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On the streets of Edmonton with street preacher Dale: 'It's really tough'

Dale the street preacher, in a reflective moment away from the streets of Edmonton. Photo: David J. Climenhaga

Dale the street preacher is doing the Lord's work.

We can acknowledge this, even if we don't share his idea of whom the lord is, or accept his view about what's going to happen when we die.

In addition to standing on a soapbox containing an electronic amplifier and preaching a rather strident version of the Christian gospel that doesn't shy from blunt talk about hellfire, Dale is out there fighting for our fundamental constitutional rights to say what we think and worship as we wish, even if that means not worshipping at all.

His is not an easy calling. Say what you will about his message, it takes courage to say it out loud on a street corner every day.

In the six years since Dale reached the conclusion he'd been called to preach the gospel on the streets of Edmonton, the 60-year-old retired fire rescue captain has been insulted more times than he can count, threatened by an intoxicated woman with a knife, and punched in the head a couple of times.

The first time he was punched out, Dale recalls, "I was goin' to heaven that day, I thought."

He's told regularly to shut up and move along by the law. "The police have talked to me, without exaggeration, over 200 times." So in addition to his passionate take on the gospel of Christ, this has made Dale the street preacher something of a constitutional fundamentalist too.

Dale has a last name, by the way, but you won't read it here out of respect for the man and his family, who don't entirely share his religious views and are uncomfortable with his mission. "I don't do much preaching at home," he observes, almost wryly. And if his adult kids don't share his beliefs, "I still tune up their cars and change their oil."

Dale is hard to miss. He's very pale, tall and lean, with a passing resemblance to the Clint Eastwood of recent years. He's usually accompanied by an assistant who hands out tracts while Dale preaches. For the past five years, he's been somewhere on Jasper Avenue, rain or shine, over the lunch hour every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Friday nights he preaches to the bar-goers of Whtye Avenue. That's a much tougher venue to practice his calling, he told me recently. More alcohol. More insults. More violence.

Still, Dale persists, driven by the conviction that if he slacks off, a soul might be lost. "I believe there is a hell," he explains. "I don't want people to go there."

On the other hand, Dale doesn't seem to be one of those fundamentalists determined to force people who don't believe to do things his way anyway. Well, he told me philosophically, "Everybody has a choice. I want them to believe. Nobody's going to heaven against their will!"

The first time I actually talked with Dale he was surrounded by six grim-faced Edmonton Police Service officers, some of them tugging on their black latex gloves, telling him that if he didn't pack up his amplifier and move along they were going to take him in. A police van was pulled up to the curb.

As this was going on, a biker on a Harley roared by rattling office windows. Nobody even looked up. Loud pipes save lives, I guess, if not souls. Unpopular words are something else entirely.

Dale sounded a little strained that day, but he was calmly insisting he was within his constitutional rights to preach, his amplifier was set in accordance with the city's noise bylaw, and could they please just call their supervisor before they arrested him.

It turns out the street preacher can quote the Constitution, in addition to the Bible, chapter and verse. "As soon as we don't follow the Constitution," he later warned me, "we're doomed!" The five times he’s been ticketed, he notes, the Crown has dropped the charge.

When the police supervisor eventually showed up, Dale told me later, he acknowledged to the preacher that, yes, just as any Canadian trade unionist knows, you do have a right to express your views on the streets of a Canadian city. That day the police backed off.

With no religion in his upbringing, Dale's path to his street ministry started with a not uncommon tale of mid-life ennui. He'd been thinking, "there must be more to this than just going to work and struggling and then you die one day!"

On watch at a fire hall in the wee hours one morning, he took to reading the Bible, the first five chapters of the Book of Genesis on the first night. That started him on the path to his lonely mission in the streets of Edmonton. "If you'd said to me then I'd be a street preacher, I'd have said, 'You're crazy!'"

Dale says he takes no money for his new vocation, paying his way with his pension. The sky's his cathedral, the box with the amplifier his pulpit. His signs slide into a homemade wooden box atop a modest SUV as he moves to the next stop on his circuit. His assistant hands out leaflets from a U.S. publisher of religious tracts. "Freely I have received, so freely I give," Dale explains.

His efforts are not connected with any organized church -- and, the truth be told, Dale's got a kind of fire in his belly that would make a normal institutionalized church pretty nervous.

Unlike a church minister, Dale doesn't have the luxury of a congregation that even pretends to listen. So every sermon has to be elevator pitch: "I have to preach the truth quickly and succinctly."

And when a cranky passerby gives him hell, he observes, quoting scripture, "a soft answer turneth away wrath." Sometimes.

Sometimes not so much. But it's surprising, he noted, how many people from the tough Whyte Avenue crowd return to say they're sorry once they've sobered up. "They didn't get converted, but they came back to apologize."

Even the lady with the knife came back, he remembers, the one he'd held off with the pole of the sign he habitually carries until the police, welcome for once, arrived. She'd got religion in jail, he said, and wanted to say thanks.

"It's really tough," Dale admits. "But after five years, the only time that I feel normal is when I'm on that box preaching."

That's not so different, I think, from many of us who preach the message that better things are possible in this world. Sometimes we're pretty strident, too, and sometimes it seems as if our message also falls on stony ground. There are certainly people in the current government of Alberta who would very much like to make us shut up too.

Well, as a Jehovah's Witness of my doorstep acquaintance once observed when he came upon me handing out union leaflets to uninterested passersby: "Now you're doing what I do." He paused to look around. "No fun, is it?"

Whether Dale chose his calling or had it thrust upon him, it's no fun either.

So here's my suggestion if you come upon the man and you don't like what he's saying. Just walk on by. Show him some respect. Every time he stands up to the bullies who want to shut him up, whether or not they're wearing uniforms, he's fighting for your right to do the same thing.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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