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Street preachers coming to save souls among the swashbucklers of Gasparilla

TAMPA — Amid the drunken, sailor-mouthed, chest-flashing ruckus invading the city Saturday, you might be surprised — or not — to see quite a few God-fearing folks ready to save souls.

Revelers at the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates may not want to hear talk of sin and hell and the devil. But the preachers will be there anyway, signs hoisted with messages like "You deserve hell!" and "Repent!"

Why?

"Because we care about people," said street preacher James Lyman of the Servants with a Sword Ministry based in Panama City. "Our hope is that they'll see their sinfulness and repent."

Lyman's is one of many evangelical groups that plan to witness along the parade route on South Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard. They will admonish alcohol, profanity, nudity, homosexuality and worshiping in faiths outside their brand of Bible-based Christianity — among other transgressions.

It's aggressive, insulting even to paradegoers. But the preachers insist they don't intend to be hateful.

"We call it full-contact Christianity," said evangelist Larry Keffer of the Biblical Research Center in Tampa.

He tells a story from a few years ago about a paradegoer who ended up weeping in remorse after Keffer's group chastised him. It was the same man, Keffer notes, who earlier in the day tried to beat him up.

Lyman also swears that, occasionally, some people end up converting on the spot. More often, though, interested folks contact him later through his website.

Another Gasparilla preaching regular, Jay Gilbert, said instant repentance isn't the point.

"It's like a flower. You put a seed in the ground and water it and hope it grows," Gilbert said. "We're going out and the ground is very — well, it's not a fertile ground to be growing anything. So we're going out with a chiseled plow."

Gilbert and his wife, Paula, run Sin Is a Choice Ministries in Mount Dora. Like other street evangelists, the Gilberts travel to big events all over the country.

Airborne beer bottles, fists and threats don't deter them.

"I can't really think of anything else I'd rather be doing with my time, to tell you the truth," he said.

After the day parade, the Gilberts will hit the Ybor City circuit, killing buzzes with talk of hell and inviting clubhoppers to come meet Jesus.

It's a different approach than that taken by many local churches on the big day.

Several congregations within walking distance of the parade sell parking spots in their lots, with proceeds funding missions, church groups and charities.

"We certainly like to offer our own life view, but you know, we're Christians. We want to show God's love and offer hospitality," said Martha Chamberlain, director of operations at Hyde Park United Methodist on Platt Street. "Maybe casually invite them to church the next day."

A Boy Scout troop sponsored by the church cleans up the property before services early the next morning.

Hyde Park Presbyterian, a few blocks away on Swann Avenue, does the same thing.

Parking spot sales this year will benefit the youth ministry's summer mission trip to Honduras, said the Rev. Ken Shick. Plus, by handing out free water bottles and fliers about their ideals, "You get an opportunity there to share faith, in a certain sense."

That sounds good to John Guedes, who works at Bayshore United Methodist Church on MacDill Avenue. But Guedes (rhymes with Keds) thought of another, even quieter way to spread the church's mission.

On the church marquee this weekend, he'll post one sentence:

"LET JESUS INVADE YOUR HEART."

Reach Kim Wilmath at (813) 661-2442 or kwilmath@sptimes.com.

Street preachers coming to save souls among the swashbucklers of Gasparilla 01/24/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 24, 2011 9:50pm]
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