"Street Preachers" Strike a Discordant Note at Inaugural Concert

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By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 19, 2009

"You feed the rest of your world with your filth!" screamed the man with the bullhorn.

It had all been going so well.

Tens of thousands of spectators were bundled up and making their way to the Mall for the inaugural concert when their joyous pipeline of humanity ran smack into -- how should we say this? -- a contrarian spirit.

Four men who called themselves street preachers had taken up occupation at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street, a strategic location for maximum impact. They used a bullhorn to shout to the passing crowds.

"Obama, he's only a human," said one of the preachers. "Don't make a human being your lord and master. Your messiah. It's very simple. You return to the Bible or you return to the jungle."

Come to Washington and expect a decent demonstration. But this was theater of the highest order, and not even the opening scene of Robert Altman's "Nashville" measured up to the tableau. The glory and absurdity of free speech: While soprano Renée Fleming prepared to take the stage at the Lincoln Memorial, one of the street preachers pushed the button on his bullhorn and let it rip: "You get excited over Obama! You never get excited over Jesus Christ!"

He held a sign that simply listed the guilty. "Baby Killing Women, Porno Freaks, Sport Nuts, Drunks, Homos, Jesus Mockers, Mormons."

"Wait a minute," a young guy in the crowd said to his buddies. "Sports nuts?"

Gays and fornicators received the brunt of the fury. "Homo Sex Is a Threat to National Security," one of the signs said.

"You're an abomination," a guy in a black leather jacket yelled.

"Be tolerant, you homo," one of the street preachers yelled back.

Things started heating up between the black leather jacket and the preacher as they got in each other's faces across a concrete barricade. Just then a demure-looking woman stepped in and began singing "Jesus Loves Me" in a falsetto.

"You will be cast into the lake of the fire!" the preacher told the black leather jacket.

The crowds thronged by and pushed forward, some ignoring the scene while others could not resist. "Have you ever eaten shrimp?" a man in a derby asked one of the preachers.

The preacher, wearing a ski cap and goatee, knew what was coming. "Why?"

"Because it's a sin, the Bible says it," said Justin Paglino, from Guilford, Conn. "Because . . . it's in Leviticus. You're going to hell for eating shrimp."

Standing a few feet away was a very thin man with a long beard, three suitcases and a blanket. A guess would be that he is homeless. Every few minutes during the shouting he would pipe up with a comment.

"Truth is the light," he said.

A blue-eyed teenager tried to talk to one of the preachers -- Ruben Israel, 47, who said he lives in Los Angeles and had come to Washington with about 20 fellow preachers to protest the inauguration of Obama. "You guys need to grow up," said Colleen Wilde, a high school senior from Great Falls. "You think Jesus supports this? Today is about love and our country."

A military helicopter swooped over the bare trees, for an instant drowning out the shouting. The homeless man spoke again: "Deceivers."

Thousands continued to pour by. A couple of young women in creamy ski hats and skinny jeans and Ed Hardy boots bounced by one of the preachers and smiled for an iPhone camera.

But the scene wasn't entertaining to everyone. A 17-year-old walked up to one of the preachers but was unable to speak. He wore an Obama button and a rainbow cuff. He was trembling. His name was Victor Eilering and he was a high school exchange student from the Netherlands. "What is the problem?" he finally asked the preacher, quietly. "We did nothing to you."

The homeless man spoke again to no one in particular. "Chapter 54. Isaiah. The pale horse."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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