Feature

The Street Preacher

Samuel Chambers, 74, The Street Preacher
(Photo by Katherine Iorio)

He stands out on this corner of Chicago between State and Washington Street. Not because of what he looks like or what he is wearing it’s because of what he says to the people who walk past him; “you’re going straight to hell.”

His assemble is completely unpredictable, faces and names changing by the moment. But for the last 43 years, Rev. Samuel Chambers has persisted in giving his message to them.

To many he is Chicago’s Street Preacher. He received his calling from God at the age of 13 while growing up in Mississippi. He believes himself to be a saint; “I’m sanctified; that’s what it’s all about,” Chambers said.

The former factory worker preaches with a microphone in one hand and a supply of religious pamphlets in the other, obeying the instructions he says he received from God. Chambers is often seen as a historic part of Chicago, but many do not know much of his history.

According to reports, on Sept. 25, 1986, Chambers was arrested after declining to accept a police citation for “noise pollution” from inspector Lydia Pecina. He was hauled to jail and forced to give up his loudspeaker, pamphlets, coat and Bible. The Bible was returned to him in his cell.

Upon releasing Chambers, the city exposed that the loudspeaker had been involuntarily destroyed in its warehouse of recovered property. It maintained that the destruction was purely unintended. Cynics might do a double take, given the city’s longtime vexation with Chambers’ high-pitched efforts at Randolph and State.

Chambers filed a lawsuit and planned to represent himself. District Court Judge Prentice Marshall thought otherwise and assigned attorney Ken Flaxman to handle the chores. A two-day jury trial ensued concerning Chambers’ claim that his constitutional rights had been abridged and that the city purposely had destroyed belongings valued at $600 (including the $300 loudspeaker).

“We tried to prove that the city considered Chambers a pain and (thought) that he would shut up without his loudspeaker,” Flaxman said to The Chicago Tribune.

“We destroyed these things; we shouldn’t have done it,” said Assistant Corporation Counsel John F. McGuire, who handled the case for the city with colleagues Cheryl Colston and Sharon Baldwin, a former clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

“Somebody at the warehouse thought the case was over. It was completely inadvertent,” McGuire said.

The city called witnesses, including police inventory specialists, and convinced a jury of its innocence. Flaxman says, with candor, “We didn`t have enough evidence,” but will persist in pleading Chambers’ case. In particular, he will maintain that a police captain who ordered the seizure of the loudspeaker, pamphlets, coat and Bible violated the 4th Amendment in keeping materials clearly useless as potential evidence.

Chambers returned to action with a new loudspeaker but at a lower decibel level, which is seen every day on top of a black suitcase.

“God told me to warn people of his wrath,” Chambers said. “My basic message is to come to Jesus and repent of sin before it’s too late. This is what He gave me to do.”

The small donations he receives for his pamphlets add up to between $5 and $10 daily, most of which is used to replenish his pamphlet supply. “I am making my living by faith. This is the living God has given me to do,” he said.

He has stood outside of Old Navy on State and Washington, which has moved north on State to Randolph, and it is now being made into a Gap.

“God revealed himself to me in dreams and visions. He told me to declare his word among the people,” he said one cold evening.

Chambers, 74, roughly 5 feet 6 inches with a thin moustache, dressed in a double-breasted suit and tie, holding a microphone on the sidewalk.

“People should obey God and stick with the Scriptures,” he said, which, according to Chambers’ understanding, entail that women were put on this Earth to bear children, obey men and keep their mouths shut.

For 43 years he’s outside the store by noon and doesn’t leave till nine in the evening, almost seven days a week. On Sundays, he preaches at the High Way Church of God in Christ.

He is the father of eight children, seven living, one dead, and a husband. Aside from contributions for his brochures, Chambers has no income.

His life is not always easy.

“They spit on me or kick me. I’ve had knives pulled on me, guns even. Somebody tried to burn the suit right off my back,” he said. “People try to keep me off the street that way, but I pray and I tell God, then I just keeping on preaching.”

While there are those who look down as they pass Chambers on State Street, there are those who swear, laugh or even give him the finger.

Although there are those who do not respect what he has to say, he says “people accept what I have to offer and enjoy the message I have given them.”

If you run down the street naked, if you cross-dress, if you smoke, if you’re gay–all of these entitle that you’re going to hell, according to Chambers.

“I’m pleased (with my work); God’s pleased,” Chambers said. “People have turned to the Lord and I feel it’s a great work of God to help people turn to Him.”

Chambers was also an associate pastor at the Highway Church of God and Christ on West Van Buren, which was founded 44 years ago by his brother, Ben. Chambers said he has been joined at times on the corner by his brother years ago, but that the latter prefers to preach from the church’s pulpit or in the tents he sets up during the summer at various city locations.

He has no followers and doesn’t know if Chicago needs him, “But this is where God told me to come,” Chambers said.

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