Street Preacher

Carlos Alvarado gets his message across the old-fashioned way

» “When I start preaching, I’m like a machine—I’m just on. I don’t prepare sermons. I simply open my mouth,  and God fills it.” 

» For a living Alvarado, 40, parks cars at a Mid Wilshire office building. But for the past 18 years he’s spent one or two hours nearly every day on L.A. street corners, exhorting passersby to accept Jesus and win a spot in heaven. His tools of the trade are a Reina-Valera version of the Bible, a megaphone, and psalms written on homemade signs.

» A century ago Los Angeles was such a thriving marketplace for street evangelism that the city had to regulate the practice. Competing preachers were required to maintain at least 75 feet between one another and carry a license. Today preachers can make their pitch for salvation without a permit. 

» Alvarado doesn’t belong to any organized religion. He had an epiphany in 1993 when his Catholic mother became an evangelical Christian and asked him to accept Jesus. At the time he was a heavy drinker and prone to violence. She took him to Mass, where he says he felt the presence of God.

» Alvarado believes in miracles. He tells of a woman with a foot injury. “Pus was oozing out. It was rotten. She couldn’t walk.” He prayed for her. “A week or so later she came to my house walking. The only thing I’m sure of—convinced of—is that God saved her.” 

» Alvarado has his work cut out for him. In 2008, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a survey indicating that 62 percent of Californians were “absolutely certain” about their belief in God, while the national average stood at 71 percent.

» Lately he’s been delivering God’s word near the intersection of Pico Boulevard and Western Avenue, where the population tends to be poorer, less educated, and more likely to be victims of crime than residents of most L.A. County neighborhoods. 

» Alvarado’s calling isn’t without its hazards. He once was ticketed for disturbing the peace. On another occasion his Bible went flying when LAPD officers shoved him to the ground and, guns drawn, demanded, “Where are the drugs?” A few years ago a man wearing shades pulled out a large knife and attempted to stab a friend of Alvarado’s who was preaching alongside him. When Alvarado intervened, the man tried to stab him, too. A pedestrian carrying pepper spray scared away the perpetrator. “One risks his life when preaching for Christ. I’m prepared to sacrifice my life for Christ.” 

» American Pentecostalism began in 1906 in downtown Los Angeles with the Azusa Street Revival. Presiding over the ensuing nine years of interracial worship, faith healing, and speaking in tongues was Bishop William J. Seymour, a son of former slaves and one of the most influential preachers in the history of the West. L.A.’s largest church is the Pentecostal West Angeles Church of God in Christ, which has more than 22,000 members.

» Alvarado always ends his sermons with  an invitation to everybody to be saved. Occasionally bystanders will accept (his count of souls redeemed is around 500). He’ll ask them to close their eyes and bow their heads. Then he’ll place his hands on their shoulders and pray for a minute or two before delivering the good news: “You have now been saved!”

Photograph by Dustin Snipes