The main thrust of my ministry work is publick preaching and evangelism, and has been for almost 18 years. In our relatively small community, I miss out on the massive crowds that I had access to when living in a big city, but I get the replacement benefit of preaching to people that I will see again and again and again. That sort of things hold you accountable, you understand.
About a half-mile or so from our church is a government indoctrination center (middle school)school, and I had decided a while back that this would be a great place for evangelism. The layout of the school is such that cars full of parents stack up out the front driveway of the school and onto the road while waiting for the prisoners (sorry--students) to be released. In addition to this, when school lets out there is a great deal of foot traffic leaving the property, most of which goes along a sidewalk that runs out in front of the school. I had been thinking about this spot for some time, and so one afternoon, my unflappable partner and I decided to give it a test run. We would simply wear our shirts that say "JESUS SAVES" and hold some fairly innocuous signs with Bible verses on them. It was free speech without speaking.
To keep from blocking traffic during the 45 minutes or so that it takes this school to dismiss , the cars actually stack up on the sidewalk, so the sidewalk was virtually useless to us. We simply stood back 3 or 4 feet back from the cars on the grass, and simply stood there with our signs. We talked to no one. Within less than 2 minutes we were approached by a school official with a walkie-talkie that informed us that the grass we were standing on was school property, and we would have to move forward onto the sidewalk, which was public property. Keep in mind, we weren't preaching, we weren't handing out tracts, we were simply standing there. We took a step or two forward onto the little bit of sidewalk that wasn't occupied by a car and were now standing mere inches from the vehicles, but the school official had insisted that to put ourselves in danger was a more acceptable alternative than us standing on school property that we had, after all, helped pay for.
The following week we made it to the sidewalk before the cars started stacking up and placed ourselves behind the line of cars. Within minutes, another walkie-talkie came along and said that we were not allowed to use the sidewalk to stand on, that we were indeed, blocking vehicular traffic. I pointed out the ridiculousness of a pedestrian being asked to yield to a car on the sidewalk, but was ignored. We crossed the street to where there was no sidewalk and finished out our time on that side.
The third week we positioned ourselves behind a stop sign. Due to its placement, it was a piece of sidewalk no car could possibly use. Surely I thought, we can't be blocking traffic now. The walkie-talkie made his way back out and was quite belligerent. I tried to reason with the man, pointing out that there was no way a car could go where we were standing, and besides, it was a SIDEWALK!. He claimed that the sidewalk was school property, even though one of his other walkie-talkie buddies had told us the exact opposite the week before. He raised his voice and said "If you don't leave I'm going to call the cops!"
I pointed to a nearby cop acting as a crossing guard and said "There's one right there, go get him." The walkie-talkie left, apparently to call some entirely different set of cops and as soon as the crossing guard stand-in had a minute, he approached us. He had been watching this unfold over the last couple of weeks and had "done some checking" and , according to him, the sidewalk we were on WAS school property, but only between approximately 2:30 and 3:15 in the afternoon. After that, it magically became public property again.
Now I enjoy a good joke as much as the next guy, but this was getting irritating. I assured the traffic cop that, after having preached in lots of different public places over the last few years, I had NEVER heard of something flip-flopping ownership like that. He assured me it was so. I demanded to see this in writing. This request, alas, he could not fulfill.
He went on to say that the principal had 'complete jurisdiction' over the area, and that the area of jurisdiction extended 1,000 feet beyond the school building. Now the school building is set pretty far back from the road with a really long driveway, and I had no way of measuring it, but I was pretty sure the sidewalk was further out that that. I mentioned this, and the cop informed me that the principal also had the magical power to extend this zone as far out as he needed to in order to 'keep the children safe'. I have to admit, I try to stay informed, but I was amazed to learn that the principal of a middle school had such god-like powers. I was equally amazed at the inference that 2 guys in T-shirts with signs were such a threat to the children's safety.
He threw his third red herring at us. He was 'pretty sure' we might need a permit, as we were 'conducting a business' on public sidewalks. In my head I went 'oh, now they're public again, huh?'. I smiled politely and said "Would the principal happen to be in his office?" When he admitted that this probably was the case, I turned and headed towards the school building, my partner in tow, with the surprised police officer trying to keep up.
The secretary was speechless when we arrived, looking back over our shoulders at our police escort. The principal was summoned and the 4 of us had a little pow-wow in a side office. My case and request were both very simple. I wanted to preach the gospel out on the public sidewalk, as is my right, and his walkie-talkie brigade was giving us a different set of rules every week. I wanted to simply see something in writing as to what the rules actually were.
The principal was very diplomatic, a skill his job may very well require. He told us that he was very aware of who we were, what we were doing, and that he actually was in favor of our ministry, but his hands were tied, the law being what it is and all. He admitted that there was probably nothing he could show me in writing that would satisfy me, but he hoped to appeal to us on another level. He admitted that the sidewalk was public property, and didn't change hands, but would we mind so terribly standing on the other side of the road where there is no sidewalk? We would still be visible, still be audible should we decide to preach, and we would be out of the way of cars.
He said that he has 45 minutes or so every afternoon to get 1000 kids off of the property safely, and on any given afternoon any number of things could go wrong. He said "You on that sidewalk is just one more thing that can go wrong." He took the position that, when we stand on the sidewalk, children have to walk around us, and that puts them closer to traffic, so, as a favor to him, could we just move everything across the street?
As he was talking, I was thinking. This wasn't the libertarian Alamo. What I really wanted to do was not make some sort of test case for free speech laws, I just wanted to do my ministry. So I agreed. As it turns out, the other side of the road is a better fit for what we are trying to do. Now every Friday afternoon, me and my still unflappable partner walk down the length of the sidewalk carrying our signs, we turn to the right and cross over in full view of the walkie-talkies and the stacked cars. We preach for maybe 20 minutes or so , under the watchful eyes of both the traffic cop and the principals minions who are on hair-trigger alert for these two dangerous ruffians, one of which is over 60 and blind. Could I have made a huge case? Probably. But the point wasn't to do that. The point was to actually exercise my freedoms. Scaring them just a tad every Friday afternoon is just icing on the cake. How do you scare them? By pointing out the insanity they've agreed to abide by in exchange for a paycheck. It doesnt always work out, but every once in a while, it does.