March 2, 2007
One week, three kinds of messages of urgency
Soul Winners, Sister Helen Prejean, Suheil Bushrui share their
interpretations of repentance, truth, unity.
By Eileen Flynn, Austin American-Statesman
I'm always curious to see how religious convictions mobilize people. When
they have found what, for them, is the truth, the answers to the questions
most of us struggle with, they want to share it, sometimes traveling the
world over to spread the message. And usually driven by a sense of urgency.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to a cross-section of believers who
traveled to Austin to share their understanding of the truth. These
encounters didn't materialize as news stories, so I thought I would share
On Feb. 8, I got a tip from the Rev. Tim Tutt, a North Austin pastor, that a
trio of street preachers had descended on the corner of University Avenue
and 20th Street. A married couple with their baby son and another man had
driven from Michigan with an organization called Soul Winners to spread the
word. And it wasn't a feel-good "Jesus loves you" message. These preachers
had a simple message for sinners: Repent or fry. Tamika Venyah strode up
20th Street, waving a worn Bible and shouting, "God does not tolerate your
I observed the scene for a while, wondering how people would respond. I
heard there had been some verbal altercations the previous day. While I was
there, a University of Texas freshman wandered by to share his testimony. A
student from France spent an hour talking to Michael Venyah about accepting
Jesus. A few people paused to read the preachers' sign - a list of
admonitions such as "homosexuality is evil" and "abortion is murder" - and
One young man with loose brown curls stopped to debate one of the preachers
with the "but how do you know?" questions that I sometimes find myself
silently thinking during interviews. Meanwhile, Tutt and Tamika Venyah
volleyed biblical interpretations back and forth.
"You're pretty big on judgment," Tutt said.
"Yeah, because God is," she replied.
"Does that give you the right to judge me?"
"Yeah, because I'm a Christian."
A few days later, I found myself at the same corner, this time to meet
another passionate Christian: Sister Helen Prejean, who visited the
University Catholic Center to urge the end of the death penalty.
Prejean is a pistol. She's compactly built and fires off her message with
precision. If her name doesn't ring a bell, you've surely heard of her book,
the movie or the opera about capital punishment titled "Dead Man Walking."
While the preachers focused on repentance, Prejean's battle cry was truth.
The Louisiana nun believes most people who support the death penalty don't
realize the devastating discrepancies in the justice system. Educate
Americans on the lack of adequate legal representation for poor people, and
they'll reconsider their support for executions, she said. Yes, even in
Texas, which is why Prejean continues to accept invitations to speak here.
"I love the people of Texas," she said. "They're going to be the ones
eventually to shut this thing down."
Like the Soul Winners, Prejean is driven to save people, too.
My third encounter with powerful convictions that week came in a visit with
Suheil Bushrui, a professor who holds the Baha'i Chair for World Peace at
the University of Maryland. Bushrui is a vibrant, 77-year-old man who
carries a theatrical air (he once aspired to the stage) and quotes liberally
from the great poets. W.B. Yeats was the focus of his dissertation. But he
was in Austin to talk about another literary hero: Kahlil Gibran, the Syrian
poet and philosopher whose "The Prophet" is among the most widely read books
of the 20th century.
In his 40 years researching Gibran and his work, Bushrui said he's found "a
unity of vision and a unity of purpose." He closed his eyes as he spoke.
"The message, really, in the final analysis, is love."
His faith teaches him racial and sexual equality, world unity and peace. In
his mind, "divine love reaches you even when you don't deserve it."
Bushrui doesn't stand on a street corner with a sign to that effect, though.
He said he wants to show his convictions by example. But ultimately, he
said, "everyone has to find his way by himself."
Source : Austin American-Statesman