On the night of the 4th of July I’m in Houston, Texas, and after watching the city’s firework display with friends I witnessed an ironic moment for freedom and faith.

As the finale of the firework display came to an end and the echo of the last ear shattering bang was still in the air, a street preacher began to give his message to the departing crowds that would surely be numbered in the thousands.

Using a microphone and amplifier to project his voice, he began talking about how beautiful the firework display was but how “God’s creation is even more beautiful.” Though amplified his voice was quickly lost in the departing throng as they began the exodus from the city streets.

A number of us commented that such a method of preaching was perhaps a waste of time, but before the preacher could get into his full swing he was stopped.

Houston police officer, Charles D. Russell, approached the preacher after just three minutes. Clearly officer Russell felt that something that the preacher was doing was illegal, a ‘sin’ if you will.

His sin was that he didn’t have a permit to preach with an amplifier which apparently is required by the city of Houston. The preaching off duty fireman then asked to be “given a break” as he was unlikely to be any nosier than the thousands of jovial people leaving the area on this holiday.

He then made the mistake of describing himself as “Peace officer” in the context of simply being a person who wanted to preach a peaceful message, albeit a little loudly. However, officer Russell chose to take great offense at the preacher describing himself in this way and demanded to see his identification, thereby escalating what could have so very easily been a simple “move along please” into something more serious.

The group I was with decided to stand by and watch this unfold because regardless of what we felt about the preacher, the fact he was being bullied by three Houston police officers seemed somewhat unfair and uncalled for. Very quickly more police officers were on scene and officer Russell also requested a Houston Fire Department lieutenant.

I spoke to one officer who appeared to out rank officer Russell, and I asked him why the preaching couldn’t merely be overlooked given the fact that he didn’t seem to be hurting or offending anyone and that he wasn’t likely going to be louder than the crowds walking past us. The officer explained that the law needed to be upheld at all times with no exceptions, but as fair as that seems, here was a very simple “move along” situation being turned into something quite ugly and unsettling at the hands of the police, not the preacher.

In the end about 15 to 20 police officers, (3 police cars and two ‘paddy wagons’) along with several fire department personnel, were at the scene. At this point our group was told to “move along or go to jail”, face being arrested for “obstructing a police investigation”, and even “trespassing.” One officer told us to keep moving because they “didn’t need any witnesses” and another, officer Peña, unhooked his night stick aggressively indicating that he had no compunction in using it on Rachel, one of the girls in our group.

In the end despite some rather empty threats, no arrests were made. Officer Russell did take the time to present his side of the incident to us, but by then the damage was done. The bully-boy tactics of a few bored cops left an ugly stain on the end of what had until that point been a great evening. Houston Police had allowed a very minor situation to become unnecessarily ugly which did nothing but make them look bad, and further re-enforce the already low opinion of Houston cops that seems to be generally held by the cities residents.

I plan to contact the Police department and voice my concern over the handling of this most innocuous situation. Officer Russell knew he was being filmed and given that fact one wonders what might have happened had the officers not been under the scrutiny they were. Despite their insistence that they didn’t need witnesses, it’s my belief that the Police need to be watched closely by members of the public in order to ensure that they themselves act within the boundaries of the law and maintain a sensible perspective on the situations they are called to deal with.

I briefly spoke with the preacher who took the opportunity to give me some Christian literature and tell me that the challenges were “under God’s control.” When he first started to speak to the leaving crowds I dismissed him and his rather ‘shoot in the dark’ methods. But he showed some class in the way he dealt with the unpleasant situation. Hugely out numbered by bored cops itching to make an arrest the preacher had the courage to believe God was in control. It was, he said, “part of God’s greater plan”, and I could see he really believed that too.

I didn’t get his name and he couldn’t have said more than three sentences to me. The website address on the literature he gave me doesn’t work, but while he might not have saved any souls that night, it’s true to say that had it not been for the drama created by Houston Police, I would have paid no attention to that street preaching fireman. Instead though his brief words and absolute faith were communicated to me in ways far more powerfully than any long winded sermon he might have preached.