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At Gasparilla, a preacher hopes to save souls

TAMPA — A girl in a short dress and big sunglasses stops along the parade route, hands her camera to a friend and poses jauntily with two thumbs up.

Behind her, Baptist street ministers wearing slacks and severe looks hold signs saying "REPENT!" and "CHOOSE BETWEEN SIN AND SAVIOR." They holler and hand out pamphlets depicting the fires of hell.

The girls laugh and start to walk away. With a megaphone, Jim Lyman calls them back.

"You want to take a picture of this sign?" he taunts, pointing to one that says "WOMEN ARE TO BE KEEPERS AT HOME."

"Whoa," 20-year-old Tess Crowley says, tugging at her friend, laughing harder. "I love God, but this is just, like, hilarious."

It's an unenviable job, saving souls at Gasparilla. People don't come to this sun-baked bacchanal to ponder the afterlife, but to party like there's no tomorrow. If the beaded multitudes are remotely interested in Lyman's strict brand of Christianity, they're certainly not interested in it now.

Trying to get people to accept Jesus at Gasparilla is like trying to get a greyhound to heel when the rabbit's flying by.

Even Lyman admits he'd rather be at home sipping lemonade than spending this Saturday screaming at sinners.

But this is life or death. He's not about to sit by while people blunder toward perdition.

"You should thank us for being out here!" Lyman yells through his megaphone. "When you step into hell, you're going to wish you listened to the preacher!"

A smiling guy with an eye-patch turns around, watches for a few seconds, then gives Lyman the finger.

• • •

So, really, what's wrong with a little fun? What's the harm in a few beers on a nice, sunny day? Catching beads and dressing up and cutting loose?

If you ask Lyman, it starts with the whole pirate thing. People should be worshiping Jesus, he says, not some drunken, pillaging thug.

Then there's the booze. Lyman says drinking any amount of alcohol at any time is wrong — a sin worthy of hellfire.

And don't get him started on the women, with their skimpy outfits and filthy mouths.

"Wake up, folks!" Lyman screams at the corner of Watrous and Orleans avenues, right at Bayshore Boulevard. "You've been warned!"

Not every religious group takes this approach. Several local churches sell spots in their parking lots and use the money for charity projects. Some congregations hand out water bottles and "God Loves Me" stickers.

That's not good enough for Lyman.

And if you ask him, it's not good enough for God, either.

• • •

Lyman's address is a mobile home on a lot in Panama City. But he, his wife, Lori, and their six homeschooled kids — Charity, 25; Hope, 24; Josiah, 17; Elijah, 15; Modesty, 13; and Mercy, 10 — spend most of the year traveling around the country, preaching from their RV.

Lyman, 49, says he once drank beer, listened to rock 'n' roll, got into bar fights — in his words, "lived wickedly."

But when he was 20, he says, God came to him.

"It's not like the junk on TV where they speak in tongues and handle snakes," Lyman said. "It's almost like a physical force. … I said, 'Lord, I give my life to you.' "

And so he got married and began a journey to spread his beliefs to anyone who would listen — or at least, anyone within earshot of his bullhorn.

He gets death threats, he says, and occasionally somebody throws a punch.

Once in a while, he says, he wins a convert.

• • •

"Man, I know it ain't no excuse, but I've been going through some stressful times. I believe in Jesus, you know, man? I repent my sins. Yeah, I commit sins. Yeah, I hear you, man."

That's 23-year-old Mike Elwell, his plastic beads rattling as he shakes his head. Will Perez, a member of Lyman's ministry, suggests that Elwell repent right now, starting by pouring out his Bud Light.

But there's still half a can of beer left in there, so …

"I'm probably going to enjoy myself tonight, man, but you know … the love I got for God, it's going to change my life."

Elwell walks away, vowing with just a hint of a slur that tomorrow he'll crack open his Bible.

Next, Lyman takes on a rival preacher: the Rev. Douglas Remer, from St. John's Episcopal Church. Remer is out scouting for people who might need the safe house the church has set up around the corner.

Lyman notices Remer's white collar and jogs over to him, questioning the pastor's beliefs. Surely, good deeds alone are not enough to get to heaven, Lyman argues. What about repenting your sins?

Good works are "faith working through love," Remer replies, quoting Galatians. With a "God bless," he turns to walk away.

Lyman goes back to his megaphone. "Sin or savior, folks, what do you choose?"

A woman walking with a young boy hurries her pace. When they pass Lyman's group, she leans over and says softly, "Jesus also says you shouldn't judge other people."

• • •

Lyman's voice carries all the way down the block, over the music and swearing and laughing, for several hours.

"We don't want your money, we don't want your church membership. We want your soul," he pleads.

Aside, he says he worries some of these people won't make it back to the parade next year. Think of the car accidents and illnesses that strike unexpectedly.

He knows he can't save everyone. He probably won't save most of them. Might not save any. But at the very least, he is getting their attention, he says.

Two guys in bandanas walk by, hold up their beers and clink them together.

Lyman hoists his sign higher.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com.

At Gasparilla, a preacher hopes to save souls 01/29/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 29, 2011 10:51pm]
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