'THE WORD' ON THE STREET: With bullhorn and Bible, evangelist Jack Graham preaches a weekly sermon on The Block

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The revelers are out in force. Young women in skintight stretch pants and stiletto heels stand outside the nightclubs talking animatedly with their friends. The cars on Baltimore Street filled with guys out for a good time are backed up all the way to Calvert Street.

It's business as usual this Friday evening in Baltimore's adult-entertainment district known as The Block.

Jack Graham is at his regular post on the northwest corner of Holliday and Baltimore streets, across from the Pussycat Club, where the girls from the day shift are just getting off and the dancers who work from 8 p.m. till 2 o' clock are pulling up in cars driven by their boyfriends or hopping out of cabs.

Jack, 55, surveys the scene with his Bible in one hand and a bullhorn in the other. Crowds of teen-agers brush past him without paying any attention at all. Meanwhile, Jack's wife, Majella, 54, passes out yellow printed handbills with Scriptural messages on both sides: "How much are you worth?" one side asks. On the other side: "What can fill the gap?" Most of the handbills end up discarded on the sidewalk a few yards away.

Jack puts the bullhorn to his lips, and when he speaks you can hear his voice clear over to City Hall, a couple of blocks away on Holliday Street, and down to the police headquarters, a block or so away on Baltimore Street.

"Jesus loves you! The Lord loves you!" The voice through the bullhorn catapults over the cacophony of car horns and the shouts of barkers outside the strip clubs.

"Got 12 girls tonight! Take a look!" the barkers yell to passers-by.

And from Jack: "Jesus will forgive you! But you have to come to him! Jesus saves!"

Jack will be at it for a couple of hours. He's got a permit from the city that allows him to preach on this corner every Friday between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., and he's been here almost every Friday, rain or shine, for the last eight years.

Around Jack and his white Winnebago plastered with quotes from the Scriptures and a couple of American flags there's a little constellation of drunks, hustlers, panhandlers, junkies and homeless men hustling motorists for spare change. They -- like everybody else on The Block tonight -- are too busy to pay any attention to a preacher with a bullhorn.

That doesn't bother Jack, though. The way he figures it, there's a void in people's lives that drives them to places like The Block -- a search for meaning, for connection, whatever you want to call it.

"People who come here are looking for something," he explains patiently. And then you notice there's a light in his eyes, a kind of energy that jumps out at you when he's talking even though he seems completely unaware of it. It's in his voice, too. When he talks, you're sort of pulled toward him by the words, though the effect seems to come not so much from what he says as the intensity with which he says it.

"What I'm trying to do," Jack says quietly, "is help them realize that the only thing worth finding is the word of God."

There's a framed photograph on the mantel over the fireplace of Jack and Majella's house in York, Pa., that shows the couple as newlyweds. The picture was taken in 1960. Jack looks like Kirk Douglas, with deep dimples in both cheeks; Majella looks like somebody you'd see in a 1950s movie, maybe Joanne Woodward, or Tippi Hedren. She is clearly enamored of Jack.

Looking at that picture, you can see that both, even back then, had the kind of charisma essential to an evangelist's work. But the photograph was taken long before Jack stopped drinking and fighting and spending all his time hunting white-tailed deer and got himself saved. To this day, Jack will tell anyone who asks, he never would have straightened out if Majella hadn't led him to the Rock Church in York one Sunday in 1975 and watched in amazement as he found Jesus.

"I walked into that church and felt something move inside me," Jack says. "It was as if someone had lighted a candle in my belly. And you know, I had ulcers all my life. It was like a nervous condition that ran in the family. My stomach was so bad I had sour juices in my throat at night. I went to the doctor and he wanted to give me a barium enema. But that day I walked into the church I saw it was the devil putting all that pain on me. All of a sudden I got a supernatural hunger for the word of God. And my stomach was healed, just like that."

And that's how Jack Graham came to preach on The Block in Baltimore.

"The Lord spoke to my heart and said I would be an evangelist," he says. And then Jack Graham, evangelist, sort of shrugs his shoulders and gives you a look that seems to say: "If you don't believe that, I don't blame you. I can hardly believe it myself."

The Winnebago's sliding door is open this Friday night on The Block and Majella can be seen sitting on the jump seat inside, taking a break from her missionary work, reading her Bible. Jack and Majella's teen-age daughter, Jacqueline, who's a high-school student at the Living Word Academy in Lancaster, Pa., and who sometimes thinks about being a missionary like her parents, sits beside her mother.

Jack's driven down from York tonight, as he has practically every Friday night since 1987. The trip takes an hour and 15 minutes down Interstate 83. During the week Jack works as a welder for Yellow Freight Trucking in Lancaster, repairing damaged semi-tractor trailer trucks. It's a job he's held for the last 20 years. But he's hoping to leave the company soon to devote himself full time to his street ministry.

It's admittedly a risk. Not everyone is cut out to preach on the streets.

"I believe God puts it stronger in some people's hearts than others, but everybody should be a witness for Jesus Christ," he says. "Every Christian should tell of their faith whenever the opportunity arises."

Jack had his own church once, which he called the Emmanuel Fellowship and ran out of a small house on his property in York, down the hill from the comfortable but modest home where he and Majella raised their four daughters -- Angela, 34; Adele, 33; Adrienne, 31; and Jacqueline, 19.

The congregation numbered about 100. Jack preached and Majella led the prayer worship. But he gave that up years ago, after he got the call to evangelize on The Block. Jack says a friend, a layman in the church, brought him and Majella down to Baltimore one night to pass out biblical tracts.

"That was my friend's calling," Jack says. "Ed eventually left Baltimore to work in the streets of York. But when Majella and I came back from Baltimore that first time, it was like we both knew that that's where the Lord wanted us to be."

"There's a lot of troubled people who come here," he adds.

"They're searching for something. I feel Jesus Christ is the answer."

And he gives you that look again, the one that says, "I know you can't really understand what I'm talking about until you have experienced the power of the Lord yourself."

And it's true, because anyone who watches Jack preaching on The Block while the girls are changing shifts and Baltimore Street is backed up with guys in pickup trucks and Chevrolet Camaros and Acura Legends who hear maybe two snatches of what the guy with the bullhorn is saying before disappearing into the 408 Club or the Doll House has got to believe that what's really happening is that Jack Graham, irresistible force, has run smack up against the immovable object that is The Block.

The heyday of The Block was in the 1940s and 1950s. The place still had what they called "a touch of class" then.

The big clubs on Baltimore Street, like the 2 O'Clock and the Tic Toc, had jazz bands that provided music for the dancers, and the clientele included cadres of sailors, soldiers and steelworkers out for a night on the town, as well as a few flamboyant politicians, such as Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, who carried on a well-publicized liaison with Baltimore's most famous stripper, Blaze Starr.

Ms. Starr, the undisputed burlesque queen of the postwar era, reigned supreme in ostrich feathers and black seamed stockings from the stage of the 2 O'Clock Club. She had a host of imitators and would-be rivals in the other clubs along The Block, many of whose faded publicity shots can be seen today adorning the wall above the counter at the Midway Bar on East Baltimore Street. The Midway once was located smack in the middle of Baltimore's red-light district in the days when the district was three blocks long.

Today the block between Holliday and Gay streets where the Midway sits is practically all that is left of Baltimore's adult-entertainment strip. Rising real estate values have made the area a prime target of speculators and developers.

Some of the clubs have managed to hang on, but the history of The Block since the 1960s has been one of steady losses in the face of downtown redevelopment and the revolutions in sexual attitudes and in the entertainment industry.

To some, The Block still seems immovable. But that is an illusion. In fact, the businesses there are slowly being displaced by powerful forces that are undermining their economic viability.

The revolution in communications technology has made erotic materials widely available through videos, cable TV and even the Internet, the giant computer network. Visiting businessmen are far more likely to dial up an X-rated video on their hotel's pay-per-view channel than venture into a Block peep show or strip club. If it's companionship they're after, it's probably safer to call an escort service than sidle up to some siren at a bar on The Block.

So there are people who think Jack Graham is on a fool's mission -- not because his Friday-night sermons fall mostly on deaf ears, but because The Block is a losing proposition anyway, one that will soon disappear without any need for divine intervention.

Jack doesn't think he's on a fool's mission, though. And the reason is, he doesn't care whether The Block moves or not. What he cares about is the people who come there now. He wants to move them. And he is absolutely convinced that the way to do that is to bring them to God.

Psychologists will tell you that the vast majority of men who go to The Block are looking not for sex, but a sense of connectedness. Sex, or the promise of it, is just the symbol of the need for companionship, understanding, love -- the primordial human drive to bond with something or someone other than one's own frail, imperfect self.

Sure, a lot of the men who come to The Block are married, some to loving mates. Others at least have girlfriends. But all of them think going downtown to ogle the strippers over a couple of beers after work or at the end of a boozy weekend ramble is good, harmless fun, a male escapist fantasy.

To Jack, though, such "fun" is anything but harmless. "Pornography is a kind of addiction, just like drugs or drink," he says. "A lot of the guys who come here are actually compelled to do this.

"I believe there's both good and evil in the world. The good comes from God and the evil comes from Satan, or the devil. So there are good and evil spirits. When you get attracted by an evil spirit, it can get you a craving to do wrong that takes you away from God. It can drive somebody to do something they know they shouldn't be doing.

"The Bible says a Christian who truly believes in the Lord can lay hands on that person possessed by an evil spirit and make that spirit go away. And we have seen that happen in our own experience time and again."

Jack has several success stories to tell.

"Once we were talking with this fellow who was a college football player," he says. "Majella was trying to tell him how [pornography] could become a bondage to some people. And right there you could see something happen to him. He was freed of his dependency, just like that. And you know that fellow stood there on the corner the rest of the night with us, his heart was so full of joy."

Majella tells the story of a prostitute she and Jack met around the time they first came to The Block in 1987.

"She was sick when we met her," Majella recalls. "She was in the hospital a lot. But we talked to her, and later we didn't see her anymore. And then a few years later she came back and found us and told us that she'd straightened herself out and wanted us to know what a difference we had made in her life."

Both Jack and Majella describe their work as a calling. When they first came to Baltimore they sometimes used to walk over to Lexington and Calvert streets. "That's where the prostitutes were," Majella says. "Sometimes they were even men dressed like women. We'd ask the prostitutes about the Lord and whether they knew God loved them. Some of them didn't want to talk to us, but one of them we became friends with even though we didn't find out until three weeks later that he was a man. I remember asking him once about having a baby, like, 'Would you want your baby to be out doing this?' And he said, 'I'm a man.'

"Whenever we came down to Baltimore after that we would go talk to him, but then we didn't see him after a while and never found out what happened to him. We drove through there the other night in fact and didn't see any of them."

Over the years, Jack and Majella have talked to literally hundreds, maybe thousands of people on the streets. "It's been a mixed reaction," Majella says. "Some are glad we talk, some say get out of my face, some will only start to talk after a couple weeks. That's the most interesting part, when people who wouldn't talk to you at first then will come over."

Jack and Majella belong to the evangelical branch of Christianity, which advocates strict adherence to traditional concepts of biblical belief, while resisting the liberalizing trend of other Protestant sects.

The word evangelical comes from the Greek word for gospel, and refers to one who spreads the gospel, or "good news" of Jesus Christ. Evangelical Christianity is the fastest-growing religious movement in America today, but its roots go back to the earliest days of the republic.

In the first decades of the 19th century, a wave of religious fervor coincided with the beginnings of the abolitionist movement. Later, evangelicals formed the shock troops of the temperance movement and opposition to abortion.

Robert Burkinshaw, a Canadian academic whose recent book, "Pilgrims in Lotus Land," examines the evangelical mind, identifies "conversionism" -- the notion that lives need to be turned away from sin and toward faith in Christ -- as one of the central tenets of the evangelical worldview.

Jack believes the Lord can change the hearts of the men who go to The Block because the Lord was able to change him.

Before he found the Lord, Jack says, he spent a lot of his time drinking, fighting and swearing. "I was kind of a brutish type," he says. "I would cuss up a storm."

The choleric temperament ran in the family, Jack thinks. He was born in Columbia, Pa., an old industrial town nestled in a bend of the Susquehanna River about 50 miles due north of Baltimore and a few miles northeast of York. His father worked in the foundry there and his mother had a job in the local glass factory.

Jack was an only child. He says that when he was a teen-ager his parents wanted him to attend one of the local denominational churches, even though they were not churchgoers themselves. They even gave him money to put in the collection plate during services.

"I spent the money on pinball machines," Jack recalled. He also quit school in the ninth grade.

He says this matter-of-factly, with neither self-pity nor apology. To Jack, his old life is simply a fact, and thus evidence of the completeness of his transformation.

"I didn't really have a difficult childhood," he says. "I remember my father had a bad accident when I was 13. His leg was crushed, and while that was healing he had a nervous breakdown. So that was kind of difficult to deal with, but it didn't seem like it really had any effect on me. I was always loved by my parents; I wasn't neglected in any way.

"I guess we were just brought up in a way that if you wanted anything in life you had to fight for it. The people I knew, my relatives and all, they drank a lot and that kind of influenced me. That's all I knew."

And hunting. For years Jack was a devoted hunter, especially of white-tailed deer.

"My grandpappy hunted, so did my dad and my uncle. We spent a lot of time in the mountains in Pennsylvania and Virginia."

Although Grahams had been missionaries in Pennsylvania in the 1800s, Jack never felt called himself. He much preferred hunting deer to hunting souls, and spent hours in the woods when the season was open. He especially loved the solitude and somber beauty of the forest, which seemed to soothe him, he says.

In fact, that's how he found the house were he and Majella now live.

"I was hunting up around here one day and saw this place," he recalls. "And I remember thinking, 'I want to live here.' "

As it happened, the house was for sale. Jack eventually bought )) the house and moved his family into it. But even in his dream house by the woods he was not really a happy man.

"I guess he thought he was happy, until he found the Lord," Majella says. "Maybe he was like the guys on The Block who

think they're having a good time, but then they get home and they're lonely. And they don't know it until they find the Lord and find out what real happiness is."

Jack admits he wasn't the easiest person to get along with.

"I could be grumpy, and I did drink and swear, even though I didn't really do it that much around my family," he says. "I was just kinda hard in ways. I thought in order to have a good time you had to go out and drink and maybe get in a fight every once in a while just to feel good. Up here they call people like that sort of hillbilly guys."

Perhaps seeking refuge from the stress at home, Majella started going to the small nondenominational evangelical church that changed both of their lives.

Majella had grown up in Hellam Township, "down over the hill" from where she and Jack live now in York County. Her father was an electrician; her mother started working in a hosiery factory in Hellam after Majella started school.

"My mother took us to church when I was 9 or 10," she recalls. "Later, my parents divorced and I didn't go anymore."

Majella says her parents' marriage broke up because her mother had a boyfriend. It was a difficult time for the family.

"The Lord must have protected me through it," she says now. "But my brother and two sisters had a problem with it. I wanted to stay with my dad and finish high school. So that's what I did."

She and Jack met as teen-agers, around the time her parents divorced.

"He lived on the east side of the [Susquehanna] river, and I lived on the west side," she recalls. "So I would see him in the town, we dated a few times, then he went into the service. But he asked a friend of ours to ask me to write to him. So I did, and when he came back on leave we started dating again, and about a year later we got married. I was 19 and he was 20. Pretty young.

"After Jack and I got married, our landlord told us we should take our children to church. So I started going in 1962. I went every Sunday and sat in a seat, but didn't know anything about a personal relationship with Jesus. It wasn't until I started going to the Rock Church in York did I find out about that."

One day in 1975 there was a revival meeting at the church and a friend asked Majella to come along.

"I went and everyone was worshiping and praising the Lord, waving their hands in the air," she recalls. "And I thought, 'What is going on?' Then the preacher said we can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And I said, 'Lord, I don't know what these people have, but I want it.' And so I got it."

Jack noticed the change in Majella almost immediately. "She seemed more serene," he remembers. "She was just a different person. There was a glow about her."

But though Jack liked the change in Majella, he wasn't ready to change himself. He didn't agree to accompany his wife to church until one day he was out hunting in the woods and had sort of a revelation.

"Somehow I just all of a sudden knew that I had to go, I don't know how," he recalls.

But when he walked into church that first time, he almost walked right out again.

"The first thing I saw was the pastor playing on a guitar," he says. "And there was my wife waving her hands in the air praising the Lord. I thought, 'These people are all nuts.' "

But just that quick, something had seized him. That's when he felt the warmth in his stomach, which he later likened to a candle being lighted.

"And that was the day I decided to give my life to Jesus Christ," he says, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do.

In 1976, Jack became an ordained minister in the state of Pennsylvania. At first he was terrified of speaking in public. "I was always fearful of getting up in front of people," he recalls. "Once I was asked to speak to a group about hunting, but when the time came I was so nervous I couldn't bring myself to do it.

"After I was saved, God was telling me I would have to rely on him for strength, because I couldn't do it myself. I became an elder in the church, and tried to lean as much as I could on the word of God. And God put the desire in me to serve him. He allows me to speak his word."

But is anyone listening?

"I've seen that guy, but I don't think anyone in here pays any attention to him," says a dancer named Pepsi who works days at Chez Joey's nightclub on Baltimore Street.

"One time the manager here told me, 'I wish that guy would just shut up,' " Pepsi says. "He said, like, 'I don't go over to his church telling people to come to my club, so where does he get off coming down to my club telling people about God?' "

Others think Jack and Majella have taken on a Sisyphean task in the sense that the forces working against The Block's existence are the same ones that eventually will make old-fashioned evangelism like theirs obsolete as well. Having a ministry, after all, requires a congregation to preach to. But as the kind of sexual explicitness The Block offers increasingly creeps into every corner of society through the mass media, it becomes ever harder to call sinners to repentance through a bullhorn.

Author David Neff, writing in a recent issue of the magazine Christianity Today, offered an explanation of what it means to be an evangelical today that at least partly explains Jack's Quixote-like mission:

"Evangelicalism is all about having confidence in the face of uncertainty and risk," Mr. Neff wrote. "Evangelicals forever walk on the wild side, fostering creative vision and impetuous responses to urgent needs. Such people -- unwilling to wait for slower denominational machinery to act -- have sought to save, heal or disciple people in fresh ways."

And so Jack Graham can be seen as a man of the movement and the times. Jack dreams of quitting his day job, selling his home and devoting himself to his street ministry on The Block. He believes absolutely that the Lord will provide him and his family with all that they need.

9- "Faith has brought me this far," he says.

GLENN MCNATT is a feature writer and columnist for The Sun.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
43°