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Preaching on Bourbon Street 

Frank Etheridge on the controversial church that's suing the city of New Orleans over a street-preaching ordinance

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At dusk on the first Wednesday in October, a cobalt-blue sky gives way to a horizon of pink and peach hues and a merciful autumn chill cools New Orleans. Sounds of Anders Osborne covering Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" drift from Lafayette Square. In the front pew of the Vieux Carre Assembly of God Church at 433 Dauphine St. in the upper French Quarter, Pastor Paul Gros sits, head bowed and eyes shut, praying for the world to find in Jesus Christ "a place of salvation and inspiration."

  Gros' stream-of-conscious prayer asks for wisdom in our political leaders and gives thanks for positive developments in legal matters — last month, he filed a lawsuit against the city of New Orleans over a year-old ordinance he says unconstitutionally restricts his right to preach the gospel a block away on Bourbon Street.

  A black woman, sitting two pews behind Gros, prays for a financial settlement and restored knees. A Hispanic woman sits in a folding chair behind the last pew, moving between English and Spanish in chants that include prayer "for those that have lost their job and that their next job be a better one." This is Mireya, Gros' Mexican-born wife of 32 years. Everyone calls her Maria.

   "I know you believe in the power of prayer," says Gros, now standing and walking in front of the pulpit to face me. "Hands on this man!" Gros booms.

  The two women stand, walk over, and place their hands on my shoulders and back. Their touch is comforting; the seconds-as-eternity stretch of them chanting "bahbahbahbahbahbahbahbahbah" is disconcerting. "We ask you, Jesus, to take Satan out of him, to remove the demons from him," Gros prays, his deep voice rising in volume and intensity with each phrase. When it's over, he gives me a book, 31 Days of Praise: Enjoying God Anew.

   "I invite you to come back to worship with us on Sunday mornings," Gros says. "We've been here for 30 years. It's a small church, in the middle of the French Quarter, but this is where the Lord has called us."

Gros declines to discuss the local "aggressive solicitation" ordinance — "I was told by my attorneys not to address the litigation" — that has landed him in both the national news and federal court over the last few weeks.

  The aggressive solicitation ordinance was introduced by District C City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who represents the French Quarter; Palmer has described the law as "a public safety measure." The ordinance makes it a crime "to loiter or congregate on Bourbon Street for the purpose of disseminating any social, political or religious message between the hours of sunset and sunrise." Violation of the law is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and $500 fine. (Gambit contacted Palmer's office for comment; staffer Nicole Webre declined the request, citing "pending litigation.")

  Gros claims the ordinance imposes an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. He is represented by attorneys from the Center for Religious Expression in Memphis, Tenn., and the Alliance Defending Freedom in Scottsdale, Ariz. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana also has taken up his cause.

  Since 1987, Gros has been a frequent fixture in the 500 block of Bourbon Street, where he preaches his message with the assistance of a giant, rotating metallic cross featuring LED lights that flash gospel messages. "I may have offended some people, and understandably so," he says of his Bourbon Street efforts. "I've had plenty of run-ins over the years. People spit on you, throw drinks at you, try to knock my cross over. You really have to pray not to respond. I've not always liked my answers or the way I've responded to provocation, but I've always wanted to do the right thing."

  Gros describes an incident several years ago that, he says, stemmed from a message on his illuminated cross: "Don't gamble! Don't gamble with your soul! The stakes are too high!"

  "A well-dressed guy, looked Native American, came up to me one night and threw a drink on me," Gros says. "'I own two casinos!' he yelled. He comes over and spits in my face. I hid behind the cross. He kept spitting in my face until his mouth was totally dry and he couldn't spit no more. He left, but then came back 20 minutes later. He must've been saving up, as he spit a big wad in my eye."

  Impetus for the ordinance arose from French Quarter business owners. A key concern is the often-confrontational exchange during Southern Decadence between thousands of revelers here for the annual Labor Day weekend celebration of gay culture and the street preachers who show up to condemn the holiday — some of whom carry signs with slogans like "God Hates Homos."

  Robert Watters, owner of Rick's Cabaret and president of the Bourbon Street Merchants Association, sought the aggressive-solicitation ordinance as a way to protect their customers from a variety of Bourbon Street characters, including Hare Krishnas, who seek to raise money through a "Party Patrol" that "fines" pedestrians in the French Quarter for violations ranging from having too much fun or being too beautiful. (Watters did not return a call for comment for this article.)

click to enlarge Religious protesters in the French Quarter. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

  On May 15, Gros, his wife and two others were preaching on Bourbon Street when they were told by New Orleans police officers to stop or face arrest. Gros says that an officer read the aggressive-solicitation ordinance to him from his smartphone. Gros and company left and were not arrested. (NOPD declined to comment on this specific incident, though NOPD spokeswoman Remi A. Braden noted that police don't write laws — merely enforce them.)

  Less than four months later, another confrontation occurred during Southern Decadence — and this time, nine street preachers were arrested for violating the law. The Vieux Carre Assembly of God Church has for years served as a place for these preachers to rest and have refreshments during the event.

  Following the arrests, Gros filed his lawsuit, naming Mayor Mitch Landrieu, NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas, and members of the New Orleans City Council as defendants.

  Gros' lawsuit was joined a day later by one filed by the ACLU of Louisiana representing another group, Raven Ministries. The two lawsuits were folded into one case, and on Sept. 21 U.S. District Court Judge Eldon Fallon issued a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of the ordinance. Fallon scheduled an Oct. 1 hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier, which was canceled after a city attorney told the judge and parties that the City Council would amend the law.

  Marjorie R. Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, declined to comment on specifics related to the settlement negotiations. "It's standard practice in cases like this," Esman says of the ACLU of Louisiana's lawsuit being combined with that of Gros. "You don't want them heard by different judges giving conflicting opinions."

  Esman sees "no irony whatsoever" in the ACLU — which is often viewed as liberal-leaning — representing a group with an overtly anti-gay message.

  "The ACLU defends all manner of free speech," she says. "I testified against [the aggressive-solicitation ordinance] when the City Council took it up. It is a clear violation of First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. When they made Bourbon Street a Constitution-free zone, the city made a mistake and they have recognized it.

  "The ACLU makes a clear distinction in defending the right, not the message, in free speech," Esman adds. "Nobody has the right to not be teased, to not have their feelings hurt. But the speaker has the right to say what he wants."

Gros' childhood "was very dysfunctional," he says. Tall and handsome with silver-fox hair above dark, thick eyebrows, Gros sits at his desk in his small office off the sanctuary, a computer behind him, a poster of Jesus behind his left shoulder, a print of Washington Crossing the Delaware to his right. He wears a white-and-blue Hawaiian shirt and blue jeans, and his voice is deep, marked with the distinct accent of the West Bank where he grew up.

  He talks about his "strict Catholic" mother and a childhood spent bouncing between various family members' homes. At age 14, he dropped out of school and left home. He lied about his age when enlisting in the Army, he says, where he served for six peacetime years, coming in just after the end of the Korean War and leaving "two weeks before the Gulf of Tonkin" and the Vietnam War. "I was planning on the Army as my career," Gros says, "but the handwriting on the wall was my drinking ... I had to leave the Army.

  "But the Army gave me what I needed," he continues. "I needed discipline; the Army gave me discipline. I earned my GED in the Army."

  Gros returned home to Louisiana and began working in a chemical factory on the West Bank. A time of soul searching, he says, led him to "experiment with the paranormal." He delved into automatic writing and Ouija boards; his first wife read tarot cards to children in their neighborhood. Gros then began exploring the idea of astral projection, or out-of-body experiences.

click to enlarge A preacher and a cop on Bourbon Street. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

  Through astral projection, Gros says, he found religion at age 30.

  "I saw myself rising above my bed," he recalls. "I saw my wife sleeping and saw my own body, curled up in the fetal position, scared, crouching. I kept rising up to the ceiling. I thought, 'If I rise through this ceiling, I'm not ever coming back.' Then I heard a deep voice say, 'I will not forsake my children, my sheep.'

  "It wasn't so much like I was hearing these words, but like they were reverberating inside of me, deep inside of me, like the plucking of sacred strings inside my being. And I thought, 'God? Is that you, God? Are you speaking to me?' Then — I don't know if Satan surfaced, or what — but suddenly I was wrestling something, my hands fighting something. But God intervened and I came back into my body. I awoke, weeping like a baby. My wife told me that I was just having a bad dream."

  Five years later, Gros says, his marriage ended. The divorce "sent me over the deep end," he says, and his alcoholism took full control over his life. "I tried AA [Alcoholics Anonymous], I tried everything," he says. "But nothing could stop me from drinking until I surrendered myself to Jesus Christ."

  After becoming a Christian at age 35, Gros devoted himself to a street ministry at Camp and Julia streets when the Warehouse District was still Skid Row. He became involved in evangelical efforts in Mexico, making 40 trips to preach the Gospel and convert souls. Gros says he was particularly successful sharing his message when he screened the film The Life of Jesus, which he would project onto large screens in town plazas and, he says, attract hundreds of viewers.

  "But then, they passed a law like they just did in New Orleans — no evangelism," Gros says. "They wouldn't even let the Catholics out on the streets."

The Double Play bar is next door to the Vieux Carre Assembly of God Church. Its sign promoting a Monday night special of $5 pitchers of draft beer asks, "Are you a pitcher or a catcher?" — with graphics that clearly do not refer to baseball. Manager Will Antill is tending bar. He says he's well aware of Gros' lawsuit.

  "He's always been very nice, very polite to me," Antill says of Gros. He describes his mid-afternoon drinking crowd as "100 percent gay," adding that straight men and women come in to watch Saints football on Sundays. "We don't have any interaction with [Gros], to be honest, except when dealing with the building, an electrical problem or something, as we have the same landlord.

  "During [Hurricane] Isaac, I came to him and his wife and asked them if they needed anything," Antill says. "He said they needed some ice, so I let them come over and get ice."

  "That was pretty nice of him to offer us ice," Gros recalls. "In the immediate neighborhood, we get along with everybody fine. It's a 'hi and bye' relationship. Not adversarial. People are who they are. I don't look at people, at gays, like that. If anything, in relation to the homosexual community, I wish I was more effective in reaching them.

  "Look, God's there in the French Quarter to help everyone, no matter what walk of life they come from."

There are 222 active Assembly of God churches in Louisiana (Jimmy Swaggart attended one with his family as a child in Ferriday). Founded in 1914 in Hot Springs, Ark., today the Assembly of God boasts more than 3 million members in 12,500 churches in the United States and more than 3.5 million members worldwide — numbers that establish the Assembly of God as the world's largest Pentecostal denomination. (Pentecostal churches are largely characterized by an emphasis on a post-conversion encounter with God through an experience referred to as a baptism by the Holy Spirit.)

click to enlarge The doorway of the Vieux Carre Assembly of God. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

  In an Assembly of God General Presbytery proclamation last revised in 2001, the church defines homosexuality as a sin "because it is disobedient to scriptural teachings." This proclamation begins by stating: "Increasing political and religious advocacy for homosexuality has prompted us to restate our position on this critical issue. ... This reaffirmation of truth has become all the more urgent because writers sympathetic to the homosexual community have advanced revisionist history interpretations of relevant Biblical texts that are based upon biased exegesis and misinformation."

  Gros decided upon returning home from Mexico in 2009 that he had made his last trip and looked for his life's next direction. "I prayed and asked God, 'Please do with me what you will, Lord,'" Gros recalls.

  A fellow recovering alcoholic, Pastor Gregory Pembo (formerly a liquor store owner in the French Quarter) was the first pastor of the Vieux Carre Assembly of God. While the building was initially used as a place to offer coffee, a bathroom and other hospitable gestures to those encountered on French Quarter streets, the building soon began holding worship services in the space.

  In 2002, Pembo filed a lawsuit against the City of New Orleans challenging its recognition of domestic partnerships in employee benefit packages, saying his litigation sought to stop a "domino effect" of social deterioration. In 2009, a state appeals panel upheld the city's domestic-partner policy. That same year, Pembo suffered a brain aneurysm while dining with friends at Deanie's Seafood. Though Gros recalls Pembo "wore a smile on his face" as he was taken from the restaurant and into an ambulance, he was in a coma by the time he reached University Hospital and later died. Gros then took over as pastor at the church.

Sunday services with Gros begin at 10:30 a.m. That's roughly five hours after pimps and prostitutes flee sunrise in an area of the French Quarter that often operates as a de facto Storyville. It's an hour when straight women sip eye-opener mimosas at the Good Friends Bar, a block away, where rainbow flags fly year-round from the cast-iron balcony. It's also the same time services start a block downriver at the Vieux Carre Baptist Church, generally known among Quarter residents as a liberal-leaning, inclusive church. A sign posted on the Baptist Church's front door features a large megaphone, often used by street preachers and a flashpoint for all sides of the aggressive-solicitation ordinance. Under the megaphone, it reads: "Jesus never had a conversation with anyone with one of these. What makes you think you will? Go home and try it on your neighbors, coworkers and friends."

  Inside the Assemblies of God, 10 worshippers sit scattered on five rows of wooden pews in two columns, under two ceiling fans, in a room with two columns, three rows of hanging ceiling lights, half of which have burned-out bulbs. The group includes several natives, a young man from Albuquerque whose father was a missionary and a woman from San Francisco that's long called New Orleans home. An elderly couple is visiting from the Black Hills of South Dakota, the husband's smartphone interrupting the church's quiet with audible chatter about the day's NFL action.

click to enlarge The Double Play Bar is next door to Gros' church. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

  Gros' sermon is as stream-of-conscious as his prayer from the preceding Wednesday. He hopes the service "will strike your heart and help you" as he explains to those in attendance that he's going to take them "to a fiery furnace — the Book of Daniel." Speaking in front of a wooden pulpit that sits on a raised stage before a wall of purple velour curtains, Gros regularly interjects "Amen" and "Hallelujah" into his remarks, which includes these notions:

  "Homosexuals going into the schools, teaching their homosexual agenda ..."

  "We have to go through the fire, we have to go through the storm ..."

  "Preaching on the street is the only way to preach it to those that need it ..."

 "This country couldn't even nominate a Christian to run for president. We have a Mormon ... and the other guy is in question."

   Later Gros adds he's switched to eating only organic food — "You'll find me and my wife shopping at the Whole Foods on Saturdays" — since he was diagnosed with liver cancer. He finishes the service by simply saying "I love you" before shutting off the microphone.

Absence from the following Wednesday evening prayer merits a phone call from Gros. "This is Brother Paul," he says on the voicemail before ending it, "May God bless you. See you Sunday."

  The next Thursday morning, Gros answers his cellphone at his home on the West Bank, where he and Meriya will be hosting friends for dinner later that evening. He says he doesn't make it across the river to church very often anymore. "Not since I got sick," he says, referring to his liver cancer.

  Doctors told Gros there was too much cirrhosis for chemotherapy or radiation. Surgery removed a portion of Gros' liver. "I'm here, ya know?" Gros says. "So, it was successful. I was fortunate in that the cancer was concentrated in a good place on my liver, on a skinny tip off the end, so they were able to remove the cancer without taking too much of my liver.

click to enlarge Pastor Paul Gros in his church. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

  "Any time you want to talk, we can talk, ya know," he says. "I just pray that everything works out for you."

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