SALVADOR, Brazil (BP)–Nobody walking past the street corner where he was preaching knew, or probably cared, that the speaker was president of the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States or that he was the president of a large seminary in North Carolina.
All that the people on the crowded street could tell was that the man was saying something seemingly important that might offer hope to their meaningless lives.
As the scantily clad “Carnaval”-goers gathered around to listen to Paige Patterson preach in English for a translator to interpret into Portuguese, the smell of beer and urine permeated the air. In the background was blaring Brazilian rock music emerging from the gigantic floats of the nearby “Carnaval” parade — the South American equivalent of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras.
Some people turned and walked away when they realized his talk involved how to have a relationship with God in Christ through forgiveness of sins. Three men, who had beer cans in their hands and obviously the contents of many others in their stomachs and bloodstreams, waved and shouted in Portuguese, trying to disrupt the message. Others listened politely.
“No religion can eliminate sin, which separates us from God,” Patterson told his listeners. “A good life cannot do it, either.” Only one way to heaven exists, he said. That one way is faith in Jesus Christ.
When Patterson asked those in the audience who desired to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior to step closer to his podium and bow their heads and pray with him, a group of some 30 signified agreement. Among them were two of the three who earlier had shouted and waved their beer cans in the air.
Then Brazilian Baptist volunteers took over, praying individually with the new believers, writing down contact information and agreeing to meet with them later at their homes after Carnaval festivities ended.
As Patterson stepped from the makeshift stage, Southern Baptist missionary Wade Akins began making preparations for another speaker to preach a similar message.
Carnaval street-corner preaching posts include a microphone and a black-lit easel on which fluorescent paints are used to illustrate the gospel message of Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins.
Akins then escorted Patterson to the next of five preaching points set up by Akins’ team along the Carnaval parade routes in Salvador. An average of more than 50 presentations were made each night at each of the five preaching stations during the five days of Carnaval.
Patterson’s wife, Dorothy, also participated in the event by passing out tracts to passersby.
It was all in a night’s work for Akins, an impassioned pioneering evangelist who inspired the idea of street-corner preaching at Carnaval, a gigantic, outdoor street party that annually becomes a drunken orgy of alcohol, drugs and immoral sex in Brazil. Some 1 million reportedly attend the event in Salvador alone. Akins has said his Carnaval experiences as a street preacher have given him a new take on lostness in Brazil.
Though Patterson participated as a regular IMB volunteer, like the more than 25,000 Southern Baptists who will go abroad this year on volunteer mission trips, Akins was aware of the potential risks Carnaval street preachers face.
“Don’t let anyone attack the speaker,” Akins cautioned his team of 22 IMB missionaries after one of the male missionaries was grabbed in the groin by a drunken man who lunged out of the audience at one of the five preaching sites.
Though such attacks are almost like a “badge of honor” for team members each year, Akins did not want the convention president to endure the embarrassment and suffering of an assault. Patterson, however, scoffed off the idea that he should be protected more or treated differently than the other missionaries and volunteers.
Two years ago another drunken man broke through Akins’ own security and planted a kiss on his lips. Unfazed outwardly, Akins continued to preach and urges others on his Carnaval team to do the same.
Akins, Patterson and others agree: the rewards are worth the risks.
Akins tells about two married men who stopped to listen, prayed to receive Christ, then confessed how they had come to Carnaval looking for prostitutes to pick up. Instead, they took the literature given them by the counselors and, as missionaries watched, got into a taxicab to head home to their wives.
Patterson said, “The most remarkable thing about these people is that they become quickly bored with the party and then are the most open to the gospel that I believe I have ever witnessed. If it were possible to put 10,000 Southern Baptists on the street to preach and witness, every one of them would see a massive harvest.”
His experiences as a volunteer, Patterson said, reinforced his belief that every Southern Baptist who can should go overseas on a volunteer missions trip.
“There was a day when we could be content as Southern Baptists to send our money and our children, fortified by our prayers, to do worldwide missions. But in the gracious providences of our God, we have come to a day where every Southern Baptist can be directly involved as a volunteer in an overseas missions assignment,” he said.
“I am here today working as a volunteer and preaching on the street. I have visited 65 nations, walked through the great wilderness adventures of most of the world, and I can tell you, Southern Baptists, that there is no thrill, no adventure and no opportunity like being a Southern Baptist volunteer in the international mission theater.”
At Carnaval’s end on Ash Wednesday, March 8, Akins’ team counted 314 street-corner presentations to an estimated 9,500 people, of whom 2,391 made inquiries about following Christ.