The first time I met Ruben Israel, I thought former drug addicted ex-convict who led a motorcycle gang with an iron fist radically saved in a blinding flash of light. The cliché “looks can be deceiving” explains why I was wrong. While many young people were rebelling against the government and sending themselves on drug induced trips, Ruben attended church and worked. He grew up sweeping the floors in his father’s barber shop as men discussed sports, politics and religion. He learned through is father’s example to stand up for his beliefs as he listened to the animated and at times testy conversations. His family sat at the kitchen table monthly to pray for America and for his brothers who served in the military. Ruben never fell prey to the excesses of the hippie counter culture. He loved God and country, but he did rebel against complacent religion.
In the late 1960s, Ruben and his father exited the Los Angeles landmark Clifton Cafeteria. At 7th and Broadway, they paused to observe an unusual site. A man wearing checkered pants, striped shirt, with his hair in disarray, stood on the corner holding a Bible. He preached as though he held the attention of a stadium filled with mesmerized listeners. Ruben looked up at his father. “Street preacher,” said his father.
Ten years later, Ruben gently picked up his newborn daughter. He gazed into the face of innocence and thought, how do I want to raise this child. He reflected on his own life and concluded his life must be right to raise his daughter right. That night he cried out to God. A serious, systematic study of the Bible provoked questions about the faith he had been taught, so he made an appointment with his priest.
“The meeting was short,” said Ruben. “The priest told me the Bible would confuse me, and I should not read it. My job was to come to Mass. As the priest walked out the door, he asked me if I would be at Mass next Sunday. I wasn’t happy with the outcome of the meeting but said, ‘Yes.’”
The following Sunday, Ruben’s mother was seated in their usual pew when a friend tapped her on the shoulder. “Ruben is outside screaming at everybody.” His mother walked outside to witness her son standing on the steps in front of their church preaching his first sermon – Know the God of the Bible. As their neighbor walked up the stairs, Ruben said, “You have the biggest family Bible I have ever seen on the coffee table in your living room. The pages are stuck together. You have never read it.” Mrs. Smith hurried inside, and two men approached. “Mr. Johnson, you have been coming to this church for 20 years, and you can’t quote one Bible verse. Mr. McDonald, you don’t keep Sunday holy. After church, you sit in front of the TV with two six packs of beer.” Ruben’s mother thought he was going through a phase and would find a new pursuit in a few weeks. Years later, his mother would learn that Ruben was God’s answer to her prayers.
At a young age, Ruben’s mother felt God had called her to a life of Christian service. She joined a convent and was studying to become a nun when she heard rumors about the decadence of Mardi Gras. Even though Mardi Gras had its roots in Lupercalia, an ancient Roman festival, the church had incorporated the pagan celebration into its faith. She knew her church did not endorse Mardi Gras, but they winked at the belief one could sin with abandon without consequence. Troubled by her church’s practice she often prayed for New Orleans and her church that refused to confront sin.
Two weeks before graduation, Ruben’s mother already had doubts about serving a church that winked at sin when her sister came to visit. She held her sister’s baby and wondered if she really wanted to live a life of celibacy or have a family of her own. After many tears and prayers, she laid a fleece before God. She had never seen a yellow rose in the convent’s garden. If she saw one before graduation, it would be a sign God had released her to leave the convent. As she walked through the garden praying, she spotted a yellow rose. Convinced God had released her from becoming a Nun, she married and bore five children.
Ruben never lost interest in his evangelistic activities. A Bible study he attended evolved into an international network called Bible Believers. Initially, they set out signs declaring “Trust Jesus” at intersections before they left for work. As they grew stronger in their faith, they began preaching to small groups on the streets. Eventually, they moved on to larger crowds drawn by numerous events held in Los Angeles.
The large banners that mark his ministry were created by one of the men from the Bible study, who also coined the name “confrontational evangelism”. The first banners were canvas and metal. Today, they use vinyl to confront sin with bold declarations. If boisterous crowds drown out their voice, they can’t miss the message on the signs.
Ruben brought his ministry of confrontation to New Orleans in 1982. After returning from his second evangelistic campaign at Mardi Gras, he had dinner with his parents. During dinner, his mother revealed the burden of prayer she carried for New Orleans when she studied to be a Nun. Ruben and his mother realized God had answered her prayer. Every year thereafter, to the day she died, Ruben’s mother laid her hands on her son’s head and prayed for him before he departed to do what her church failed to do. Boldly confront sin instead of tolerating it on Tuesday and absolving it on Wednesday.
Ruben Israel is a point of controversy in the Christian community. Some believe confrontational evangelism does more harm than good. Others applaud Ruben’s boldness to confront sinners and announce their guilt loud enough for a city block to hear. Unlike many ministers who disdain him, he is not compensated with offerings from the faithful. His rewards are hostile: time in jail, punched, spit on, doused with beer, and even ejaculated on. One thing is certain. His motivation to come to New Orleans is strong, and he won’t be dissuaded from returning.