Sidewalk Ministry Seized as Evidence
Early on the afternoon of Thursday, March 3, “Preacherman” Lance could see trouble coming. The day was brisk, as the sun tried to peek out and air temperature reached 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Two National Park Service police officers sat in a squad car watching the triangle of land that is Edward R. Murrow Park, dwarfed by the neighboring World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) buildings.
The officers would have seen Lance exit CVS and carry six cases of water to his coolers in the park. Now one of them appeared to be calling for backup.
For close to a year, a handful of men and women have called Murrow Park home. It is against federal and District laws to pitch a tent–or any “temporary abode”—there. Yet, with no better place to go, the park’s tenants are adept at packing their belongings quickly when authorities arrive. They are sometimes given a few hours to decamp, sometimes a day’s warning, sometimes 30 minutes – it depends on the officer.
Many campers moved on after park police visits became more frequent, but the Preacherman has seldom left this spot in the last 15 months. The park is his ministry: with his Bible at hand, he maintains a table of food, coolers of water, plastic bins full of clothing and a flagpole where the Stars and Stripes wave.
When Preacherman Lance tells his story, he describes receiving a less than honorable discharge after three years of military service. “I served honorably, they didn’t.” After leaving the military, he worked on-and-off as a baker and sous chef for more than thirty years in the DMV area. Now Lance is focused on feeding people. He says he has always felt called to be a minister. When his car broke down next to Murrow Park 15 months ago, shortly after he lost custody of his three children, Lance took it as a sign that this is where he was meant to serve. A number of nearby Pennsylvania Avenue restaurants regularly donate food, which he redistributes to anyone that is hungry on his highly trafficked corner. “Would you like a sandwich? No shame, these are for everyone.”
He says he wants to serve the homeless and the working poor – explaining that sometimes paychecks only cover the bills. People still need to eat.
Lance greets everyone that walks by him. While answering a reporter’s interview questions, he still manages an enthusiastic stream of “God bless you! Have a good day! No pain no gain! You two put a ring on it!” to greet passersby between breaths.
This is not a one-way conversation. Some folks are put-off by Lance, but many smile. Others say hello. One man stops to give Lance some batteries he’d promised to bring to power the ministry’s radio: permanently set to 91.9 FM, a contemporary Christian station out of Takoma Park. The Preacherman has become part of Foggy Bottom’s urban fabric, and recently, he has been documenting it.
Lance has been contributing to the photography project District Displaced, which provides cameras and exhibition space for people to document their experience with housing instability. On March 3, Lance photographed a gathering number of park police around Murrow Park’s periphery.
“They know I’m always here – they came to make sure I was okay in the freezing cold last week, make sure I had enough food,” Lance said, noting this as the fifth or sixth time he’s been arrested since he started the ministry. “This week a different crew of officers from out of state comes to arrest me.”
At the time of the March 3 arrest, Lance was the only park resident present. While he was in custody, “the whole ministry” was confiscated. “But they don’t even list half the stuff here on my tickets,” Lance said. Now the Preacherman faces federal and District charges. He hopes nothing was discarded.
Lance was released without a coat that evening into light snowfall and below freezing temperatures. His jacket had been stored in his tent, which is now being held as evidence, along with everything else, until his court hearing at the end of the month. “They just laughed at me. Just laughed and laughed.”
He was not without a coat for long, however. Some people saw his arrest and others noticed his absence. Three reached out through the District Displaced website to offer assistance. Lance received a coat and sleeping bag that night, though he gave the sleeping bag to his friend Victor, whose possessions were stored with the ministry for the day and are now part of the confiscated evidence. “Everyone had some stuff in there” Lance said.
The refrain heard while passing Murrow Park has changed. “God bless you, say the prayers. Park Police took everything. They might have taken my ministry, but I still serve the Lord.”
Regulars in the community noticed quickly. “What happened to all your stuff?” asked one woman passing by Lance’s interview with Street Sense. “Where’s your home?” asked another, not five minutes later, gesturing in reference to the missing ministry.
When Street Sense went to press, supporters had managed to keep Lance in a hotel room since his arrest. He has been working to raise $90 each day to keep the room, and intends to maintain it until his court date. Meanwhile, the ministry’s food supply is slowly bouncing back.
The Preacherman doesn’t forget a face, though he admits he’s not the best with names.
“Good evening, God bless you. Park Police took everything. Oh here, I’ve got a sandwich for you. Food, no water. God Bless you.”
He still doesn’t understand why the observing officers let him put six new cases of water in his coolers if they knew they were going to arrest him and confiscate everything. According to Lance, Pathways to Housing outreach workers and Community Connections staff are helping him pursue his veterans benefits. He is also focused on contacting The George Washington University to pitch a permanent location for his ministry at a campus chapel.
“Good evening, say the prayers. No agua. Comida, no agua. Say the prayers. Yes, go ahead and take two meals. They took my bags, I’m sorry – but if you can carry two, take two.”
He explains that the woman who just stopped for a sandwich cleans the IMF building at night. “I’m here to help the homeless and the working poor, but I can barely help myself.”