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School of Bourbon (Street) Missions

SUM annual outreach at Mardi Gras can be a transformational experience for revelers — and students.

NEW ORLEANS — School of Urban Missions Bible College & Theological Seminary (SUM) students disperse two by two on Bourbon Street between Canal and Iberville in pursuit of revelers to evangelize. The partner combinations chosen by school leaders prepare students for ministry in the real world in the long term — and in New Orleans immediately.

Joshua Leggett, a white student from Philadelphia, is teamed with Helen Johnson, an African-American student from Fort Worth, Texas. Both are 19-year-old first-year enrollees at SUM, having known each other before only via online cohorts. The annual Mardi Gras outreach has been a cornerstone curriculum requirement of the school, now based in El Dorado Hills, California, since its founding in 1992.

Leggett says he senses from the Lord the need to stop a tall young black man and to tell him not to trust in religion, but rather relationships. Leggett explains to the man, Thaddeus, that God will remove the bitterness he harbors in his heart toward his mother. Thaddeus begins to weep; he reveals to Helen that he had a dream the night before that he would encounter her this evening.

Leggett says he also is impressed by the Holy Spirit to divulge that Thaddeus shouldn’t be angry with his sister, who is engaged in witchcraft.

That the naturally reserved, soft-spoken, and slightly built Leggett is out boldly proclaiming God’s message is a wonder, given that 2½ months ago two strangers assaulted him in the City of Brotherly Love. They knocked the 5-foot, 5-inch Leggett off his bicycle, fractured his nose, and stole his mode of transportation. Leggett, despite requiring hospitalization, takes it in stride.

“God spared my life,” proclaims Leggett, who attends Philly Dream Center Church. “Everywhere we go we are to be Christ’s witnesses.”

In all, 350 SUM students — about half of them in their first year — are among the mass of humanity that descends on the Big Easy during the festival. The first night out, Feb. 21, the students approach the passers-by on the street and sidewalks of the cordoned-off area.

While some students are adept and experienced at witnessing, pre-event classroom instruction as well as training during this weeklong SUM conference are designed to make the outreach fruitful for all to share the gospel. Various students report they receive words of knowledge from the Lord during their specific discussions on the street.

Some traversing the area in pursuit of sensual pleasures find a common background with a Bible student, which lead to further spiritual questions.

A buzzed man from Dallas confides in Dina Cafiso, a pleasant and poised first-year student from Long Island, that his veins hurt because he shoots up heroin and methamphetamines so much. The petite Cafiso declares that the Lord can deliver the Texan from drug dependency. She knows firsthand.

Cafiso spent 7 years as a heroin addict. Her mom, Marie, found her gasping for air a day after she overdosed. Paramedics twice injected Cafiso with naloxone hydrochloride, but to no avail. Her heart stopped beating for 10 minutes.

Doctors placed Cafiso, then 24, in a medically induced coma. Medical scans showed irreversible brain damage and paralysis in her left hand. But Cafiso, whose mother kept praying, awoke a week later as a medical miracle. She went on to graduate from Brooklyn Teen Challenge. At 30 she is enrolled in SUM while assisting in ministry at Home Church in Mastic Beach, New York. Life experiences have shaped her Mardi Gras message.

“Jesus has the power not only to heal us, but to raise us from the dead,” she tells the drug addicted stranger.

Entrance to the six blocks of the French Quarter lets the students know how much the milieu has shifted. Rows of psychic reading and tarot card tables line Jackson Square. Rainbow flags hang from balcony apartments, where the scantily attired quaff beer and hard liquor.

There are other religious orators in the area, but not all are interested in saving souls. A middle-aged man yells though a megaphone to all who pass by that they are going to hell; his intention is antagonism and condemnation.

An inordinate number of wrinkled elderly merrymakers trying to defy their age are among the swarm. Surprisingly, so are some beaded and skimpily dressed parents toting young children. A handful of elementary-school-aged African-American boys pound drumsticks on pickle buckets in an effort to garner change.

For mutual protection, SUM students pair off in mixed-gender teams. The male presence keeps debauched partiers from making lewd approaches to the female. SUM women students in turn help keep their male counterparts in check with an exhortation of “Eyes down!” if a female reveler exposes too much flesh.

The weather is unseasonably cool this Friday night in the city dotted with palm trees. The outdoor temperature keeps exposed body parts to a minimum. But with no threat of rain, throngs of masked and face-painted pleasure seekers mill about, many with drink in hand.

After 28 years, SUM has honed the routine well. Team leaders organize the students with detailed instructions, including: pray with people of the same gender; keep prayers short; and obtain contact information for follow-up from those who make a salvation commitment.

Periodically throughout the three-hour evening stay, students assemble up and down the block for enthusiastic bouncing and waving “power up” chants that extol the name of Jesus. The vociferous message amid the cacophony stops many pedestrians in their tracks to listen; quite a few record the unusual presentation on their cellphones. A few walk fast through the zone, uttering invectives as they escape.

For SUM founder and chancellor George A. Neau, there is no better place to engage in practical ministry, which is one of the four pillars of the school. Where else can students encounter witchcraft, false religions, drug addiction, and blatant immorality, all in one block?

While skeptics may question the efficacy of such an outreach, meticulous records compiled by SUM are impressive: the first night yields 63 salvation decisions, 30 people rededicating their lives to Christ, and — as a sign this is Pentecostal street ministry — two dozen healings.

Neau, 60, says the event not only changes the lives of those receiving ministry, but also on those conducting it.

“Once they are hooked on evangelism, they will never stop being evangelists,” Neau says.

Students devise their own approach methods to break the ice, such as What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done? Some have a more spiritual introduction: What would you like God to do in your life if you could ask Him for anything?

While adjunct faculty members are monitoring the students’ safety, they also do their share of evangelizing. Paul E. Fishell of Belton, Missouri, has relished involvement in the hands-on ministry for a decade.

“The first time I ever street preached was at Mardi Gras — 20 years after I’d been involved in ministry,” says Fishell, 55. “If we’re going to share the gospel, we need to consciously engage people and share the love of Christ. We need to have conversations about Jesus.”

Tonight, as a conversation starter, Fishell wears a jersey and cap of the Kansas City Chiefs, the newly crowned Super Bowl champions.

Soon, a young man decked out in a Chiefs T-shirt and a gold lamé jacket approaches him like a long-lost relative, tendering an immediate embrace. The fan, uttering expletives about the radical exploits of his team, appears to be inebriated, even though it’s barely past sundown. After football chitchat, the man accepts Fishell’s offer for prayer. The faculty member, who also is involved in a Reach Kansas City church plant, briefly asks the Lord to protect the carouser. Fishell knows the man will be approached by prayer-minded SUM students as he meanders down the street.

Students descend on the same block four times as the pre-Lenten carnival season culminates: Friday, Saturday, and Monday nights, ending with a daylong session on Fat Tuesday, Feb. 25, the final day carousers seek to satisfy their flesh before Ash Wednesday.

SUM students are emboldened as the event progresses. Each night, they sing “Amazing Grace” before trekking back to buses to return them to their hotel. People stop to listen. Some, caressing booze, join in, perhaps reflecting on why they are partying in the streets.

By the end of Fat Tuesday, the SUM Louisiana evangelism campaign had yielded 479 salvation decisions, 279 rededications to the Lord, and 114 healings.

The 2021 Mardi Gras mission event will take place Feb. 11-17. Participants must be at least 16 years old.


Bottom Photo: Joshua Leggett (left) and Helen Johnson (middle) minister on Bourbon Street.  

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.