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There's no quieting street preachers' loud calls to repent in Ybor City

The preacher stands under a "ONE WAY" sign at the corner of 16th Street and Seventh Avenue, proclaiming there is only one way to heaven.

He has a bullhorn, making sure his message cuts through.

"Each time you hear the Gospel of Christ," says Evan Johnston, a bespectacled, white-haired man from Lutz, "you're hearing the good news."

But ask the businesses and neighborhood associations in Ybor City and the sound they hear from street preachers on the weekends isn't good news but bad — bad for business.

Take Stogie Castillo's Cigar Lounge in Centro Ybor, which sits directly across from where the street preachers hang out.

"It's just irritating," says Margie Raymond, who runs the store. "I can hear them inside in here. We have to close the door. They're very aggressive to everyone. It's hate speech. It's not like they're saying 'love Jesus.' They're verbally attacking everyone."

Or the jewelry store, Silver Edge, next door.

"Some of the things they say are really not necessary," manager Stella Gannucelli says. "I just want to close the door."

In late August, several Ybor businesses, the Historic Ybor Neighborhood Civic Association and the Ybor City Development Corporation, lobbied the City Council to ban megaphones and similar devices in the entertainment district.

Street preachers balked saying the megaphones don't violate the city noise ordinance and aren't any louder than the club music, cover bands and car stereos that rumble down Seventh Avenue. They say silencing them would violate their First Amendment rights.

Caught in the noise are the people who come to Ybor for dinner, dancing or drinks. Some hate the piercing megaphone messages, others say it's just part of the circus.

Whatever side people are on, it's clear that — at least for now — nothing's changing.

Two months after business owners called for the bullhorn ban, the city attorney said the idea was reviewed and that's the extent of it.

"We've looked at it in a very general sense," City Attorney Chip Fletcher said. "Council would need to give us some direction on how to approach the issue."

Which brings us back to Johnston, 47, who has been preaching on the Ybor streets every Friday night for 12 years. He would like to argue his case.

He equates himself to a first-responder, such as a firefighter, and points to a building nearby. If it was on fire, wouldn't you expect him to be hollering for people to get out?

Well, Johnston says, he's doing the same thing by preaching. To him, his message saves lives.

The megaphone he carries allows him to do so without straining or yelling.

"I understand businesses have to make money. To be honest with you, we're all suffering from the economy," he says. "I don't have the answer. I don't know the legality of things. I just know the Gospel is the good news."

On a recent Friday, his approach was calm and composed. Rather than inciting people to pay attention, he simply read from the Bible or Christian devotionals.

"I'm definitely not going to let anyone take my megaphone to say, 'you're a prostitute' or 'you're going to hell,'" he says.

But he acknowledges the street preachers who do. He compares them to fishermen who use big bait and big hooks to lure fish with big, hard, stubborn jaws.

Those preachers poke and prod.

Not Johnston: "I'm trying to nudge," he says.

It's the bombastic, blue-in-the-face, bullhorn blowing preachers who upset some. They are part of the reason Carlos Oquendo, 56, has demonstrated across from the street preachers for five years.

He's an atheist and he doesn't use a megaphone. Instead, he wears a sandwich board that says "Jesus Isn't Coming."

"Everybody hates them," Oquendo says. "They show no respect to anybody. Look at me. I don't hassle."

Johnston maintains he doesn't either, so why should his freedom be taken away?

"Just because you have one bad police officer, you don't throw out the whole force," he says.

When people approach, Johnston stops and talks to them without the bullhorn until they're satisfied. He poses for pictures and hugs drunk strangers.

"He's not real loud," says Mark Ballance, an Ybor photographer. "He's not over there blurting, 'You're sinners, you shouldn't be drinking.'"

He's just trying to be heard above the sounds of Ybor, many of which others might find offensive, he says.

Rumbling motorcycles.

Heavy metal bands.

Drunk women screaming.

Bad cover bands playing terrible versions of 1980s ballads.

"It doesn't bother me," says Roger Nover, 31, as he walked by. "I've seen other things that bother me. It's part of the city life."

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

There's no quieting street preachers' loud calls to repent in Ybor City 11/12/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 12, 2009 3:30am]
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