Street Preachers Part of an Urban Landscape
Calgary Herald Editorial
Runners in every city understand there's an invisible line on the trails that, once crossed, takes you into a kind of fourth dimension. It's the zone you don't want to enter, not without a group of running buddies in broad daylight.
In Calgary, the line starts west of the Edmonton Trail bridge, near the Drop-In Centre, and continues east. The atmosphere changes immediately, with a charged-up aggression in the air in front of Triangle Park. The patch of green space is home to drug dealers and addicts. Aggressive panhandlers loiter nearby, as well as old homeless men seeking nothing more than to be left alone, under shelter at the overpass or to sleep in peace in the bushes along the river valley.
The only time I feel comfortable running past there is on Sunday afternoons, when street preacher Art Pawlowski is in the park, calming the crowd with food, warm clothes, hot drinks and prayer. Yes, his Street Church Ministry preaches the Gospel, and the message isn't one I or others necessarily want to hear. But so what? Who is he hurting?
Street preachers are as much a part of the urban landscape as the homeless people they're trying to help -- or as the drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes and other souls needing to be saved. Calgarians should lighten up.
That the city has engaged in a protracted legal battle with Pawlowski brings the forces of NIMBY to new lows. It began two years ago when a few neighbours across the river complained they could hear him preaching from their balconies on warm afternoons.
Instead of seeking a reasonable solution, the city picked sides and in 2007, told Pawlowski his permit would only be renewed with a condition he stop using amplified speakers. That escalated into a legal battle and a court injunction in April, banning him from using speakers anywhere within city limits, even on private land, although the judge will consider it if a landowner comes forward.
Pawlowski is refusing to be silenced. He is suing the city over alleged breach of Charter rights, still before the courts. Now he's filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission.
The latest twist in the drama occurred last week, when more than a dozen police officers stopped the Street Church Ministry from protesting on the steps of Old City Hall. Pawlowski and gang have been staging rallies there for the past month. The city requested the protest move a block because it had booked contractors to clean the windows and needed to secure the area, but the Street Church refused to budge. Police and bylaw officers were called out in full force, which seems a bit heavy-handed.
It's hard to imagine how one man can make so much noise. Still, as much as Pawlowski may be a pain in the bureaucratic patootie, he has a valid point.
If volume really was the issue, why did the city renew his permit without fuss every year since 2003, when he began preaching in Triangle Park three times a week? He's not been convicted of one infraction of exceeding noise bylaws in the five years he's been preaching.
Pawlowski could resolve the matter amicably by simply turning down the sound. But as he points out, he's not dealing with a regular crowd. The speakers act as a buffer "from dangerous people" who have to come closer to hear him if he doesn't use a microphone.
"The music and preaching was cooling them off," he says. "It's soothing. Music for a few hours changes the whole atmosphere. It was like a picnic atmosphere."
I couldn't agree more. Colourful characters like street preachers make cities vibrant.
Besides, when you live close to the core, noise is a part of life. What's next, attempts to ban music from the festivals on Prince's Island Park? Forbidding police helicopters from launching across the river after hours? Should fire trucks and ambulances be forced to turn down their sirens?
The city should be focusing its resources on shutting down real troublemakers and criminals, such as the drug dealers operating in the park around him.
People publicly preaching the Gospel are harmless. They might make some segments of society uncomfortable, but so do a lot of inner-city realities, such as cycling or running past visible signs of mental illness and teenagers strung out on crack.
Get over it. Making noise isn't a crime. Nor is free speech about saying only the things people want to hear. If some don't like the message, they can always turn up the volume on their iPods.
© The Calgary Herald 2008