Billy Stewart wants to know if I am ready to accept Jesus Christ into my heart.
He stands under a cluster of palm trees along the Prado in Balboa Park. A navy-blue ball cap with a quote — “Jesus, one way, the only way, John 14:16” — conceals most of Stewart’s gray hair. His T-shirt is tucked into a pair of pleated slacks. It, too, is Christ-themed. It depicts Jesus dying on the cross; its caption asserts: “Jesus died for a reason.”
Every Saturday morning in Balboa Park, Stewart sets up a neatly arranged table with a multitude of biblical tracts. This particular Saturday, Stewart is accompanied by a toothless gentleman. I overhear him disclose to a tourist that he was blind, deaf, and dumb before Jesus healed him.
A banner behind Stewart’s table proclaims in ominous crimson letters, “Jesus Christ Is Lord, Not a Swear Word!” Another, much larger sign states: “A.. ‘Blood Donor’.. Saved My Life His Name Is ‘JESUS’” And He Is Waiting & Wanting To Save Yours!” I am too distracted by the layout of the sign, its lack of punctuation and bizarre use of quotation marks, to take in what Stewart intended to convey. Air quotes come to mind. As a result, when I read the words “Jesus” and “Blood Donor,” they come out dripping in sarcasm. Stewart is among a growing group of Balboa Park evangelists. They are drawn by the park’s heavy foot traffic and mix of local and out-of-town visitors. The day I visit the park, there are three other evangelical Christian groups handing out fliers or brandishing signs asking park goers to repent or to trust Jesus. Nearby, a group of Hare Krishnas hand out the Bhagavad Gita in exchange for a donation. Not far from them, the atheists under a shade tent offer humanist literature. A few feet away, a pagan woman offers palm readings, also in exchange for donations, and near the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, Jehovah’s Witnesses have a folding book case holding multilanguage religious booklets.
Balboa Park allows religious groups to gather without a permit as long as they are not selling anything. As a result, Stewart has been setting up his booth in Balboa Park for the past two years. Last year, the atheists showed up. To his disappointment, they have continued to make regular Saturday appearances. Like Stewart’s sign that reads, “Ask a Christian,” they have one that says, “Ask an Atheist.”
“We used to set up down there, where they are now,” Billy says pointing down the Prado to a spot in front of the House of Hospitality.
“They came one day and set up right across from us. It was really uncomfortable. People would walk through. They’d stop mid-way, they’d look at our table, and then look at theirs. They’d walk away shaking their heads.”
Recent Pew research found that as of 2012, roughly a third of adults under 30 are religiously unaffiliated. Likewise, a third of U.S. adults surveyed stated that they do not consider themselves a “religious person.”
Statistics like those are what drive Stewart to continue street evangelization. He has four adult children.
“One out of four is saved. I have three that are in the world and of the world. They think that [their] Daddy is a little kooky, but that’s fine. I don’t preach to them. My witness to them is my walk. It’s a parent’s greatest nightmare to see his own flesh and blood not walking with the Lord,” He says with a deep sigh.
Stewart makes an effort to talk to all the other religious groups in the park about Christ.
“I have talked to the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Krishnas, trying to have a general conversation about the truth. It doesn’t go over well. They get very fixed in what they believe. They try to do the same to me. I am here as an ambassador for Jesus; I’m not here to fault other people. I am here to present the gospel to them. We let them do their thing. We aren’t against them, we love them.”
But when Stewart talks about the atheists, he tenses up. “They walk up to my table and profess, ‘I’m an atheist!’ ‘Okay,’ I say to them, ‘that’s what you’re professing, but… there is no such thing as an atheist. God says in his word that he has put the innate knowledge in the heart of every human being to know that there is God.”
Standing near the atheist booth, I overhear a man in a Hawaiian shirt chuckle after reading the banner hung on their canopy. Above orange and red flames a caption reads: “Relax, Hell Does Not Exist, Or Heaven Either, Live Your Life.”
“That’s funny,” the man says to his wife, “What an oxymoron: atheist evangelists.”
His wife rolls her eyes so hard that I can almost hear them rolling back in her head. She is not amused.
Two atheists wearing bow-ties are playing chess at a small card table. One of them is holding a black umbrella as protection from the blazing hot sun. Hung on the front of their table is a banner that reads, “Ask an atheist, you might like the answer.” Nearby, another table is manned by four men. They are having an in-depth conversation with a couple of pretty teenaged girls. The girls, who are dressed in matching pink T-shirts and yoga pants, attend a local Catholic girls’ school. They are arguing over the existence of Jesus. A smile spreads across one of the atheists’ faces as he encourages the young women to question what they have been fed. The teens appear exasperated.
A bold-lettered banner behind their heads reads, “Atheism, a Personal Relationship with Reality.”
A thick balding man wearing Blublockers jogs past. He slows down in front of the booth and shouts, “Way to go, guys! Way to represent nothing!” His voice is thick with hostility.
Rob Hudson, an older man with a gray ponytail and a thick unruly beard, shrugs. Clearly he is accustomed to that kind of behavior.