So it was one Saturday afternoon in February that I found myself wedged into a small Chevy bound for the state capital, Frankfort, Kentucky. The Salvation Army Corps Center, where we were headed, was situated behind the courthouse, about three blocks from the tenderloin district, which was at that time fittingly dubbed “the bottoms.” In these pre-mall times, country folk flooded into town on Saturday afternoons to shop and seek entertainment. Those are the people we were going to preach to.
The Army had arranged with authorities to occupy the street corner directly across from the courthouse. While the officers set up loudspeakers, others in uniform made visits to nearby establishments, particularly taverns and bars where, curiously, they were always welcomed to sell copies of their magazine, The War Cry.
Bill Dearen took charge. His parents were Army officers in New York, and he himself was dressed in a smart red and black uniform and hat. Bill began the service with cheery words of welcome and a bold call to listen to the gospel. One by one, our team members formed a line beside Bill on the curb.
As the lively music pealed out with “Ring the Bells of Heaven,” a small crowd gathered around. A short sermon was followed by testimony time from which no one was exempt. Fortunately, I was situated at the end of the line. After six students, I calculated, the ice would be broken before it became my turn.
Though I was a missionary kid, few of our team knew it. I had never before witnessed publicly on a street corner. I realized now that a desperate emergency prayer was very much in order. It went something like this: Lord, how did I ever get in this mess? You’ll have to tell me what to say. If I get through this, I’ll never again keep company with these crazy Sallies. (“Sallies,” members of the Salvation Army).
I cannot remember a single thing I said in my first outdoor testimony on the corner that day. I do recall the marvelous sense of relief when I was done and the service came to a close. My relief was short-lived, however, for immediately after the closing prayer I found myself looking into the smiling face of Bill, our leader.
“Ed,” he began, “we’re going to the bottoms tonight after supper and we want you to preach for that service.” I could feel my knees tremble under my gray overcoat. No appropriate excuse came to mind. I swallowed. Finally, I heard myself saying, “Well, I guess so. Okay, I’ll try.” I didn’t tell Bill I had never before preached on a street corner or anywhere else for that matter.
At seven o’clock that evening, I found myself flanked by my new Salvation Army buddies standing in front of the Blue Moon Tavern in the heart of the bottoms, a poorer section of the city. Following the usual singing and three testimonies, I stepped up to the microphone. I surveyed my listeners and found myself addressing a most depressing collection of human beings, habitués of the streets and, of course, some patrons of the Blue Moon Tavern. So there we were in the very place that respectable people tell their children to never go near.
Was there any hope for these human wrecks? We later learned that among this vagrant flotsam that evening was a one-time medical student at the University of Kentucky, until drinking turned him into a besotted bum.
Soon enough the service was over. I had survived. Some even congratulated me on a wonderful sermon. A few bums lingered for a word of sympathy, a prayer, perhaps a handout.
Our labors, however, I soon discovered were far from finished. My friend Bill appeared again. “Now,” he smiled, “we hit the taverns.” What he meant by “hit the taverns” I could only imagine. Then, seriously, he said, “Ed, I should tell you that this is not a safe district at night, but I’m wearing the uniform. You stay close to me and you will be all right.” I was only too happy to oblige.
Growing up in India, the poorest nation in Asia, I had seen some pretty seedy dives along the back alleys of Allahabad and Calcutta. But what confronted me now were scenes of the sort I had only read about. On Saturday nights, the dregs of Frankfort made their unsteady way to this part of town. Ear-splitting, raucous country music in this pre-rock-and-roll era poured out of the houses of ill repute, advertising that the evening entertainment was in full swing. Patrons, well lubricated, crowded the dance floor. Others sat in narrow booths huddled over a drink and laughing with a forced hilarity calculated to convince themselves that they were “having a good time.”
I kept close to Bill as he pushed his way through the crowd, putting gospel booklets in the hands of distracted patrons. These offerings were seldom rejected, which surprised me. This was some years before the Four Spiritual Laws and Evangelism Explosion techniques had become popular. Bill’s opening line was, “I’d like to give you this gospel tract.” This usually elicited a low grunt and, occasionally, less than a sincere thanks. Bill followed up with a blunt “Are you a Christian, sir?” The slightest hesitation was Bill’s opening for a brief explanation of the plan of salvation and then, “Have you ever received Christ as your Savior?”
Staying close to Bill, watching, listening, I soon got the hang of it. Slipping a booklet from the stack, while inwardly uttering a prayer for boldness, I began launching into “Sir, I would like to give you this gospel tract,” all the time maneuvering so as to keep Bill within earshot. By the time we “hit” our third tavern, I was convinced that in that swirling tangle of derelicts there was likely not a soul who wanted to hear any preaching about being saved. Often we heard “I’m a Baptist. I got saved and baptized when I was a kid” or some such statement.
Leaning against a bar, three doors down from the Blue Moon, I met Jerry. He was starting on his first drink and was still clear-eyed and articulate. I judged him to be in his early twenties. He told me that he worked in a local brewery. He listened with surprising interest to my gospel presentation, and I saw that his eyes were now misty. “Jerry,” I said, “have you ever received Christ as your Savior?” He shook his head. “Wouldn’t you like to do that tonight?” I went on, “right now?”
“Yes,” he nodded. “I’d like you to pray for me.” Bill suggested we walk the two blocks to the Salvation Army Chapel where the atmosphere would be considerably more conducive to prayer.
The small chapel was located in the basement of the Corps. In it was a collection of worn-out chairs, a pulpit, and an altar padded with cheap brown plastic. As we proceeded to the front, Jerry hurried forward and suddenly threw himself onto the altar rail. Bill and I prayed for Jerry and then asked if he would like to pray as well. He nodded his head and started in.
I knew in an instant that somewhere in Jerry’s past there had been a church, probably Sunday school, and very likely a praying mother. Prayer gushed out of his mouth like an erupting geyser. He confessed his sin, calling with vehemence on the Savior to have mercy on his poor, lost soul. I opened my eyes to see Jerry’s tears flowing freely down the altar, creating a large puddle on the padded leatherette, which in time overflowed and ran down both sides of that altar rail.
With the completion of that prayer came a sudden hallelujah, a mark of absolute assurance that another lost sinner had come back to the Father’s house. We all stood and embraced. Jerry’s visage was transformed as though someone had planted a thousand-watt bulb right in his skull.
The next week I received a letter from Jerry. He told me that he had truly been saved and had started back to church.
That night the Asbury team bunked in the Salvation Army dorm that Richardson had built in the basement. I was assigned a top bunk and was soon being entertained by the assorted noises of young men all in the throes of deep slumber. Tired as I was, for some reason, most of the night I lay as wide-awake as I could ever remember being. There came a dawning consciousness that leading a lost soul to Christ was probably the most gratifying thing I had ever done in my entire life, far more exciting than scoring a touchdown that Friday afternoon in Flintridge. Before morning I was convinced that there could be absolutely nothing more exciting, gratifying, or invigorating than devoting my entire life to telling the world about Jesus. I felt like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol who, upon waking from the final encounter with the ghosts of Christmas, ecstatically cried, “I’m so happy! I’m as giddy as a schoolboy! I have no right to be this happy!”
The rest of that weekend I was possessed by an exquisite joy, the joy of a totally new discovery. That Sunday, more street meetings were scheduled along with a gospel service in the local workhouse. I was no longer nervous. Instead, I felt as though I was in my element, doing what I was created to do.
Ed Erny and his wife, Rachel, then served as One Mission Society missionaries for more than forty years. They served in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. He writes about his missionary adventures in his book No Reserves, No Retreats, and No Regrets.