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Compassion Amid Chaos: Students Share Christ During Mardi Gras

This glance back to 2004 recalls how one group of AG students chose to make a difference in New Orleans on Mardi Gras.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 16, 2004 Pentecostal Evangel.

Wayne Northup weaves his way through the partying crowd on Bourbon Street near St. Louis Avenue in New Orleans. On this Monday night, known as Lundi Gras, the high-energy Assemblies of God evangelist is on a mission to tell others about Jesus.

Northup warns me that we will encounter blatant immorality at every turn. His six years of ministry experience at Mardi Gras have taught him to expect anything, and to be spiritually prepared at all times.

Walking among people who are totally consumed with sinful pleasure makes me wonder how Lot and his family must have felt when living in Sodom. Yet, the young people ministering with Northup are taking the gospel into a 21st-century equivalent of that ancient city.

Four inches of rain during the day has kept many would-be revelers away the night before the Mardi Gras finale. The conclusion of the city’s festival traditionally attracts more than a million local residents and tourists. The weather tonight makes the assignment easier for Northup’s 290-member Answering the Cries (ATC) team. They have more room to maneuver along the streets, as long as they dodge puddles. Pacing like a caged animal, Northup is ready to meet the multitudes as part of a five-day outreach.

Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday,” is traditionally the final day for pagans to gorge their flesh before the arrival of Ash Wednesday.

Bags of garbage laden with beer cans and discarded drinking cups are piled outside the bars and strip joints in the six blocks of the French Quarter.

“People come here to run from pain, and to do things they never would do at home,” says Northup, wearing canvas shorts and tennis shoes, along with his ATC sweatshirt.

ATC volunteers don’t just encounter drunken students. People who would appear to be mature pillars of society are also here giving themselves over to decadence they probably would be ashamed of in their hometowns.

Although sin abounds at Mardi Gras, ATC students are trained to deal with the debauchery. Before embarking on the streets, the young people undergo intense preparation on how to steer clear of sinful situations. They also receive instruction on how to evangelize cult members, post-moderns, homosexuals and backslidden Christians.

In the past 10 days, New Orleans police have arrested more than 1,500 people for lewd behavior, public intoxication or disturbing the peace. On Bourbon Street tonight, every merrymaker seems to have an alcoholic beverage in hand. City crews earlier greased lampposts to keep the inebriated from climbing them. Cigarette and cigar fumes dangle in the outdoor air.

As the six-week pre-Lenten carnival season nears its culmination, a clash of cultures can be seen in the French Quarter. Other groups of Christians have descended on the city to chastise sinners. A lone man standing in an intersection holds a Bible aloft, only a few steps away from a reveler dressed in a risqué Satan costume. A couple of blocks away a man reads the Word of God through a megaphone. Passersby mock him with twisted facial expressions and obscene gestures. A howling woman from a nearby balcony hurls a cup of beer his way. A half dozen people parade in the street holding placards with messages such as “God Hates Sin” and “Fear God.” Few of the people holding beer cups pay attention. A bearded man dressed as Jesus totes a cross that has a huge poster attached, urging an eclectic group such as “Demoncrats, drunks, rock & rollers, Mormons and rich people” to repent.

Northup, who is based at Emmanuel Christian Center, an Assemblies of God church in Minneapolis, figures there are enough people waving banners about judgment. He doesn’t believe preaching condemnation via bullhorns or posters is the most effective method to reach post-modern society.

Northup, 28, knows what it’s like to live apart from God. He abused illegal drugs during most of his teenage years before being “radically saved” at 17.

Answering the Cries has become the largest organized ministry at Mardi Gras. About half are Master’s Commission participants while about one-third of the young volunteers are from Northup’s alma mater, North Central University. This year, ATC branched off to conduct a separate simultaneous Mardi Gras outreach in St. Louis involving an additional 145 young people.

Ministry teams go out two by two, each partner with someone of the opposite sex. Northup says the plan provides accountability and security that might not be there otherwise.

By working together in mixed-gender teams, the young men and women keep each other spiritually accountable. Those who can’t remain vigilant return to the ministry base and participate in intercessory prayer.

ATC is primarily a ministry to plant gospel seeds and to offer hope by using creative ways to appeal to young people.

On Lundi Gras, an ATC team sets up outside an Iberville Avenue restaurant, which has agreed to contribute a cash prize to a best freestyle rapper contest in anticipation of potential customers stopping to eat. As soon as the amplified ATC rappers start rapping, scores of people congregate on the street in front of the eatery.

Beforehand contestants are gently told swearing isn’t allowed. ATC rappers flow with lyrical rhymes about Jesus.

As with the rapping, all ATC outreaches are designed to slow down revelers and make them think. There is face painting, basketball shooting contests, bucket and barrel drumming demonstrations, and clothing giveaways to the homeless. After spectators gather for an artistic presentation, other ATC team members walk among them to start conversations.

The squads don’t spend time conversing with those who are too inebriated. ATC teams leave the French Quarter by 11 p.m., before the boisterous crowd becomes a stumbling throng.

Dozens of desperate and disillusioned people make salvation decisions at Mardi Gras. For instance, team members daily encounter crying women whose intoxicated husbands or boyfriends have cheated on them. This year, 120 people asked Jesus to be their Savior as a result of an ATC invitation.

This evening on Bourbon Street, ATC volunteer Sunshine Thomas, 19, a Master’s Commission student in Lafayette, Ind., approaches Jerry, a business owner in his late 30s. Jerry questions why God answers some prayers and not others. Thomas tells him God is like a wise parent, who sometimes allows children to do things and other times not, for their own good. Later Thomas leads Jerry, a former science teacher, in a sinner’s prayer of salvation.

Jessie Shanks, 20, a North Central University student, evangelizes a man in his late 50s who has been drinking alcohol on Bourbon Street. Shanks urges Bobby to remove the multiple strands of beads around his neck. He throws them on the ground. Immediately Bobby’s countenance changes and he remarks that he didn’t realize how much the beads had weighed him down. Shanks says that’s how the Lord lifts our burdens. Bobby, who had been drinking excessively for 40 years, pours his beer on the sidewalk. Shanks spends an hour with him, and Bobby surrenders his life to the Lord as Savior.

Those who lead someone to the Lord take the new convert to a centrally located table for a Bible and Christian literature. The ATC member finds out where the person lives and later contacts a church in that area. The new Christian also receives a handwritten note from the person who presented the gospel.

Local Assemblies of God churches let the ATC young people use their facilities during their stay. Westbank Cathedral, in suburban Marrero, serves as the home base this year, with young men sleeping in the youth building, young women in the sanctuary and married couples in classrooms. Lakeview Christian Center has been instrumental in providing logistical help.

Before heading out to evangelize in the evenings, ATC team members are rejuvenated during daytime teaching sessions at Westbank. Northup’s wife, Kristi, and Matt Robinson, young adults pastor at Community Pentecostal Church in Toronto, take turns leading worship on keyboards and singing.

“My goal is to make sure these students have the opportunity to encounter God before they hit the streets,” Robinson, 25, says later. “It can be an overwhelming event.”

By 9 a.m., loud music and fervent praise permeate the sanctuary.

Teens are jumping and twirling with their hands outstretched toward heaven. As the worship progresses, some people have intense looks on their faces, realizing they are engaged in spiritual warfare. Some kneel on the altar steps; others are prostrate on the floor, crying faces buried in carpet. Young people gather in small groups to pray for each other.

The soul-winning training camp includes inspiring instructions from Northup about combining boldness, friendliness and street smarts.

Middle-aged mentors such as Gary Grogan, affectionately called Papa G by Northup, teach the assembled.

Grogan, 52, has been evangelizing at Mardi Gras for a quarter century. “People won’t be able to say they never heard the gospel at Mardi Gras,” says Grogan, pastor of Urbana Assembly of God near the University of Illinois. “The devil certainly has his evangelists out here. What would this place look like without a Christian presence?”

ATC’s presence had a modest beginning when the group first came to Mardi Gras. Northup initially drove down in a van with 11 fellow enthusiastic NCU students. By the second year attendance had grown to 80 and it doubled each of the two following years. Team leaders now include youth pastors, Masters Commission directors, and Kristi Northup, Wayne’s wife since 2000.

“People who come on these trips are just normal Christians,” says the 27-year-old Kristi, who met Wayne when she was an NCU student. “You don’t have to have a certain personality type or even have experience street witnessing.”

Jason Nordland, 26, is one of the original dozen and he comes back annually. Nordland, who now owns a real estate company in Minneapolis, donated several thousand dollars this year to provide scholarships to 45 needy students covering their meals, registration and ATC sweatshirt costs. “If they can develop boldness and learn to share their faith in an environment like this, they can share their faith back home,” Nordland says.

“This outreach forces you to become radical for God,” says Justin Lathrop, 25, young adults pastor at The Oaks Fellowship in Dallas. “When Wayne first challenged me to preach in the streets it served as a catalyst to get me out of my comfort zone.”

Soon after Mardi Gras ends, the young evangelists head back to their homes, schools and churches. The pagan festival in New Orleans has been a blatant reminder of the undercurrent of sexual images and alcohol that bombards American youth in a variety of ways every day. But now these Christians are better equipped to handle the culture clash in their own communities.

Article image used under Creative Commons License from 'infrogmation', Flickr

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.