by Gary Cattell
This is the first hand account of the Gary Cattell, The Willard Preacher, an Orthodox Christian street preacher who preached the Gospel at Pennsylvania State University, in front of Willard Hall. I’ve been a ‘fan’ of his for some time, and I’m very happy to be able to publish his story.
Growing up in a non-religious home in the shadow of the Pennsylvania State University, religion was not something that I thought much about. My parents did not discourage the exploration of religion, but neither did they encourage it. For me it was pretty much a non-issue until I reached my senior year of high school.
Until that time, life seemed pretty simple. I would graduate one grade and go the next. I had good parents and all of my needs were taken care of. As I was about to enter my senior year it suddenly dawned on me that after graduation life was no longer going to be so simple. There would be no necessary next step. The choice was mine, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. In fact, I had no idea why I existed in the first place. How could I know what to do with my life if I didn’t know why life was? Even though this question was not necessarily in the forefront of my mind as I graduated from high school, took a year off to travel, and then finally entered into college, it was there nonetheless.
During my college years I did a lot of drugs and alcohol. They so dominated my life that I never graduated. But even during this rather turbulent time of my life, the question of existence never left my mind. After a year at a branch campus I came to the main campus of Penn State. There, preaching outside of a general classroom building called the Willard Building, was a man by the name of Bro Cope. As I grew increasingly disenchanted with the party life, I would stop by to listen, and eventually talk to, “that crazy preacher”. His message gradually resonated with my soul, and in August of 1982, three years after I left college, I gave my heart to Christ and became a Christian and began to attend a Pentecostal church.
Almost immediately I became evangelistically oriented, and as the fall term came around I found myself hanging out on the steps of Willard Building helping Bro Cope to evangelize. At first I just listened, and then I gradually began to hand out tracts and talk to people one on one. No matter what I did it never seemed to be quite enough, and I eventually began to think that maybe God wanted me to do what Bro was doing. This, of course, scared me to death. I had always hated speech class, and on top of that I saw the heckling that Bro took, and I really didn’t want any part of it.
I wrestled with these thoughts for some time until it finally seemed to me that if I didn’t preach I would be disobeying God. So on November 15, 1982, on the last day of fall term, I told Bro that I would like to take a turn preaching. He was overjoyed, and told me that I could take the next class break. I had worked out what I wanted to say the night before and was rehearsing it in my head as the time approached. Finally, students began to filter out of the building, and Bro indicated that it was my turn to speak.
At that time we used to preach standing upon a brick wall that lined the steps going into the building. As I took my place, and more and more students began to flow out of the building, I was so nervous that it seemed like I would never be able to get those first words out. I saw Bro look up at me, and I knew he was wondering if I was really going to do it. Finally, I rallied all of my courage and blurted out those first words. I do not remember what I said, but once those initial words came out the rest seemed to flow pretty naturally. Afterwards I remember being high with excitement and relief.
I continued to preach for many years as an Evangelical/Pentecostal Christian until one day in the Fall of 1996 I said something (I don’t remember exactly what, but it had something to do with Mary) that irritated both an Orthodox undergrad and a Roman Catholic grad student. Up to that point, I knew nothing about Orthodoxy and had never met a Catholic who could defend his religion. Both of these students could defend their beliefs, and this led to a debate that lasted for months.
As time went on, I realized that they were both making the claim that their church had been there in the beginning with the Apostles; was still here today, and hadn’t changed its doctrine. In other words, their church was the true church with the fullness of God’s grace and truth. They each, however, accused the other’s church of having changed the doctrine, and therefore forfeiting the right to be called the true church.
After many months it looked like the debate would end in a stalemate. Then late one Friday afternoon in March, the Orthodox student challenged me to find in the Bible the idea that the scriptures were the sole authority of Christianity. I thought this would be easy, and told him that I would get back to him on Monday. I spent the weekend checking every source I had, including calling friends, but by Sunday night I had come up empty.
I dreaded Monday, but when my Orthodox friend approached me I told him the truth. He proceeded to add insult to my injury by showing me scriptures which said that the Church was the pillar and ground of truth and to follow the oral tradition. Since neither of these scriptures made sense from a Protestant perspective I knew I was in trouble.
A short time later Fr. Peter Gilquist showed up on campus, and I went to hear him speak. The next day I went out to lunch with him and Father John Reeves who is the local Orthodox priest. For me this was a huge test. I was going to pepper them with questions to see if they could reasonably defend what they believed. If they could, I would inquire further; if not, my search would more than likely end there. Needless to say they acquitted themselves well, and I told them that I was going to seek out and follow the truth wherever it led.
When classes ended in the spring, I went to the library to study the Fathers, councils, and overall history of the Church. Jaroslav Pelikan’s A History of the Development of Doctrine was particularly helpful. Since he was Lutheran when he wrote the series, I saw him as a neutral party. After many months of research, talking to Roman Catholics, and continuing talks with Father John, I came to the conclusion that the Orthodox Church was the true church. In April of 1999 my wife, three of my four kids (the fourth came in later) and I were brought into the Orthodox Church. From that point on I have preached Christianity as the one true religion and Orthodoxy as the one true Church.
There have been a lot of ups and downs over the years, and I have probably made every mistake in the book and then some, but if anyone is interested in getting the Gospel out in this way I would whole heartedly recommend it.
Preaching on the streets is a bit like fishing. You throw out the bait and wait for someone to bite. The goal is to go from preaching, to one on one conversation, to relationship, and hopefully conversion. One thing we must always keep in mind though is that we can throw out the bait and form the relationship, but only God can save the soul.
So if anyone is interested in street preaching I would recommend that you first find a place where people congregate, or at least where there is a decent amount of foot traffic. I would then check with the authorities as to what are their local ordinances. If they seem to be overly burdensome, I would contact a free speech advocacy group such as the Alliance Defense Fund. They can help you to know your rights and represent you for free if necessary. Finally, always preach the truth in love, and to paraphrase Mother Theresa, do not worry about being successful, just seek to be faithful.
You can contact the Gary Catell, the Willard Preacher, on his website: The Willard Preacher
Anthony Mahon says
Call me old-fashioned, but are’nt converts to Orthodoxy supposed to take a Saint’s name? Since when is “Gary” a Saint’s name?
Fr. John says
Yes, each person is given a patron saint, but not all use their new ‘saint’s name’ in every day conversation, or even at all publicly.
His Christian name is Gregory. And if I’m not mistaken it’s for St Gregory the Illuminator.
Andrew Smith says
Anthony – I’ve heard many ‘cradle’ Orthodox use other names, particularly in translation to English so that people can pronounce them – Gary for Gabriel came to mind, but also Peter instead of Panayioti, Bill instead of Vasilios (or Basil), etc.