Street preacher has Lord and law on his side

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By: Jesse Buchanan, Record-Journal staff

CHESHIRE - Jesse Morrell's first experience street preaching was at age 17 at a bus stop in New Haven. Two years earlier, he had quit doing drugs and robbing houses after becoming a Christian. He felt that standing on a bench was the best way he could tell the strangers around him what he said they needed to know about salvation.

"It was such a thrill to stand up and preach, I went all over that day," he said.

It's a confrontational, as well as controversial, style of evangelism that found Morrell in prison after he was arrested while preaching in Hartford. In New Haven, police threatened him with arrest multiple times based on a noise ordinance, prompting Morrell to file a lawsuit saying the ordinance was vaguely written and violated his free speech.

The Cheshire native received a favorable consent order from a U.S. District Court in August, saying the ordinance could not be applied to his actions. The city of New Haven agreed to reimburse Morrell $25,000 in attorney fees and pay $1 in damages, although the consent order is not an admission by the city that police were in the wrong in the 2004 incident.

"The city resolved this matter without admission of liability to avoid the costs of further litigation," according to a statement issued by the city of New Haven. "We did nothing more than agree that the city will follow the law as it believes it did in the case of Mr. Morrell."

Morrell was represented by the Alliance Defense Foundation, a nonprofit civil liberties organization.

According to court documents submitted by the foundation, Morrell attempted to preach, read a Bible, pray and sing hymns on the sidewalk outside four clubs and bars in New Haven and was told by police to leave all four locations or face arrest. Morrell stopped preaching and later filed the lawsuit.

He also filed a lawsuit against the city of Hartford stemming from his arrest there in 2004. Hartford's corporation counsel declined to comment on the lawsuit, which is ongoing.

Jonathan Scruggs, an attorney who represented Morrell in the New Haven case, said the Hartford case is similar. Noise is not the real issue in either case, Scruggs said.

"A large part of it is (Morrell's) audience didn't like what he was saying," Scruggs said. Patrons of the bars and clubs complained to police that Morrell was being annoying and objectionable, according to Scruggs.

Morrell now travels throughout the United States and Canada preaching with Open Air Outreach. He said he may spend much of the winter in the Northeast and could visit Yale University.

Morrell certainly doesn't preach to the choir. He and his group target bars, clubs, college campuses - anywhere he can find people who will disagree and debate with him.

"It's a dialogue. It's not a typical sermon," Morrell said. "We go there because we believe they're in trouble with God with the way they're living their lives. ... Typically, the crowds that we attract are the drunken, fornicating pot-smokers."

His message - Jesus or judgment - places him at odds with Christians of other denominations, some of whom have confronted him on the street. Morrell has been told that he gives Christians a bad name, and that God will not judge anyone.

Morrell answered that Jesus talked about sin and hell and was also a controversial figure.

"It must not be bad, it must be important," he said. "The God of the Bible does hold people accountable for their actions."

Morrell attended Christ Community Church on Main Street for several years and was tutored in math briefly by church elder and Cheshire resident Wayne Nakoneczny.

The change in Morrell was "the real thing," Nakoneczny said. "He's doing what he believes God's called him to do. ... He's on fire and that fire hasn't gone out."

Morrell travels the country with his wife Krista and 3-month-old daughter Elizabeth, preaching in a variety of public places. He plans to preach in New Haven in the spring.

"We go all over the United States. Every month we'll be in a new state."

Morrell is pleased with the August court decision and hopes his legal victories will help other street preachers. A court's judgment isn't his highest concern, though.

"The Bible commands us to preach the gospel," he said. "I'll preach the gospel whether it's legal or not."
(203) 317-2230

© 2009


Jim Blake

All glory goes to the living God, maker of the heavens and the earth, for He alone is worthy of all glory and honor and praise. I consider the sufferings of this age not worthy to be compared to what is to come for those who place their faith in the King of kings and persevere in faith, day by day, until the end.

For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.

As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.

Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.

For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.

As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.

For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.

But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children's children;

To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.

Psalm 103:11-18

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