the mountains of North Carolina or Tennessee.