This week Christian street preacher Oluwole Ilesanmi was awarded £2,500 for wrongful arrest after being accused of Islamophobia. He was preaching outside Southgate tube station when a passer-by called the police after hearing Mr Ilesanmi saying he didn’t agree with the way of salvation depicted in Islam. He was arrested and driven away from the scene.
With the increase of nurses and doctors losing their jobs for sharing their faith, and bakers being taken to court for refusing to make cakes bearing pro-same-sex marriage slogans, those who desire to express their Christian worldview are increasingly being accused of hate speech.
But what is hate speech and who decides? I believe it is loving to share the truth with those around us. If someone was about to get hit by a car wouldn’t you scream at them to move out of the way with a passion and intensity that matched the level of concern? As John the Baptist, described as the voice crying out in the wilderness, said: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
I have previously participated in street preaching; always in a gentle and loving way, but the truth is there is always someone who walks by shouting something negative. Someone has always taken what I have said out of context. It is almost unavoidable; there are so many of us living in London that we are not going to share the same views and opinions. We should, however, feel free to lovingly express them.
That day in north London Mr Ilesanmi was simply expressing his love for his neighbour, his love for those in his community and his love for God by preaching the gospel truth. The gospel message challenges and confronts our selfishness, but it is fundamentally about love.
The issue people have with street preachers is that some can come across as condemning. They tell people about hell while they are on their way to buy a cappuccino from Costa; they don’t want to be forced to think about something unpleasant in an otherwise ordinary day. But I believe this is exactly what’s needed, especially as some churches have become so seeker-friendly and money-focused that they avoid mentioning hell at all.
Hell is a difficult message to convey but it’s a place that Jesus talked about, not to scare people, but to inform them of the wrath of God, which is still very much a part of the Christian story.
Mr Ilesanmi should never have been arrested in a country that claims to have the Bible as its cornerstone, but his detainment spurs me on to continue preaching the Word. I believe that all Christians should engage with street preaching at least once in their lives: it builds faith and gives you a real sense of confidence in evangelism and representing Jesus.
Mr Ilesanmi was awarded £2,500 after being embarrassed and made to feel like a common criminal; in my opinion he should have been given much more. It could not have been easy for a 64-year-old man to muster up enough courage to express the gospel message in front of a busy train station and unpredictable audience.
As a street preacher you long for the badge of honour to say you have been arrested for preaching the gospel, but if things continue in this way it will no longer become a badge of honour but the norm in our society.
Reverend David Peterson is a former stand-up comedian and the youngest black priest in the Church of England