AUBURN — The intersection of Genesee Street and Loop Road can be a busy one, but on Friday evenings, many steer clear of it for another reason.
That's when, for more than 20 years now, the members of Blessed Hope Baptist Church in Elbridge have stood on all four corners of the intersection. Toting signs with Bible passages, they try to strike up conversations with passersby. They hand them pamphlet comics asking, "Are you a good person?" And they preach in voices that boom above the weekend traffic.
There's another thing the members of Blessed Hope do, though: They tell people they're going to hell. Speaking to The Citizen, several of those people said they were denounced by the church's members for being rude, politely disagreeing or just showing no interest in the message of Blessed Hope. Some described even more intense encounters, too.
Though many resent the church's forceful presence at a prominent intersection Friday evenings, the city of Auburn said it follows the law and has been the subject of no complaints. But criticism of Blessed Hope isn't limited to the devil horns and heavy metal music that greet its street ministry: Local people of faith also question whether rankling people is the best way to reach them.
'A lost and dying world'
The pastor of Blessed Hope is Eric Richards. In an interview during the church's presence on the corner July 14, Richards said he and other Blessed Hope members have been coming there since 1997. Many were part of another Baptist church in Elbridge, where Richards was an assistant pastor, but they left with him to form Blessed Hope at 1303 Route 5 three years ago, he said.
Richards said he wanted to start a street ministry because "I wanted to keep Jesus Christ in front of a lost and dying world."
"There's a lot of people who want to talk about the Lord and they don't. A lot of people don't know where to go," he said. "We can give them an opportunity if you want to talk."
Though Richards didn't know the area well, he first took his ministry of two or three people to Genesee and Loop because "this is where I believe the Lord wanted me to start." Today, about 15 to 20 gather with him at 7:30 p.m. Fridays in Market Street Park to pray, then stand at the nearby intersection for about an hour and a half. Richards said it's voluntary.
The pastor emphasized that Blessed Hope doesn't stand on the corner to pack its pews. He said the church is simply trying to spread the word of God as written in the King James Bible, and that Luke 14:23 — "And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled." — compels Blessed Hope to do so downtown.
Richards measures his ministry's success by its obedience to that verse, he said. Though he couldn't recall anyone who's joined his church through the ministry, the pastor said he has meaningful conversations with a couple people every Friday. It's also possible Blessed Hope inspires people to go to other churches, which Richards said he encourages because it still brings them to Jesus.
"'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,'" he said, quoting Acts 16:31. "Our message is believe in him, because the salvation of your soul depends on that."
'More like harassment'
It's not just a message, though. Several people who've encountered the members of Blessed Hope Friday evenings in downtown Auburn said that what the church delivers is more like a demand.
Jenna LaMontagne, 20, of Auburn, said Richards once asked her if she's going to heaven or hell — and, in an argument that ensued, whether she's "a homosexual."
"He said that's wrong and 'homosexuals are going to hell,'" said LaMontagne, who told the pastor the Bible contradicts itself "all the time" and even recited a passage back at him, she claimed.
"They don't try to get your attention in a nice way," she continued. "They start off by saying, 'You're going to hell if you don't listen to me.' They're supposed to be accepting. But every encounter that I've had with them, they weren't polite at all."
Toni Brown, 35, of Auburn, said she told members of the church she was a (Methodist) Christian, and therefore "already saved," when they approached her last summer. They nonetheless insisted on her stopping to hear their message, Brown continued. As she walked away from them, they told her "you're going to hell."
"It seems a lot more like harassment. They're going to scare people away from the church," she said. "Kids aren't going to want to go to church after being screamed at that they're going to hell."
Amber LaVine, who now lives in Florida, recalled walking by Blessed Hope members about three years ago with her daughter Miranda, then 7. When Miranda said the members should "shut up," Amber said, they told the child that she was going to hell, and a sinner. Amber said she has avoided downtown Auburn on Friday evenings ever since.
Both LaVine and Brown also said they fear the church's street ministry will someday lead to people getting hurt. For Tony Pierce, it almost did.
The owner of Sign Guys on Osborne Street, a few hundred feet away from the intersection of Loop and Genesee, Pierce said his customers complain about the Blessed Hope members "all the time." It was partly for that reason, Pierce said, that he counter-protested Blessed Hope, waving his own signs, June 23. He called it "performance art and rage all rolled into one."
Pierce returned to the intersection with friend Joseph Goodwin July 7.
There, both said, a man standing with the church members took pictures of the two and, when they left, followed them down Genesee, toward Swaby's. Pierce and Goodwin said they witnessed the man showing people on the street the photos he took and asking for the names and addresses of the two. Pierce also said the man told him he'd have his business shut down in three weeks.
A third witness, who asked not to be identified, corroborated Pierce's account but said the man did not appear to be affiliated with the church.
Richards said Blessed Hope members are instructed to stay on the corner, and that following people, even critics, is "not something we practice and certainly something that I don't do."
Asked about his ministry telling passersby that they're going to hell, however, the pastor admitted as much. But he said it's "not vindictive."
"Has that ever been said? I'm sure. People try to make it vindictive, but revelation or scripture is not vindictive," Richards said. "It's for people to see for themselves what could happen to them if they do not adhere to what Jesus Christ spoke."
'You just get Bible quotes'
Auburn police were called to Swaby's when Pierce and Goodwin claimed someone followed them there from Blessed Hope's street ministry July 7.
But Chief Shawn Butler said the department could find no record of its response, nor the report Pierce said he filed at the station the next morning.
Both Butler and Auburn City Manager Jeff Dygert said they have received no complaints about Blessed Hope, and that the church follows the rules of public demonstration: It stays on the sidewalks and doesn't block them. As for harassment, Butler said, telling people they're going to hell doesn't amount to an arrestable offense, particularly without a complaint.
"Religious freedom is a topic we as police don't want to really challenge," Butler said. "I wouldn't ask my officers to get in the way of anybody's right to protest or practice their religion."
Blessed Hope also endures its own share of harassment, said member Michaela Tyrell, of Liverpool. Standing at the intersection since she was 7, Tyrell said people walking or driving by often direct vulgarity and middle fingers at the church members. But she has continued coming out for 15 years because "I care about people and I want them to know the truth," she said.
Lauren Smith, who saw Pastor Richards preach at an event at the Jordan-Elbridge Community Center in April, stressed seeing beyond the church members' actions at Genesee and Loop.
"Maybe they come across harsh, but when I met them in person they were not harsh," Smith said. "They were the opposite of what people were saying they experienced."
Smith, of Owasco, said she also saw another member of the church, whom she knows only as Jeremiah, speak at an Auburn church. His message, she continued, was helpful to her.
Still, even other people of faith find fault in the way Blessed Hope shares its own. The Rev. Frank Lioi, pastor of St. Mary’s Church and SS. Mary & Martha Parish in Auburn, said the church diverges from Catholicism and other denominations by believing the King James Bible is a "direct communication from God" with "total authority."
"It's hard to talk to them. You just get Bible quotes," the reverend said. "They would see us as totally evil or un-Christian."
Lioi also questioned whether Blessed Hope's confrontational style of street ministering in downtown Auburn is winning more critics than converts.
"For most people, that puts them off rather than engages them," he said. "That's more an annoyance than an invitation."