Preacher on Wheels

He finds a congregation wherever he parks his van.

click to enlarge CORNERED: 29th and Lake in Tampa is one of the city's roughest intersections, and it's where Peter Overton sets up his Preacher on Wheels Evangelism. - Joe Bardi
Joe Bardi
CORNERED: 29th and Lake in Tampa is one of the city's roughest intersections, and it's where Peter Overton sets up his Preacher on Wheels Evangelism.

Peter Overton has a church. It has no stained-glass windows, steeple or tithe-paying congregation. There's no choir or organ player, either. His church is wherever he parks a 1985 Chevy Beauville and rigs together a generator-powered PA system.

He usually picks a street corner, somewhere teeming with people, to perform his roadside sermon. For the last month, he's been spreading the gospel in Belmont Heights, an East Tampa neighborhood dense with housing projects.

"Things go on down here," Overton says, standing on the corner of 29th Street and Lake Avenue. "Drugs and prostitution."

But the corner is home to legitimate businesses, too, including a meat market, a laundromat and a grocery store.

It's the kind of spot where Overton, a retired mechanic for the City of Tampa, likes to spend his Saturday afternoons. Weather permitting, he'll arrive at 5 o'clock, park in a vacant lot at the intersection and preach until his voice is hoarse. The sky is clear this afternoon, the sun illuminating the words on the side of his van: Preacher on Wheels Evangelism. His home phone number and address are there, too, publicly displayed beside his airbrushed moniker.

"I'm not ashamed of anything or afraid of anyone," says Overton, 81, who is small but imposing, with curly gray hair parted to the side. "People should be able to contact me." After he untangles the cable in the back of the van, he carefully points one speaker toward the grocery store, another toward the laundromat. Setting up takes him all of 15 minutes.

While waiting for his wife, Beatrice, and friend David Jones, who's preaching today, Overton fumbles with cassettes of gospel music. Jones arrives a little later than expected, and asks to skip the music; he wants to get right to his sermon.

Overton says he's been preaching his entire life. That's why he lets Jones, associate pastor for St. John's Progressive Church, handle the microphone tonight. "He needs to exercise his gift."

Before Overton surrenders the microphone, he pulls it toward the intersection sidewalk, making sure the cord has plenty of slack. He taps it twice, sending a loud thump-thump echoing down the street. A man pedaling by shakes his head and yells, "Oh, it's on now." Jones pulls a small Bible from his pocket and takes the microphone.

"Community," Jones begins. His booming voice, amplified by the speakers, carries for blocks. A few people leaning against the grocery store wall lift their heads. It's clear that Jones, while speaking to the entire intersection, is focusing on them. They seem neither interested nor disinterested, just passively listening between their own conversations. "I've come to inform you that there's everlasting life in the word of God."

Meanwhile, Overton's wife has arrived. The couple grabs handfuls of tracts from the van's backseat — small leaflets covering the basics: Jesus died for your sins, you are a sinner, therefore, give your life to Christ. The two stand on either side of the intersection offering the leaflets to whoever will take them. A boy riding in the back of a pickup truck grabs one. He scans the document, then laughs as the truck pulls away.

The scene looked like a big-top revival with two missing elements: a big top and a proper audience. Jones preached for an hour, the intersection traffic thinning as the sun set. By the time Overton repacked his PA system, the afternoon appeared to be a wasted attempt at spreading the gospel. Overton thought otherwise.

"They were hearing; that's all that matters," he said. "They cannot stand before God and say they've never heard it. They have no excuse."

It's easy for passers-by to hear a sermon when it's amplified through speakers. But Overton hasn't always had the PA system, and he wasn't always devoted to preaching the gospel. While growing up in Guyana, he had secular ambitions.

"I wanted to sing opera, move to Hollywood," he said. "I wanted to be somebody. I was a young man trying to live his life the best way he knew how."

Those ambitions didn't pan out and Overton went looking for a fresh start. The search led him to the back row of a recreation hall church service.

"I was shedding tears like my mother had just died," he said, describing the evening. Two years later, in 1969, he became an ordained minister. He decided to leave his factory job in Guyana for New York City. "I wanted to better my position in life."

New York offered many opportunities to the inexperienced preacher. He pastored a small church and also organized a street ministry. In 1977, he relocated to Tampa to help pastor a larger church. When he arrived, he said, he found a congregation consumed by the need to raise money. Fearing that any religious message would be lost in the attempt to attract members with large pocketbooks, he eventually spurned their job offer.

"I washed my hands of them," he said. "I had to unlearn a lot of stuff. If you emphasize a building, that's where you go wrong. I know a lot of buildings where people sit and do nothing. The church was made to move, the people are the church."

Wanting to do away with the need for altars, pews and stained glass, Overton looked for a way to communicate with people on a street level. About 12 years ago he found someone willing to donate a van, and, with $3,000 of his own money, Overton installed a generator and PA system in the back of the vehicle. Since then, he's roved Tampa spreading his van-and-speaker ministry.

It's another Saturday afternoon on 29th and Lake. Overton preaches to the people who are taking advantage of the grocery store's shade on the adjacent corner. Beatrice hands out leaflets nearby.

"I gave up thinking what the preacher told me. I realized the church is just a building," Overton says into a cordless microphone. The microphone loses its connection every few minutes, leaving him to shout over the passing traffic. "I'm here to tell you the plain truth, the plain vanilla truth."

Thirty minutes into the sermon, a purple minivan drives into the vacant lot and rolls down its windows. The woman driving lets her three children listen to Overton as he paces up and down the sidewalk. The family seems to be the only ones interested.

"He could be standing in the desert somewhere and somebody would hear what he's saying," Geraldine Stokes, the woman driving the van, says. "He's getting their attention."

She's not the only one who thinks Overton's efforts aren't wasted. Shaun Jenkins, who sells sneakers and videos under a nearby pavilion, has heard Overton almost every weekend for the past month.

"People aren't interested at first. But if he's out here on a consistent basis, they'll go and see what he's talking about," Jenkins says. "You got to market yourself, and they won't have any choice but to be interested."

After Overton finishes preaching, he wipes his face with a handkerchief. His wife watches as he continues to pace up and down the sidewalk, winding down after an hour of preaching.

"We fear not doing what we feel is right. It doesn't take a crowd. You can just stand alone," Beatrice says. She hands her husband a cough drop. Is he sick? "No, he's just been preaching hard."