Court Square’s Open Air Preachers

Brent Finnegan -- April 9th, 2010

If you’ve happened through downtown Harrisonburg recently on a Wednesday afternoon, they’re hard to ignore. Their words echo off the walls of the buildings lining Court Square, only intermittently blending behind a passing train, truck, or motorcycle. A man stands on a stone bench in front of the spring house, shouting passages of scripture and impromptu sermons to anyone, everyone, and no one in particular.

These are the open air preachers of Communities 4 Christ Ministries, a nondenominational, pan-church group based in Harrisonburg. Mike Barko, Tim Curry, and Andy Dillenbeck are three of several laypeople who say they have felt lead by God to preach like this.

Inspired in part by Living Waters, the ministry/movement led by Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron (yes, that Kirk Cameron), Barko says he is relatively new to “open air” preaching. Last year Barkosaw some videos of Comfort’s open air preaching online. “When I watched this open air preaching — it’s one of those things where you watch it, and your heart squeezes, and you start crying,” Barko says. “I’m like, you know what? That’s what I want to do, I want to do the open air.”

Barko, Curry, and Dillenbeck are planning a trip to Comfort and Cameron’s The Way of the Master Academy in California this June.

The group says that reception to their message and method has been mixed, both on Court Square and on campus at JMU, but they are seeing some results in their favor. “We’ve never been out here, and someone hasn’t given their life to Christ,” says Curry.

Some passers by and neighbors have filed complaints, but open air preaching is protected under the First Amendment.

Barko says they plan to continue preaching on Court Square. “As long as I’ve got a helper; eleven to one, baby. Every Wednesday.”

(Thanks, Drew)

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73 Responses to “Court Square’s Open Air Preachers”

  1. ron davenport says:

    nice objective report, brent.
    thank you.

    in spite of the seemingly odd (or invasive) nature of open air preaching, this public exchange is exactly what i love about the typical American street corner… individuals are FREE to speak.

    i can certainly see how some passers by would complain, or feel uncomfortable, but, in the broader scope, i am glad we all are afforded this type of public forum should we choose to use it.

  2. PM says:

    When I was living in Seattle, we had a preacher down in Pioneer Square who screamed until he was hoarse at everyone who passed by.

    In Spanish.

    It was kind of sad after a while.

  3. David Miller says:

    Brent, thanks for this reporting. These aren’t the same guys who stand on campus and call women in scant clothing sluts who will soon burn in hell, are they?

  4. Frank J Witt says:

    Their words are no worse than those cries of the baby in a stroller. If you have an issue with them, then you should also ask the mother of that child to shut him up.

    I prefer the word of GOD to the loud talking persons with a cell phone attached to their head.

  5. David Miller says:

    The reason I was asking Frank was because the people who I was referring to on campus regularly offend people. I work my tail off getting people downtown so I’m entitled to be wary of anyone driving them off. Not like I have any say in the matter anyway but I am interested.

    • W.Roy says:


      I’ve met at least one of the guys. Marcus O’Malley has a connection to him as well. I think he helped with a logo for his business. These guys from all I have seen are not like the infamous preacher who comes on the JMU campus outside D-Hall preaching false Gospel.

  6. Jamie Smith says:

    That bunch circulating around Court Square every day can use a little old time religion!
    Preach On!

  7. Emmy says:

    I understand where you are coming from David. I don’t care what they’re screaming, but people screaming at me when I go somewhere will keep me out of that place.

    And babies are a little different, they can’t help it.

  8. Eric Gregory says:


    That’s a different, much more Westboro-baptist-esque group of preachers who invade JMU’s campus with judgment. These gentlemen are apparently of a different, less belligerent sort. I don’t necessarily agree with their tactics (or their specific theology), but I am not offended by their words.

    They could use better examples than Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, though :)

  9. Josh says:

    Interesting report!

    Here’s the guy that sometimes visits JMU:

    Matt Bourgault of Consuming Fire Campus Ministries

    I recall there used to be a street preacher downtown in the late 80s/early 90s who had some conflicts with local business owners for driving away customers. He drove a car 100% covered with bumper stickers. Anyone remember him?

  10. MF says:

    I don’t appreciate anyone trying to yell their belief system on a street corner; political, religious or any other. There is a time and a place, a street corner does not seem like the place.

    Everyone is all for defending it under free speech, until someone is out there screaming about the satanic versus or the book of Scientology.

    I’m not saying he shouldn’t be on the street corner preaching, but why do you have to yell? It just seems so rude.

  11. Brooke says:

    I watched video of the guy. I watched video of Ray Comfort and what he was doing. I wasn’t really aware of who Ray Comfort is (although I do know who Kirk is, LOL). After watching both, they seem different to me. One guy seemed to be talking to actual people, and raising his voice to be heard. The other guy was just screaming AT people and no one in particular. I agree with what both are saying, but I see a difference in the methods.

  12. Brooke says:

    And while Jesus and the apostles often preached in the open air, to crowds, seems to me they didn’t start out by yelling at the top of their lungs. People gathered to hear them, and they preached. What this guy is doing drives people away. Once the people are there, then yeah, you may need to raise your voice to be heard, but this is just obnoxious, however well intentioned.

  13. Deb SF says:

    In the 90’s, JMU was visited every now and then by these neatly dressed gentlemen who would stand in strategic spots around campus handing out bibles and chatting with students, faculty and staff. No yelling, more like conversation. I wonder if they made more of a difference than these fellows.

    I’ll never forget one of the “shouter” preachers during my grad school days in the 80’s @ PSU in State College, PA. Fire and brimstone galore, and especially vocal in calling the coeds sluts, whores and harlots. Every once in awhile, some student would take one of them on, much to the interest and entertainment of onlookers. The topic that rainy day was birth control, especially condoms, and the thwarting of “God’s Will”. “Then why are you carrying an umbrella?” said the student to the minister, at the end of one especially acrimonious exchange? Thunderstruck preacher, thunderous applause.

  14. Emmy says:

    I would have loved to have seen that Deb!

  15. Delataire says:

    I wonder what kind of response would come from someone preaching Wotan?

  16. MB Green says:

    I really wish someone from a non-Christian religion would stand on court square shouting their beliefs to all the world. I bet these people would be amoung the first to object.

  17. Barnabas says:

    If they speak at the same time it could erupt into an open air debate. That would probably catch more peoples attention and be less offensive to people.

  18. Mrs. Open-Air Preacher says:

    I am so proud of my husband, he is not a “public speaker” & for him to do this… well, let’s just say that he speaks from his heart. He believes in God’s Word & His love, so this ministry has developed from that love. He doesn’t scream or call anyone any bad names… that’s not why he is there, if you see them stop & talk and you will see that. God bless you all!

  19. Brooke says:

    Mrs. Open-Air Preacher,
    No one said he calls anyone bad names. I think people were quite clear that there is a world of difference between the acerbic nature of those who have appeared on JMU (and other college) campuses in the past and what your husband is doing. And, yes, I do applaud him for seeking to share the truth of the Gospel with people, but he is yelling, loudly, and really at no one in particular. He’s not raising his voice to preach to a crowd that’s gathered to hear what he has to say – he’s yelling and hoping someone will stop. I think there’s a difference. I don’t think what he’s doing is *bad*, and I agree with what he’s saying, but unfortunately, I think the message is lost in the delivery method. No one wants to hear someone yelling, not even if they agree with them.

  20. A few years ago some pious preacher type took on the students of U. of Arizona in Tucson. He would badger young women and loving couples on the commons in front of the student union, railing about sex and sin. He became a regular pain in the New Testament. The University refused to boot him. Finally a local bar owner, Jim Petersen decided to take a shot at it. Jim was a former Navy SEAL, built like Jesse Ventura, and just as irreverent. His bar, “Somewhere Else” was in an old brick bungalow on the edge of campus, painted fire-engine red (including the windows and roof). His patrons were mostly students so he heard all about the taunting preacher. He bought a red satin bodysuit that made him look like a mutant superman and his wife Kristy donned a pink playboy bunny suit that fit her curves very well. Together they showed up on campus when the preacher made his visits. While the preacher handed out pamphlets promising fire and brimstone, Jim carried a sign that said “I am God”. Kristy carried a sign that said “I am Love”…and they both handed out condoms. They would encourage students to stage “love-ins”, Jim exhorting the students, “God commands you to love one another”. It was great theater.

  21. MB Green says:

    Mrs. Open Air Preacher – If he believes in Gods Word and His Love, why doesn’t he do something that might actually make a difference in people’s lives – like house the homeless, feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the prisoner (Matthew 25)? Sometimes God’s children need to be seen and not heard.

  22. Mrs. Open-Air Preacher says:

    The Bible says to go and proclaim the gospel to all of the world. Any advice you could share with him would be appreciated, in seeking a way to better serve God this has been his “calling” and I could not be more proud of him for that. If reading the Bible “loudly” & sharing the love of Jesus gets someones attention and they have a chance to accept Christ as their savior… GREAT! Even if the attention is negative, they are hearing the Word proclaimed… maybe they will remember this at some point & it could change their life. I commend these men of God for taking the time to even care about the lost… we can all say that we care, but what do we do.

    • Barnabas says:

      It is possible to preach through art. if he wanted to get a crowd there are mulitple ways he could do this. he could use poetry that has a message. He could do a monologue from a play written from the bible. If he gathers a crowd then once the act is finished he could do a follow up or let the act speak for itself. If, however, he feels that what he is doing is the way he best serves, then he should not listen to the nay sayers.

  23. Emmy says:

    Mrs. Preacher, you know what I do when I see someone doing something like that out in public (for any religion)? I avoid them. If I saw your husband on court square, I would go a different direction to get where I want to go. In some cases, if I know someone will be doing something like that in a particular location, I will avoid all together which is what David mentioned.

    Ever been to the mall at Christmas and been harassed by those people selling lotion? Drives me insane. I will pretend to be on my cell phone when I know I’m walking by them. They might be selling miracle cream for all I know, but their delivery is so annoying that I won’t go anywhere near them.

    So, your husband may be preaching something people really need to hear, but personally, I won’t go anywhere close enough to him to hear what he has to say. It’s all about how you approach things.

    • MB Green says:

      I pretend to be deaf when I see those lotion people in the mall, but I also go to great lengths to try to avoid walking past them at all.

    • W.Roy says:

      It’s great to find out other folks are just as bothered by the lotion people at the mall. I always start up a conversation with my wife when we’re passing by so they hopefully won’t barge in!

      • Emmy says:

        After the first year they were there I wrote to the mall management and told them how annoying they were. Guess it didn’t matter, but I knew I wasn’t the only one who hated their approach.

  24. Brooke says:

    My biggest advice would be not to yell quite as loudly. He’s not being mean, but yes, he is screaming at the top of his lungs.

    For one thing, he sounds like he’s doing serious damage to his vocal cords, which will cut his ministry short. Secondly, try to engage people that pass by, or merely cut it down several decibels. One can boldly share God’s message without resorting to shouting at people. Honestly, if he was a little less shouty, people might even come closer to hear what he had to say and a crowd might form. As it is, it’s far more likely to drive people away than bring them in because even though his message is hope, and grace and salvation, the tone of voice may convey a different message.

    Again, for me, it’s not at all the message, but HOW it’s being presented. Yes, we’re called to go and share, but the method of delivery is sometimes as important as the message. If there is offense, let it be with the Gospel, not our chosen method of delivery.

  25. Mrs. Open-Air Preacher says:

    Let me apoligize if I have offended anyone, that is not what my intentions were. I only wished to express my support for my husband, he has a beautiful heart & is a wonderful man of God. We are blessed! & I have no desire to argue. God bless you all & have a wonderful day! :)

  26. Brooke says:

    I don’t think anyone was offended, so no need to apologize. I think it’s admirable that your husband desires to serve God, and so you should be proud of him.

    I also don’t think was about argument – you said “Any advice you could share with him would be appreciated,” and I think people were taking you up on that. At least I was.


  27. Mrs. Open-Air Preacher says:

    Be strong in the Lord and,
    Never give up hope,
    You’re going to do great things,
    I already know,
    God’s got His hand on you so,
    Don’t live life in fear,
    Forgive and forget,
    But don’t forget why you’re here,
    Take your time and pray,
    Thank God for each day,
    His love will find a way,
    These are the words I would say.

  28. Annie Layne says:

    Ok, really, enough.

    I don’t care to hear it on Court Square, and I don’t need to read it in verse here.

  29. Brooke says:

    Annie, she has just as much right to share her opinion as you do. Lay off.

  30. Annie Layne says:

    Last time I checked this was a NEWS blog.

  31. Jennifer says:

    I know Tim Curry personally, and have been good friends with his wife for over 20 years, and I have to say that I am very proud of him. God is God, his word is the only word, no matter if you believe or not. I know he exists, because I look around and see his work every single day. Like the famous preacher Joyce Meyer once said, “If you go through life believing in God, and found out that he didn’t exist, you have lost nothing. But if you go through life not believing and find out he DOES exist, you are in a whole lot of trouble”. If you don’t believe in God and want to put down what these men are doing, then why are you watching this in the first place?? I pray for those who don’t believe. Preach on, guys!!!

    • Now you’re just quoting scripture and other preachers.

      Do you really want to start that? Do you think anyone is going to get saved by reading comments on this website?

      I can easily see this escalating into a quote war, wherein you quote scripture, and someone else (possibly me) quotes Thomas Jefferson or some other free-thinker. No one wins.

      No more proselytizing, please.

      • Jeremy Aldrich says:

        I’m for freedom of speech. “No more proselytizing” is a personal request from Brent, not the official stance of this site.

        That said, proselytizing via yelling on the street (or swooping into a website with quotes and verses, for that matter) is a risky business – you stand to push away as many or more people as you draw in. Brent and I have known each other since we were just lads in an evangelical youth group, and we’ve done our share of both being pushed away and pushing others away because of misapplied zeal.

        Best wishes on fulfilling the deepest desires of your heart.

        On a side note, I’m currently reading Desmond Tutu’s book “Made for Goodness” and enjoying it quite a lot.

  32. Mrs. Open-Air Preacher says:

    Im sorry, that SONG was laying on my heart & I felt I should share it… seemed to be appropriate. & if the quote is relevent, as Jennifer’s was, then feel free to post it.

  33. Annie Layne says:

    Thank you, Brent.

    If I wanted to read people quoting obscure bible verse to each other I would read the DNR comments.

    And Brooke, you are 100% right: Its not the message, its the obnoxious delivery that gets under my skin.

  34. scott c says:


    • We can still read it just fine if it’s written in lower case, Scott.

      • scott c says:

        brent, IM GLAD TO HEAR THAT….

        • Brooke says:

          Scott, I think what Brent is trying to tell you is that using all caps is considered to be shouting and quite rude, according to internet etiquette. Please stop shouting.

          • scott c says:

            wow, i believe you people enjoy finding faults & criticizing others. judge not lest ye be judged… God bless you everyone & remember Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Light no man come to the Father except through Him, Praise the name of Jesus King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Bible says that every knee shall bow and every tounge confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, again God bless each of you……

      • Lindsay says:

        HUH? :)

  35. Mike Deaton says:

    The longer this conversation goes, the more it refers to itself. Who’d have guessed there would be shouting and preaching in a discussion about shouting and preaching?

  36. Brooke says:

    Scott, you’re preaching to the choir on the last part, and so I say, “Amen.” BUT, again, I think it’s the call of each person to stop and consider whether their mode of sharing the truth isn’t overpowering the message. That’s all. People aren’t going to get love and grace and redemption from the message if all they’re hearing is shouting, whether it’s online or on Court Square.

    • scott c says:

      Brooke.. it says in the video clip that every time they have been out on court square atleast one person has made a decision to follow Christ so there so called shouting must be somewhat effective so who are we to critize there method of delivering the gospel. Brooke im just curious how many people have you won to Christ?? It’s one thing to have an opion and quit another to critize these men of God,

  37. seth says:

    Matthew, chapter 21, verse 18

    “Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. ”

    why did jesus hate nature? could this have been the start of deforestation and more generally, climate change?

  38. Brooke says:

    No one “wins” people for Christ. People either get saved and follow the Lord, or they don’t. We’re merely the messengers. I have witnessed to people and had them later come to know the Lord, but this is not a contest, and I am not competing for “best soul winner” so I have no desire, whatsoever to compare “scores.” We are each to merely obey.

    If you were watching the same video I just watched, I don’t see how you call it “so-called shouting.” It’s pretty much straight up shouting. Period. I’m happy if it’s true that people are making decision for the Lord, after all, if God can use sinful human being to reach people, then surely he can use people who are shouting; however, that doesn’t mean shouting is the right way to go. I have a feeling that more are driven away than are drawn in. Honestly, I don’t know how people think that manner of sharing doesn’t enter into the equation. We’re told to be gentle and respectful. I’m just not sure shouting enters into that. And again, we need to make sure that the ONLY offense is the Gospel, not how we go about sharing it.

    Seems that most people are not being offended by the Gospel, they’re being offended by the loudness of the shouting.

    This is not about Christians vs. non-Christians. This is not about hating the gospel or being against witnessing – it IS our call to share the Gospel with others. This is not about saying people don’t have the right to witness, or the right to even speak publicly. This is not about trying to tear down a man of God. Not at all.

    This is about people trying to communicate that this type of public shouting is more of a hindrance than an effective witnessing strategy. Listen to the audience. It’s not the message, primarily, that they’re taking exception to, it’s the manner in which it’s delivered.

    • scott c says:

      brooke, you have the right to share the gospel anyway you so choose as do these gentelmen, the point is stop judging them. it’s simple if you dont like there method than don’t listen, we get your point you dont like the shouting and thats your right just as it’s there right to shout. you know it’s amazing to set back and listen to how so called christians like to find fault with each other i say Shout on guys your not harming anyone and you have the right to share your love of Christ anyway you so choose, i say we are all brothers and sisters in Christ and as a brother i chose to support you not tear you down as Christians we get beat enough from the world we don’t need it from so called Christians who set back and complain. so PREACH on men of God and if you feel led to Shout than who am i or anyone else to question you about what you feel led by God Almighty to do..

      • Alex Sirney says:

        Please keep it civil. We’re dangerously approaching personal attacks on people’s religious beliefs.

        It’s appropriate to discuss beliefs in certain contexts, but implying that someone is, or is not, a “so-called” or “true” follower of any ideology, especially one that is widely varied practice, is not appropriate.

      • Emmy says:

        Scott C, do you really see what she’s saying as judgment, because I sure don’t. I think she’s giving advice as a Christian as to how she thinks the message could better get across.

        But your responses to her are just one more reason I don’t go to church anymore.

        As Gandhi said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

        • republitarian says:

          Emmy, don’t use other peoples’ shortcomings and an unbelieving heathen’s quote to absolve yourself of the christian responsibility to go to church

          Hebrews 10 v24 and 25

          24and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, and

          25not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

          Christ also refers to the church as his bride that he loves and will return for.

          Matthew chapter 23

          1(A)Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples,

          2saying: “(B)The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses;

          3therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.

          Other peoples’ hypocrisy does not give you a license to violate the commands of God…….

          • Jeremy Aldrich says:

            So you’ll be front and center at Beth-El Temple on Fridays, then? After all, both of those verses were written to people about attending synagogue, not “church” as 21st century American evangelicals have come to know it. ;-)

          • Bazrik says:

            Wow – holier-than-thou, anyone?

          • republitarian says:

            Oh Jeremy,

            1 Corinthians 12:13

            13For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

            According to the bible one must believe that Jesus was the Son of God, confess with the mouth, and be baptized….remember that one must be born again?

            That would indicate that a Jew who does not do those things may encounter a problem.

          • Jeremy Aldrich says:

            I think you’re missing the point, republitarian. If you are zealous to observe those Scriptures as “commands of God”, you need to do what Jesus and Paul (or whoever the author of Hebrews was) were saying – go to synagogue and listen to what they tell you to do. Were the Pharisees Jesus was commanding them to obey Christians? (no) Didn’t the early Christians the author of Hebrews was writing to go to Jewish synagogues to meet? (yes) So, take the plain and simple meaning of these scriptures and put them into practice yourself, before telling others “Ur doin’ it wrong”.

  39. Scott says:

    Well said Brooke. I think the discussion about how effective it is to preach the gospel in this way is one worth having. Can those who believe that it works please provide some incite into how or why it works (other than “they said it works in the video”). Quoting scripture and talking about what a rad dude Jesus is on a news blog is unlikely to sway us heathens. This forum is not a battleground for the redemption and damnation of souls. This is a community blog. Lets try to stay on topic.

  40. David Miller says:

    Can someone please tell me if the “street preachers” have the right to bring an amplifier to Court Square. To me this latest addition seems a bit over the line

    • Bazrik says:

      Wow – that REALLY doesn’t seem right. Isn’t there the line that 1st Amendment rights end where breaking the law (i.e., disturbing the peace) begins?

  41. Brooke says:

    Eek. Yeah, not sure if that falls under first amendment rights. Seems more like public nuisance, to me, even as someone who shares the same beliefs.

    Either way, 1st Amendment and law aside, I am just not sure how this type of thing abides by “gentleness and respect” in I Peter 3:15.

  42. Emmy says:

    “Emmy, don’t use other peoples’ shortcomings and an unbelieving heathen’s quote to absolve yourself of the christian responsibility to go to church”

    Little late on this one considering I wrote that in April! If I still considered myself a Christian, maybe I’d be worried about that responsibility. But I don’t, so I’m not.

  43. kuato says:

    Open-air preaching uses certain tactics to present a singular religious perspective to people who are not deliberately looking for religious guidance. They place themselves in high traffic areas so that they cannot be easily avoided. They exercise anti-social behaviors (like shouting) in order to draw attention to themselves and to their message. They create controversy in order to generate discussion.

    Although I believe that they are well within their rights to behave that way, they undermine their own credibility with their actions. They undermine their own best intentions by failing to understand the broader impact of their behavior.

  44. kuato says:

    And, just to have said so, this comment page is also an inappropriate forum for sharing religious views. You have a right to post whatever you like, but in choosing to prosthelytize, you undermine the purpose of the Hburg news site. This article was not about the content of the open-air preachers’ message, but look how it’s purpose has been subverted. Many of you have chosen to put your religious beliefs on display. Ask yourselves, what have you accomplished by doing so? Like the open-air preachers, I would say that you have made an impact. I doubt, however, that it was the impact you intended.

  45. David Miller says:

    I’m just interested to know the legality of this new “approach”

  46. Andrea says:

    Open air preaching is a public nuisance. If you challenge one of these do gooders they become defensive and obnoxious. I have been alerted to one coming in the city in which I will notify all my street youth NOT to venture near him. Other ministries have done the same for the protection of outreach programs the Lord has blessed us and many others with.

  47. Andrea says:

    Also it isn’t the amount of people that one leads to Christ that matters. It’s not like every person you get saved is another notch on your belt. It’s how one relates with people, the quality in which they can become transparent seeing themselves ‘first’ as a sinner. What I find with OAP is that they lack wisdom at times….

  48. Andrea says:

    Also the Lord is a ‘perfect’ gentleman. He does not force, push or antagonize people. OAP needs to consider this when shouting offensive statements at passerbyers whom they are trying to evangelize. And if you get things thrown at you, hit or spit on please don’t youtube it as “beaten for Jesus”. More than likely you yourself provoked it.

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