NEW ORLEANS — In the morning’s wee hours, the whole world may be sleeping, but not in New Orleans, not during Mardi Gras.
For New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary alumnus Emerson Wiles, nighttime is the right time to share the life-changing message of Jesus Christ with the multitudes who come to the Crescent City.
Wiles, a pastor on the big island of Hawaii at Waikoloa Baptist Church, has taken the gospel message of hope to the streets of carnival New Orleans for more than two decades.
Between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. on the nights leading up to Mardi Gras day (Feb. 5 this year), Wiles and his team walk the streets of the French Quarter sharing the gospel. It took him 15 years to figure out how to do it right.
"The first 15 years, we came with crosses, big ol' crosses,” he said. “In my mind, there are only two responses to the cross: You either love it or you hate it. So we spent more time arguing than we did witnessing."
Wiles then read a book that transformed his thinking and his tactics: Out of Their Faces and Into Their Shoes: How to Understand Spiritually Lost People and Give Them Directions to God by John Kramp.
The book "taught me that lost people do what lost people do because they're lost," Wiles said. "Not because they hate God, but because they don't know any better."
Now, Wiles' method conveys the power of God's message. Lives are being changed, in part, due to a blank sign he holds up that makes people curious.
"I tell people, 'That was my life before Jesus came in,'" Wiles said.
"We don't jam anything down anybody's throat," Wiles said. "We don't stop anybody. They come and ask us what we're doing. A lot of times they don't like what we're doing, but they like the way we do it. It's just ways to witness without turning people off."
Wiles, a 1981 NOBTS graduate, was a pastor in Tennessee for 18 years before moving to Hawaii. Even thousands of miles away, Wiles never forgot New Orleans. He began annual visits during the 1985 Mardi Gras season and has missed only one year since.
Some say Mardi Gras is the biggest party in the world, and probably the last place you'd expect to find Jesus. Unlike his past efforts, love is at the center of Wiles' street evangelism.
"We don't want to condemn people," Wiles said. "It's the Holy Spirit that brings condemnation. We just want to tell people about Christ."
"God called me to be a fisher of men," Wiles said. "God called me to go where there's fish. There are plenty of fish in New Orleans during Mardi Gras."
The Mardi Gras also experience has sharpened his church's ministry in Hawaii, Wiles added.
"I'm training my church members to (share the gospel)," he said. "If you can come on the streets of New Orleans and tell … a total stranger about Christ, then you can go back home and talk to your neighbors, your banker, your doctor, your lawyer. It makes it easier to share the gospel. If you can share at Mardi Gras, doing it at home is a piece of cake."
(EDITOR’S NOTE — South is a writer for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.)