“You’re aaaallll sinners! Repent before it’s too late!!”
I turned to see where the voice was coming from. I was late for my freshman psychology lecture, but I had to see what was going on. There in the middle of the grass mall was a large circle of 50 students with a skimmer straw hat moving slowly in the center. I rollerskated up the sidewalk (hey it was the 80’s) as the crowd shouted at the man in the middle. That’s when I first laid eyes on Brother Max.
Brother Max was a traveling preacher. He was in his late 50’s, and wore a white seer sucker suit with suspenders and a yellow bow tie. He reminded me of one of those snake oil salesmen that wandered from town to town in the old West. But Brother Max was not selling snake oil. He was selling Christianity. And now, like a single gladiator in the middle of a great coliseum, he was inviting the crowd to clash with him in a war of words.
At first I was amused. He danced around on his soapbox (OK, plastic milk crate) and alternated between reading scriptures from his beat-up old bible and rebuking random members of the audience. The audience alternated between booing and laughing. I admit I laughed at the spectacle too, until Brother Max walked up to a young sorority girl proudly displaying three Deltas on her pink sweatshirt, and said, “Yooooouuu are a prostitute, and yer going to hell if you don’t repent.”
Whoa! Now hold on a minute. I am a Christian and this was not the tolerant, respectful religion I grew up with. This guy was going WAY over the top and inciting the crowd with hostility. I somehow felt like they were laughing at my faith now, and suddenly didn’t feel like being silent anymore.
“Hey, you don’t know her!!” I shouted, apparently loud enough for Max to hear from across the circle. He wheeled around and looked right at me. The crowd got quiet as he took six long exaggerated steps toward me and stopped six inches from my face. I could see the fire in his eyes through his thick glasses, not unlike looking through the bottom of two rootbeer mugs. He smelled like an odd mix of cotton candy and beef jerky.
He growled, “And you’re going to Hell too, boy.”
Everybody laughed at the theatrical display, but then got really quiet and turned to look at me. Was I going to respond, or back down? Not wanting my religion to be mocked anymore, I expressed myself, eloquently,
“You’re an idiot!” The crowd emboldened me with a laugh.
Brother Max came right back with, “You’re a blasphemer!”
I shouted a little louder, “You’re a blowhard!!”
The crowd roared again. It had now grown to over 100 people.
Brother max escalated “I challenge yeewwww to repent of your sins!!”
All the expectant eyes were upon me. To this day I’m not sure where it came from inside me, but I shouted “Well, I challenge you… to an arm-wrestling match!”
This got the biggest laugh of the “show.” I looked left and right, congratulating myself on my quick wit, but Brother Max was not ready to give up.
“Come on bring it, little man.”
Excuse me? Did he just accept my challenge to an arm-wrestling match in front of 100 people?! There was no backin’ down now. I threw aside my backpack and said, “You’re goin down, Brother Max.”
Now picture the absurdity of the scene for a moment. Here was a 50-something man in a white seersucker suit and yellow bow tie, lying down in the grass to arm-wrestle a freshman wearing a Purdue sweatshirt, blue jean shorts and rollerskates. Brother Max was short but stocky, probably outweighing me by 80 pounds. My skinny arms were about half the size of his. I was not optimistic about the outcome, but there was no backing down now.
The crowd closed in and counted down from 10 like a rocket launch.
10 – 9 – 8 – 7
His hand felt like a big hairy catcher’s mitt, and I gripped the best I could.
6 – 5 – 4
He glared at me through those rootbeer mugs, magnifying the fire in his eyes.
3 – 2 – 1 – Go!!
The battle didn’t last long. I put up a 10-second fight before he turned his wrist and slammed my arm back into the grass. The crowd cheered and booed at the same time. Then something unexpected happened – Brother Max didn’t immediately let go of my hand. He held on for a few seconds more, as a big smile curled across his lips. He whispered something I’ll never forget, “I’ve got their attention now, don’t I boy?”
Max got back up on his milk crate to preach and I slinked away to my Psychology class. My Christianity was still intact but my pride… not so much. I was now known as “that guy who arm-wrestled Brother Max and lost!”
But the story doesn’t end there. An hour later, after my class, I was rolling by the mall. There was no longer a crowd in the grass, but I saw Brother Max under the shade of a big oak tree, talking quietly to a group of four students. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he was handing them small bibles and turning to specific pages for them to read.
Is it possible that crazy Brother Max was really a marketing genius, creating a scene in order to be heard? Was he simply demanding attention from the many to really reach just a few?
There are 2 lessons I took away from my run-in with Brother Max. Take your pick:
1) Don’t let your alligator mouth get your hummingbird butt in trouble.
2) First impressions, and intentions, are not always what they seem.
For that lesson, and for the four other students he reached that day, I say… thank God for Brother Max.