It's noontime on Michigan Avenue, and the lean young man in the Nike basketball shoes is fighting his way through the current of moving bodies. His pace slows; the kid, who is about 20, scowls as he bounces left and then right, trying to avoid a collision.
The kid is almost to the corner of Michigan and Monroe when a hand reaches out, offering a leaflet titled "God Loves You." He takes hold of the leaflet and examines the cover, which bears a drawing of three crosses. "Please do not resent us forgiving you this tract," it says inside. "We love your soul, and we want to tell you, if you have never been born again, you are on your journey to a place where you will burn for ever and ever . . .
"Right now, will you bow your head and call on Jesus Christ to save your soul?" pleads the tract. "Almost is not good enough. Almost will send you to hell. Call upon Jesus today to save your soul."
But the kid never gets this far. One look at the cover, with those three crosses, and he huffs. It's lunchtime, and his girlfiiend is waiting. Bouncing on down the street, he folds the paper into an airplane and sets it sailing.
"God loves you," says John Kesler, an open-faced man in double-knit pants and sports shirt.
Kesler, who is 37, is about as fervent a "tract minister" as can be found in Chicago. A devoted parishioner at the Ashburn Baptist Church on the southwest side, he regularly leads small groups downtown to pass out tracts for an hour or so at a time.
This day, Kesler is accompanied on his mission by Roger Britton, 22, a good-looking unemployed mechanic who came to Christ a decade ago. "Our purpose on earth is to know, love, and serve God," says Britton, clutching to his breast a pocket New Testament.
Sometimes as Kesler and Britton go about their business they are met with a smile and even a dash of interest. One stout woman strikes up a friendly conversation with Kesler. The woman shares an anecdote about Winston Churchill--"Somebody asked him once whether he was ready to meet his maker, and he said 'Is He ready to meet me?'"--and then she trots off. A disheveled young man in a T-shirt accepts Kesler's literature and listens silently to a pitch about the Lord. "Are you sure you'll go to heaven when you die?" Kesler asks him. "I'm not sure," answers the man, growing irked, "but I don't want to talk about this right now."
Some passersby do take the tracts, examining them briefly or sticking them in a pocket, but the most common reaction is one of indifference. Many put their hands up to fend off the literature. Or they mouth a firm no through pursed lips. Or they pretend not to see Kesler and Britton at all. George Munoz, the former Chicago School Board president, is one who casts his brown eyes down. Blacks are the most receptive, young white professionals the least.
"Here's a free gift," says Roger Britton to one skeptical woman. As the lady puzzles over the tract, wondering if it's an offer for free french fries, Roger sets her straight: "A free gift, yes ma'am, eternal life from Christ Jesus." The woman walks off angered at the trick. "Junk," she hisses through her teeth.
After more than an hour of watching John and Roger give out hundreds of the things, an onlooker realizes that the reaction of the paper-airplane kid was pretty tame. But Kesler is unruffled. He is doing God's will: "This is the kind of thing where you feel that Jesus did a lot for us by dying on the cross, and this is the least we can do for Him."
But in this age of tele-ministers and mass marketing, isn't a guy standing on a street corner distributing scripture on an altogether antiquated crusade? "Lots of people are reached by television or radio today," replies Kesler, "but let me assure you that some people are still reached by the written word."
Indeed they are. The distribution of Bible tracts, an age-old method of winning church converts, turns out to be as popular as ever. Religious publishers continue to churn out the tracts by the millions, and lay ministers like Kesler distribute them with fervor. And odd as it may seem, there do exist tract converts, who have been rerouted from hell to heaven through the strangely magical power of a piece of paper.
The use of tracts to spread the gospel goes back centuries, to the Reformation. John Calvin and Martin Luther relied on the little books, but John Wesley, the Englishman who founded Methodism, was their most ardent proponent. Wesley, an Oxford-educated preacher born in 1703, grounded his denomination in the belief that salvation can be attained by faith alone. It fell to societies of true believers to convince the masses of Wesley's wisdom, a mission in which Wesley saw tracts as a powerful tool. "I sometimes wonder that all our preachers are not convinced of this," he wrote one follower in 1764, "that it is of unspeakable use to spread our practical tracts in every Society." Give your sermon, Wesley advised his follower, "and, after preaching, encourage the congregation to buy and read the tract."
In 1782, the aged Wesley actually founded a society designed expressly to deliver tracts to the poor. For a half-guinea annually, members could choose from among 30 tracts, most written by Wesley himself. The titles were rather straightforward, as, for instance, "A Word to a Sabbath-breaker" or "A Word to a Drunkard." Wesley saw great worth in the circulars. "I cannot but earnestly recommend this to all those who desire to see Christianity spread throughout these nations," he wrote. "Men wholly unawakened will not take pains to read the Bible. But a small tract may engage their attention for half-an-hour; and may, by the blessing of God, prepare them for going forward."
Tracts have always enjoyed great currency in the United States. The American Tract Society, one of the country's leading producers, was founded in New York City in 1825. Today, the society, based in Garland, Texas, publishes 25 million booklets a year, most of them evangelical pieces that are meant to achieve what they achieved in John Wesley's day. "There are a growing number of people who won't take the time to read a book," explains Perry Brown, the soiciety's tract editor. "But those same folks will read something short."
Something, he might add, that goes straight to the heart of the matter. According to John Kesler, today's basic Christian tract presents four arguments: Man is a sinner. Because he is a sinner, he is doomed to hell. Jesus died for man's sins. Therefore, to get to heaven, man must pray to Jesus and accept Him into his life.
The root of every tract is chapter three of the Gospel of John. There Jesus talks to Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. "With all the earnestness I possess I tell you this: Unless you are born again, you can never get into the kingdom of God." Jesus explains: "For only I, the Messiah, have come to earth and will return to heaven again. And as Moses in the wilderness lifted up the bronze image of a serpent on a pole, even so I must be lifted upon a pole, so that anyone who believes in me will have eternal life. For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that anyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it."
For all the simple uniformity of the message, tracts come in different styles. You can distribute a Cadillac or a Ford. Kesler orders most of his from a Ford dealership, the Fellowship Tract League in South Lebanon, Ohio, a small town 25 miles from Cincinnati. Fellowship Tract was begun by a man named Wash Pennington, a country pastor who says that one day in 1978 he received an instruction from God that he'd better get busy producing tracts. Today Fellowship Tract churns out 90 million of the leaflets a year, the funding coming largely through donations. "We just pray," explains Steve Bankhead, Fellowship's associate pastor, "and the Lord brings the money in." Subscribers like Kesler can order as many tracts as they want for free.
The Fellowship Tract offerings are by and large rich in scripture and stern in tone. "God Loves You," which Kesler likes to give out, is mild compared to "This Could Be Your Last 5 Minutes Alive!" another he favors. "In five minutes," goes the tract, "someone will place a sheet or maybe a blanket over your head. An ambulance will come to take you to the hospital for an autopsy. The undertaker will be called, and arrangements will be made to place you in a grave. At the funeral home people will come and shed tears over your lifeless body. They will look at and touch your cold and blank face. At the funeral, folks will weep and mourn, but you will be gone. . . .
"If you want to go to heaven," resounds the tract writer in conclusion, "I'll tell you what you need to do in your last few seconds. Get on your knees! Hurry! Now confess to God that you are a sinner! Come on! Don't waste time! Tell Him you know that you deserve to go to hell. Now tell Him that you know His Son died for you on the cross. You'd better hurry! Now tell Him you're sorry for your sin, and ask Him to come into your heart and save you now! Did you trust Him? Did you receive Him as your Saviour? If you did, you're ready to go to heaven."
"Thousands of degrees hot! And not a drop of water," begins the most rabid Fellowship tract. "THE BURNING HELL," roars the headline. "Tortured souls burning forever!"
A more uplifting approach is taken by Good News Publishers, a firm located in suburban Westchester. Good News was established in 1938 by a printer named Clyde Dennis especially to make tracts, and though the company has lately expanded into the publishing of books as well, its mainstay remains glossy four-color leaflets.
Good News's biggest seller, "You're Special," resembles a Mother's Day card, with the photograph of a big pink rose on its cover. Within there's a sunnier argument for coming to Christ. "Yes, you are invaluable to God!" says the text. "If you have never trusted in Jesus Christ for your salvation, you can accept His love upon you." Explains Bill Swain, in charge of tracts for Good News and the author of many company favorites, "The idea behind 'You're Special' is to say 'You're a unique creature and God loves you.'"
Steering away from fire and brimstone, Good News is known for its special-occasion tracts. There are pieces to enclose with an invoice ("A Pleasure to Serve You . . ."), to pass to a waitress in need of saving ("Take a tip . . ."), and to slip inside a kid's Halloween bag ("Trick or Treat"). The antiabortion tract has what Swain describes as "beautiful fetal shots." Five years ago Swain happened on Julius Erving's account of finding Christ at the age of 29, and he convinced the basketball star to let Good News excerpt it as a tract. Minnesota Twins second baseman Tommy Herr contributed his testimony unsolicitcd. "I don't want to sound providential about it this" says Swain, "but at that precise moment I was looking for a baseball player's testimony, and that week Tommy Herr sent his in."
John Kesler cherishes the Good News tracts for the care with which they are written and produced, but at 4 1/2 cents apiece wholesale, they cost too much. He reserves the Tommy Herr tract for those occasions when he works a Cubs game, the Julius Erving tract for the Bulls. Otherwise, he sticks with the dour Fellowship Tract materials.
The son of a postal worker, Kesler grew up in downstate Olney. At the age of eight, he says, "I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior" and was immersed in water at the Baptist church to which his family belonged. After attending a Baptist college in Ohio, Kesler went to work for Minnesota Fabrics in Detroit. He ended up managing a store at Ford City, but a year ago he quit because "I felt God was calling me to the ministry." Now Kesler is trying to decide how to earn a pastor's collar, whether to go to seminary or attend a Bible school run by the Ashburn Baptist Church; meanwhile, living alone in a Burbank apartment, he has become heavily involved at Ashburn.
Ashburn, located at 3647 W. 83rd St., is a fountainhead of tract work. Perhaps in sheer scale of distribution, Ashburn cannot quite compete with the Pacific Garden Mission, the 110-year-old gospel outpost south of the Loop. But Ashburn does come close. The longtime head minister, the Reverend Vernon Lyons, has for years believed strongly in tract distribution. "We believe this is a major way of propagating the gospel," he says.
Twenty-two years ago, in fact, he went to the mat over his right to do it. One Friday in June of 1966, Reverend Lyons and six young followers were passing out copies of the Acts of the Apostles in the Grant Park garage when the garage manager summoned the police. The group was hauled to Police Headquarters at 11th and State, and Lyons was charged, as best he recalls it, under an antilittering statute and another banning advertising on Park District property.
"You have to remember that Mayor Daley was in power," says Lyons, "and there was a strong liaison between him and the archdiocese. In those days, religious liberty was tolerated only inside your own church. You could do what you wanted inside your own building, but you couldn't proselytize."
Much to Lyons's consternation, he came to trial before a jury on the littering charge. His attorney argued that Lyons was protected by the First Amendment, but Richard Elrod, then an assistant corporation counsel in charge of ordinance enforcement, carried the day--Lyons wound up fined $25. He appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.
Lyons, however, persevered in his tract efforts. Now he estimates that students in Ashburn's adult Bible classes have leafleted "literally millions of pieces of Christian literature." Going out once or twice a week, Kesler and a shifting crew of Ashburn cohorts have succeeded in distributing 40,000 tracts over the last year. The back of each booklet is stamped with Ashburn Baptist's address and phone number.
Regular distribution points include Michigan Avenue, Marquette Park, and sporting venues. "Laundromats are good places to do this," offers Kesler, "because people don't have anything to do for an hour or two, and they are bored." They aren't exactly proper, city law prohibiting leafleting on private property, but then Kesler has also done some tract work at the Ford City shopping center. He's even made his own forays into the Grant Park garage. But his favorite haunt is the Rush Street area. "The need there is just so great," he explains.
As Kesler steers his Toyota Tercel downtown one Friday evening, he and his passenger, Tom Riesterer, join in prayer. Protect us in our work, they ask, as the near north side approaches.
Parking the car near the Moody Bible Institute on LaSalle Street, Kesler and Riesterer walk briskly toward Rush Street, where the night's crowds are just beginning to build.
Riesterer, 42, an enthusiastic man in a plaid shirt and blue jeans, is a mechanic at Nabisco Brands. He was saved on July 27, 1987, after a fellow mechanic had helped lead him to Jesus. At the moment of acceptance, Riesterer remembers, he was at home reading from the book of Romans, and he broke down crying. Riesterer, who works the night shift at Nabisco, can regularly be found standing in front of the Sears store at 62nd and Western, handing out tracts from 9:30 AM to noon. The prospect of a night on Rush Street only emboldens him: "There is no shortage of sinners around here."
That appears to be a widespread notion, for Rush Street on a Friday draws its share of evangelicals. The small triangle of land where Rush and State converge is usually home to student preachers from Hyles Anderson College, a fundamentalist school in Crown Point, Indiana. Sharing this turf are various Open Air Campaigners, young Christian proselytizers who make sketches on easels they bring along to help conceptualize the process of coming to Christ. Louis Sari, the local director for the Campaigners, claims the student preachers heckle his people. "These boys are bombastic," charges Sari. "They do not preach in the spirit of love."
But this night there is no heckling--only the team from Ashburn Baptist is on duty in the area. It is just after 7 PM when Kesler and Riesterer position themselves at the corner of State and Elm, in the shadow of a Walgreen's.
"A prayer folder from Jesus," says Riesterer as he hands out tract after tract. "God bless you, and have a nice day."
"God loves you," says Kesler on the stump. "Here's some good news."
The passersby on Rush Street are even less open to the literature than the ones on Michigan Avenue. A chic woman garbed totally in black motions Kesler away, and several strides down the street says to her daughter, "God, I always run into creeps. It's my luck." She is trailed by a goateed gent dressed in a sharkskin suit and smoking a cigar. One moment with Kesler, and he whispers to his girlfriend, "Oh, I love this stuff, love it."
Then he is gone, to be followed by a lady in a Mary McFadden cocktail dress and an $80 haircut. She averts her eyes but neglects to close her hand, and into it Kesler places a tract, Paling at this assault, she casts the paper to the ground. "You know," she confides to a friend as she sweeps off, "this is all I need today."
Some people, it must be said, are more pleasant. Most sailors who go by at least accept the tracts, and one long-haired young man from Saint Louis expresses sympathy for their mission. "I'm a Christian," he says.
Then a stoop-shouldered woman toting a satchel approaches and bathes Kesler with a warm smile. I love God, the woman offers, and isn't that enough? Why do I have to accept Christ, too? Because the Bible says so, replies Kesler, and he launches a curbside sermon laced with scripture. The woman gives Kesler a long listen. It turns out she lives on the southwest side, near Ashburn Baptist, and before shuffling off she promises to come by some Sunday.
Standing alongside a newspaper box, Kesler delivers his longest discourse. "God sent Jesus to die for our sins, he tells an aged man in a striped shirt. "Now you must ask Jesus to forgive you of your sins. That's how you get to heaven. Everyone on this street here deserves to go to hell unless they accept Christ. It's too bad, but that's the way it is. Read this over when you get a chance"--Kesler passes the guy a tract--"and if you have any questions just call the number that's printed there on the back."
He seems to have made an impression. A look of pleasure washes across Kesler's face. But here is the old man coming back a minute later, leading his wife toward the evangelist. The wife laughs at the introduction, and she winks at her spouse; she simply means to ridicule Kesler, and she's trying to draw her hubby into the fun.
An interruption is quick in coming. "Fucking A, Christ was not a virgin," shrieks a hag who has spied Kesler and Riesterer from a distance and now hobbles over to harangue them. "Name me a goddamn bitch besides Mary Magdalene who has had a virgin birth. It's scientifically, technically impossible, and you know it. Get your goddamn asses out of here."
"God bless you, ma'am," says Kesler to the woman.
"Jesus loves you," says Riesterer.
"Jesus fucks," shrieks the woman, nearly bursting her lungs.
Before going home two hours later, Riesterer and Kesler reflect upon their experience over Cokes at a McDonald's. "Rush Street is like Sodom and Gomorrah," observes Riesterer, "a place full of prostitution, drugs, and booze. And they got a lot of homosexuals down here. Every one of those things will condemn you to hell in the Bible, so the way I figure it this is a good place for us to come."
"The people are cold and hard, as far as receptivity goes," says Kesler. "Everybody doesn't know they are in need of Jesus. I'll tell you this, if I didn't have Jesus in my heart there is no way I could be out at night giving out tracts. You do take a lot of abuse, but God's power gives you the grace to slough it off when they curse you."
How about the swearing hag? Isn't it difficult to face such abuse? "Jesus came to serve who?" counters Riesterer. "That lady is who. She is a large sinner. She's the person we pray for the most."
Yet even somebody who is relatively reverent--such as the stoop-shouldered woman--is condemned to hell if he or she fails to come to Jesus. "The way to God is through Jesus," insists Riesterer. "If you're a Buddhist you're a Buddhist, but unless you take Christ to your heart you can't go to heaven." It's an open-and-shut case.
The question is asked whether Bible tracts actually do win converts. "Some people might be easier to reach by television and radio, some by the written word," Kesler muses. "But some people are reached by tracts. What we do is just one way of getting the gospel out. The Lord works in strange ways. Basically all I'm doing is trying to help people, and if they don't want my help, fine. I'm still doing the Lord's bidding."
"We sow the seeds," says Riesterer. "It is God that makes them grow."
If I Had a Penny, printed by Good News Publishers in 1971, is described on its flyleaf as the "more thrilling than fiction" story of how tracts work wonders. This paperback book recounts tale after tale of tracts that win conversions; by and large, the redeemed are described anonymously.
"The washroom of a bus station is an unusual place to be confronted with a testimony about Christ," begins one parable, which tells of a man who enters a john, finds some tracts placed there by a janitor, and in time comes to Jesus. In another story, a ski instructor with boundless enthusiasm for the Son of God has little success in winning over a German colleague. Neither conversation nor paperwork will do the trick. But then the German's Volkswagen is totaled in an accident. The German "crawled out of the car, kneeled on the highway and, as a result of having read over and over again the message in the tract, remembered that he must receive Christ to be saved."
"Taking just a few minutes one day to pass through the San Antonio, Texas, jail to distribute tracts to the inmates," the book relates, "A.C. Smith left several at the door of condemned Jimmie Alford who was soon to die for murder. Jimmie read the tracts, conviction gripped his soul, and he called on God to save him by faith in Christ. After that eventful day, Alford was a transformed man. . . . As the life-giving Word of God found lodging in the heart of this man, he too called on Christ as his Saviour and Lord, and the closing days of his life, until he was electrocuted, were full of praise and testimony."
The major tract publishers report that the mail pours in. "We get in 1,500 responses a year from people, indicating an acceptance of Jesus or the fulfillment of a spiritual need," relates Perry Brown of the American Tract Society, "and we believe that's just the tip of the iceberg." Each year the Fellowship Tract League registers "thousands of responses from all over the world," according to that organization's Steve Bankhead. Good News Publishers hears from more than 3,000 tract enthusiasts annually, claims Bill Swain.
"Oh, it's very hard to check on how effective we've been," explains the Reverend Vernon Lyons of Ashburn Baptist Church. "The results may not be immediate or direct. Somebody receiving a tract may just be drawn to a church and then go on from there."
Yet concrete testimony is as close at hand as Lyons's own fold.
Back in the 1940s, family tragedy drew John Musser, an engineer, ever closer to the faith. In 1945 Musser's first child, a daughter, was born with a cleft palate, "and that more or less convinced me that there was a God," he recalls. "I concluded that somebody sat in control when that baby was born." When the daughter was two, surgery to correct the cleft palate not only failed but left her brain-damaged. Regular school became too difficult for her; to bring her into contact with normal children her age, Musser and his wife enrolled the girl in the Sunday school of an evangelical church in 1952. "What do you think--that summer they asked me to teach Sunday school," marvels Musser. "Up until that time, I had never really picked tip a Bible."
Musser remembers taking his soldier brother one October day to the Illinois Central train station in Englewood. "While we were waiting for my brother's train to come I saw a tract rack," he says. He helped himself. Later that day he disappeared into the attic of his mother's house, where he and his family were boarding, and he read one of the tracts, "The New Birth," written by a downstate evangelist named Paul Levin.
It centered, not surprisingly, on chapter three of John. "Except a man be born again," said the scripture, "he cannot see the kingdom of God." Says Musser, "When I read that verse, it was like somebody had picked me up, slammed me against the wall, and said 'Hey, pay attention!' I can't tell you exactly what happened. All I know is that when I started to teach Sunday school that fall I was lost as could be. When Christmas came, I was as saved as could be."
His wife soon followed him to Christ. Musser underwent Bible training and became a pastor at Ashburn Baptist, the church he felt best reflected his fundamentalist leanings. Now a sprightly 70 and semiretired, Musser labors long hours for Ashburn Baptist, primarily at a second church recently opened in Orland Park.
If ever there was an unabashed tract zealot, it is Musser. His business card and the letterhead and shipping tickets of his welding company all bear the snippet of scripture that converted him. "Whenever we pay an invoice, there is always a tract sent along with it," he says. "At home, when my wife pays a bill, a tract accompanies the check." Waitresses in the restaurants Musser frequents receive tracts with their tips, naturally, as do the limo drivers who take him from the Phoenix airport to his winter home in nearby Mesa. "Here's a one-way ticket to heaven," he says as he passes a tract to each unsuspecting chauffeur.
It was such a personal touch that saved Bill Rudolph in 1965, when he was a 19-year-old sailor spending a weekend at a hotel on South State Street. Rudolph had handed a pimp a few dollars to bring him a girl, but the pimp pocketed the money and disappeared. Being had in that way thrust Rudolph into a depression. "I was ashamed I had accepted the pimp's invitation," he says. "I was young and stupid. And given all that, I had become a victim of deceit, too." As he walked back to his hotel that Saturday night, two volunteers approached Rudolph and asked him to stop in at a Christian servicemen's center. He spurned the offer, but he took the tract they handed him.
Back at the hotel for the night, Rudolph found he couldn't sleep. Finally he got out of bed and read the tract. It told him about a tightrope walker who successfully maneuvered over Niagara Falls and then asked onlookers to let him push one of them across the wire in a wheelbarrow. No volunteer stepped forward. The tract writer then drew a parallel: Trust in Jesus, putting yourself in His wheelbarrow and letting Him take you across to salvation. "It made sense to me," says Rudolph, "and I got down on my knees and prayed. Still, I didn't find peace."
But the next morning Rudolph decided to drop in at the servicemen's center. He prayed there with the pastor on duty. The pastor recited a verse from John, chapter three--"For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that anyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life"--and asked Rudolph to replace "anyone" with his own name. "That clinched it," says Rudolph. "All of a sudden I felt forgiven for all my sins. It was like I had taken off a tight pair of shoes that I had worn my whole life."
Rudolph went on to become a Presbyterian minister. At 43, the lanky cleric leads a congregation in suburban Westchester. A tract, in Rudolph's mind, "is just that first introduction" to Christ. They're useful--Rudolph's church has its tract racks. But he thinks, "To me, there is no sense in passing them out indiscriminately."
It was a combination of tracts, plus something else, that won Nick Pappas for Christ.
Pappas, like his father before him, was a peddler of fruits and vegetables on the north side. Early each morning, he fetched produce from the South Water Market to his ethnic clientele. "Ma, grab your bag, here comes Nick," read the sign on his aluminum-sided truck. The wisecrack echoed the patter Pappas kept up with his customers. It all made for a good living, Pappas says.
"For 44 years I was a member of the Greek Orthodox Church," Pappas relates. "My grandfather on my father's side was a priest in Greece; I went to church, though not every Sunday, and my beliefs were those of the church.
"Then I began picking up tracts here and there--on street corners, in telephone booths--and I'd read them. On Sunday, I'd get up at three or four in the morning, to ready my truck for Monday's work, and I'd listen to the radio preachers. Over the same period I began to compare what the tracts were saying and what the Greek Orthodox religion taught. One of them must be wrong, I thought to myself, and I started digging. The more I read the tracts, the more I dug, and the more I started talking to Bible believers. My mind was being cleared up."
Pappas made a list of 21 points where Greek Orthodox practice and doctrine were contradicted, in his eyes, by the Bible. An example of these is infant baptism; Pappas concluded that the rite was meaningless unless it followed a conscious decision to accept Christ. Eventually Pappas considered himself no longer a member of the Orthodox Church. On the other hand, he felt saved.
What sealed the proposition was something that happened one June night in 1968. "My wife and I are sitting in the kitchen," he remembers, "and all at once the rear doorbell rings. She gets up, goes to the back door, and turns on the light. 'Nick,' she says, 'something is sittin' on the floor out there.' So I got up and went outside, and there it was, just layin' there."
The "it" in question was a Bible inscribed with the name "James Reid Brown." Says Pappas, who had never owned a Bible before, "I asked around with a few people, but no one knew who James Reid Brown was. He had to be some Christian, I figure, who learned I was newly saved and didn't have a Bible. Whoever he was, I've read and studied this Bible"--he thumps its cover--"for 20 years now. It's my whole life, kid."
Pappas, bearded, opinionated, and now retired at the age of 64, preaches to seniors at the Chelsea House retirement hotel. In addition, he has been active with the Berean Bible Society, a nationwide gospel ministry founded by a minister named C.R. Stam that's based in Elmwood Park. "Nick doesn't have the slightest doubt in his outlook," observes Stam. "This man is saved."
Which is Nick's goal for the rest of us. Three or four times a year, Pappas stows a thousand or so tracts in his van and leaves them in doorways and on cars in parking lots, or hands them to strangers on corners. He even tries his luck at shopping malls ("Sure they can arrest me, but I'm a gambler").
Pappas concedes a large measure of futility. Yet he says, "If one person in 500,000 is convinced by one it's all worth it. See, there's only one sin that will assign you to hell, and that's refusing the salvation that Jesus Christ offers. John Gacy killed 33 boys, but if he accepts Jesus they can put him in the electric chair--I do believe in capital punishment--and he'll still go to heaven. Hitler would have gone to heaven, too, if he had accepted Jesus. Same with Mao Tse-tung and Stalin--they butchered millions and millions of people, but if at the minute they died they had accepted the Lord it's to heaven they'd have gone."
"There is this need for people to validate their Christianity," says Bill Swain of Good News Publishers. "But somehow Christianity on radio and television doesn't look good anymore, and let me tell you Jim and Tammy haven't helped. The preachers now are looked upon as flaky. And still there's a need for positive publicity about the Lord."
Hence the need for tracts, to Swain's way of thinking, those seeds sown on the wind.
Swain visualizes every tract receiver as being at some spot on a continuum: "On the one end is the person who is agnostic, who will refuse to consider anything about religion. On the other is the sort of person who would like to come to God, but doesn't quite know how--that guy is our target audience, though of course we try to meet everyone's needs."
Bill Rudolph, so deeply influenced by a tract, agrees. "When I accepted that tract from those two sailors 20 years ago, God was working in my life. The tract was. Those sailors were. I believe everything that happened reflected God working for my benefit. God caused this whole series of situations to happen to cause me to reflect on my circumstances, and there I was at 19 years old, ready for a new impulse for a life with purpose and meaning." John Musser thinks his picking up a tract in the Englewood train station was fated: "The spirit of God was dealing with me."
That spirit also moves an occasional person encountered by John Kesler in his ministry. Last February on Rush Street, Kesler handed a tract to a man in his early 20s. The young man got to talking with Kesler, and he mentioned he was unhappy. So Kesler bought the guy a Coke and hamburger, and it developed that he was hanging around Rush Street in order to snatch purses. "It ended up that he accepted Jesus," says Kesler, "and hopefully he walked away with a changed life."
Last April, as Kesler was leaving a seminar conducted by evangelist Bill Gothard at the University of Illinois Pavilion, he noticed a teenager standing precariously on a bridge over the Eisenhower Expressway. Kesler approached and struck up a conversation with the teen, who was preparing to jump. "I read to him from the tract a little, but basically we just talked," says Kesler, "and then he, too, accepted Jesus right there on the bridge."
Kesler has seen neither the purse snatcher nor this teenager again, nor does he know their names. Yet he feels it's possible that both have stuck to their decisions for Christ. "You know, the Lord works in strange ways," he notes.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Booz.