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Saved in MacArthur Park

MacArthur Park, the city’s immigrant crossroads, is heaven on earth for the Spanish-speaking evangelical street preacher. On Sunday afternoons, the people of the new L.A. rest after a hard week’s work, playing soccer and taking strolls around the lake while carrying on conversations in indigenous American languages with lots of K’s, Q’s, C’s and U’s. The preachers pick a spot, flip on their Radio Shack megaphones, and holler away in the name of el Señor Jesucristo.

Last Sunday, preacher William Gonzalez, a native of El Salvador, brought his shofar, a long instrument that appeared to be a ram’s horn. He knelt on one knee, blew into the horn to make a wide, primal wail, and made his case, loudly: “We’re waking up, friends! We serve el Señor! He is alive! He is sitting on the throne! He has the victory! He has the authority!”

Then silence. A worker with the Department of Recreation and Parks approached Gonzalez and kindly asked him to turn off his megaphone, informing him that he was not allowed to use it inside the park unless he had a permit from the city. She’d done the same just a minute ago to another preacher on a patch of grass near the lake’s southeast inlet, an alcove ruled by ducks and huge, brazen city rats.

Gonzalez, a slight, brown man, listened to her and then moved over to the busy sidewalk at the corner of Seventh and Alvarado streets, outside the park boundaries. He picked up where he left off, and the people on the street went about the business of walking.

“And I’ll tell you one thing,” Gonzalez screamed. “If you can’t find work, God will find you work!”

Selling snacks on a corner, drawing pictures on walls, yelling in public. This city loves few things more than slapping regulations on practices that are easily a few millennia older than California’s date of discovery. When Gonzalez took a break from urging pedestrians to repent and accept Jesucristo as their savior, he said his “brothers” and “sisters” used to preach and hand out literature at the Red Line station across the street. Authorities nudged them out of there too.

“El sheriff said we couldn’t preach in the train station, he said we could preach at the park,” Gonzalez said. “Now I think people are calling and asking them to stop us.”

“The lost ones,” murmured Martha Sanchez, an older lady who held her own megaphone close, like a purse. “Poor things.”

Gonzalez said nothing will deter him from evangelizing the people at the park. “This is a global capital, this park. Everyone comes here from around the world.”

Sanchez shook her head sadly. She said that a whole congregation has been founded directly out of people who heard the Word at MacArthur Park. Former hookers, hustlers, addicts. “See that gentleman there who’s urinated himself?” Sanchez asked, pointing to a wino in rags so caked with dirt they were the color of black copper. “That’s how we bring them in.”

“Help us,” Sanchez pleaded. “Can you help us?”

I told her I’d see what I could do. But she was apparently unconvinced, and told her companions, “Let’s pray for him.” Panicking, I tried my best to decline the offer, but they were already at it. Joined by two other evangelical soldiers, they surrounded me and began tearing at the sky with their cries and mumbles, chanting over one another, closing their eyes in their fervor, and completely freaking me out.

“Bless him, Father . . . In the name of Jesus! In the name of God! . . . Father, please, help him . . . The glory, Father, the glory . . . Now, Father, now! Keep him, Father!”

I hadn’t realized they were actually hanging on to me. Quickly, I calculated the social and professional cost of whipping my arms free and running away, or maybe snatching the shofar from Gonzalez’s arms and striking him over the head with it, creating an effective diversion. It wasn’t going to work. Their grip was too strong.

“In the name of the Son, el Señor Jesucristo, AMEN!!!” Gonzalez finished.

I exhaled and thanked them and explained that I could not “participate” in this manner. Sanchez seemed pleased nonetheless. One of the praying preachers, a man in a shirt and tie, sitting in a wheelchair, searched my eyes. As I stuffed my notebook in my pocket and turned to leave, he called to me. “God has a purpose for you,” he said. “Repent.”