With bullhorn and Bible, evangelist Jack Graham preaches a weekly sermon on The Block


November 12, 1995|By Glenn McNatt

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."

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