Street preacher: ‘‘People have torn up our tracts and eaten them’

Hugh McIlveen handing out religious tracts in Belfast's Cornmarket
Hugh McIlveen handing out religious tracts in Belfast's Cornmarket
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Street preachers are busy in towns and cities across the province spreading the good news about God. Helen McGurk speaks to one man about his ‘passion for souls’......

Hugh McIlveen from Belfast has been handing out religious tracts in the city centre for over 30 years.

A street preacher during the troubles   (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A street preacher during the troubles (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

During that time he has encountered plenty of positive feedback, but also many rebuffs.

‘‘We get all types of responses,’’ says the father-of-three.

‘‘We’ve had people take a tract and tear it up and eat it. We’ve had people just refuse politely. We’ve had other people tell us to stick it where we wouldn’t. But we’ve also had loads of great responses,’’ he says.

Hugh, 50, is one of an army of believers who stand outside train stations, in city centres, and on street corners in all weathers, quietly handing out religious tracts or blasting their message of salvation from a microphone.

Hugh, who stands in Cornmarke hands out tracts to the hurried and the harried.

Smiling and friendly, he’s dressed casually in jeans and trainers, but the leaflet he hands out has no casual message.Hugh McIlveen from Belfast has been handing out religious tracts in the city centre for over 30 years.

During that time he has encountered plenty of positive feedback, but also many rebuffs.

‘‘We get all types of responses,’’ says the father-of-three.

‘‘We’ve had people take a tract and tear it up and eat it. We’ve had people just refuse politely. We’ve had other people tell us to stick it where we wouldn’t. But we’ve also had loads of great responses,’’ he says.

Hugh, 50, is one of an army of believers who stand outside train stations, in city centres, and on street corners in all weathers, quietly handing out religious tracts or blasting their message of salvation from a microphone.

Hugh stands in Cornmarket hands out leaflets to the hurried and the harried.

Smiling and friendly, he’s dressed casually in jeans and trainers, but the leaflet he hands out has no casual message.

Entitled Depth of God’s True Love, the four-page pamphlet has a dire warning for the unsaved: ‘‘What a terrible experience to awake on the wrong side of heaven, and arrive one day in that awful place of darkness called hell,’’ it reads.

Hugh was saved some three decades ago and can rattle off biblical quotations with ease and expertise.

‘‘I was brought up in Sunday school. I heard the truth from the Scriptures, but I knew in my own heart that I wasn’t right with God.

‘‘Looking back on that I could see that I was God of my own life - that’s the same mistake that Adam and Eve made in the Garden of Eden; they stopped believing God and they believed the lies of the devil instead and they tried to become God of their own lives.

‘‘I came to the knowledge of the truth. We think that we know better than the very God who created us. You come to that acknowledgement - that’s what repentance is, a change of mind and then the next step is believing the Gospel. There are only two things essential for salvation - repentance and faith.’’

Hugh, who is semi-medically retired, says: ‘‘I’ve worked at a number of different things, I’m not working at the minute because of various illnesses, which means I can devote a bit more time through the week to this.’’

He and his friends have a presence in the city centre from Monday through to Friday during the mornings and those that aren’t working will be out every Friday or Saturday. They are not aligned to any particular church.

‘‘I would go to several different churches, but the work that we do on the streets is not affiliated to any church. It’s a group of believers from a number of different churches throughout Belfast and beyond that come together primarily because a lot of churches these days don’t do direct evangelism on the streets and as Jesus said in Mark 16:15 ‘Go you out into all the world and preach the Gospel’.

In the early days Hugh said he ‘‘worked’’ along Belfast’s Golden Mile area.

‘‘We were outside bars, helping people with food and soup and blankets and helping to get them home as well, but also preaching the Gospel, showing love in action as well as speaking it from the scriptures.’’

So, how does he deal with the drunks and the detractors? With preternatural patience, it would seem.

‘‘There are moments when people are drunk and they want to take our microphone and sing, or they are stoned on drugs, but we love these people - sending them away or trying to get rid of them isn’t the answer. Speaking to them, befriending them, is.

‘‘We’ve had experiences where someone has given us a load of trouble when they are drunk and a week or two later they pass by and they become friends with us.

‘‘Over the years there are people who are now pastors from meeting us on the streets, and reading tracts and getting saved.

‘‘This isn’t our work, we’re just the messengers and the Holy Spirit will convict people and bring them to that point in their own hearts where they believe in Jesus Christ alone, not in religion, not in man’s ways but in Jesus Christ alone for salvation because he is, as John 14:6, ‘The way, the truth and the life’.

‘‘It’s not a message about being good, it’s not a message about trying to correct yourself. Over the last few years the number of homeless people and addicts that have died on these streets has increased. Giving them money, they are only going to buy drugs, so we would give them coffee or a hamburger to sustain them to give us an opportunity to have a word with them. Their lives need to be re-directed to the answer, Jesus Christ. He’s God’s answer to man’s problems.’’

Hugh preached during the troubles, and admits there were scary times.

‘‘Occasionally we finished up in a police station; one of the guys that was with us had his glasses broken by a guy who was drunk and he ended up getting arrested for doing that. He was on camera, but we didn’t need to give evidence, it was all self-explanatory. He apologised and there were no hurt feelings.’’

As well as the drunks and the critics, Hugh and his like, also have do deal with Northern Ireland’s notorious weather; but for these stalwarts of the street, that isn’t a deterrent.

‘‘We are out in rain and all weathers....why? commitment is one aspect of it, faithfulness is another.

‘‘The big motivation is having a passion for souls. We don’t want people to lose their souls and go to a lost eternity. Being born again and being saved is not just about getting us into heaven, it’s about getting heaven into us.’’