Street preacher, family undaunted by jeers

The Grand Rapids Press, Michigan/September 23, 2008

Nobody threw a "Hail Mary" pass during Saturday's football game between Michigan State University and Notre Dame.

But outside Spartan Stadium there was plenty of religion going on - or something akin to it.

Michael Woroniecki, the boisterous street preacher who was exiled from his native Grand Rapids 25 summers ago, hasn't hung up his cross yet.

He and his wife, Rachel, and their six grown children surrounded the stadium in East Lansing on Saturday afternoon and, while wielding banners threatening fire and brimstone, took it on the chin every bit as much as the Fighting Irish did in their 23-7 loss.

"You're crazy!" screamed a young woman who said she was Jewish and then became incensed when Woroniecki told her, "Jesus is the true messiah."

A group of five men wearing blue Notre Dame shirts - three of them hoisting beers - told Woroniecki they were Catholic, they attended Mass, they were baptized and read the Bible.

Woroniecki seemed unimpressed, telling them they needed to abandon the lives they were leading and follow Jesus.

His banner took it a note further: "TURN TO JESUS," it read, "YOU ARE HEADED TO HELL."

Beside him stood daughter Elizabeth, 24, with a banner that read, "LAST DAYS. SATAN RULES. TURN TO JESUS, NOT CHURCH."

Woroniecki said he could "count on one hand" the number of positive responses he and his family had from the 76,000 who filed into the stadium.

He's used to verbal - and sometimes physical - abuse.

"I've been spat on, knocked out with a rock, you name it," he said.

"But it's OK," he said. "Because I love the Lord. If you read 2 Corinthians, and what happened to (the apostle) Paul ... he went through hell."

Woroniecki is 54, and Rachel is 52. Their children are Sarah, 28; Ruth, 26; Elizabeth, 24; Abraham, 22; Joshua, 20; and David, 18.

When I asked if he'd stand in the way of any of them marrying, Woroniecki told me, "They've been trained to love Jesus, so they're not looking for gratification from some sinner."

As for "natural desires," he said "There is a greater power than your natural desires."

Ruth concurred: "I've met a lot of different guys ... but that's not really where my heart is." It's not that we don't think about it," Ruth said on behalf of her siblings, "but what we have is real."

Woroniecki and his family travel the world in a Freightliner cab pulling a fifth- wheel trailer. Besides crossing the U.S., they have visited 50 countries in Africa, Europe and Central and South America.

I've known Woroniecki since we entered ninth grade at West Catholic High School in 1968. He was an arrogant and self-absorbed kid by the time he turned senior, an All-City football player headed to Central Michigan University.

There, he said, gridiron injuries served as a message from God to turn his life around and follow Jesus. For those of us who knew him early on, the transformation was stunning.

Between the fall of 1980 and 1983 -- when he was arrested for continually interrupting a performance at Festival -- Woroniecki was a familiar sight downtown. He often carried a bullhorn and large wooden cross.

He was arrested numerous times in Grand Rapids for disturbing the peace before agreeing to leave town to get multiple charges dropped.

He says he has been back "a couple of times," but "there's nothing really compelling there to draw me back. There are so many other places to go."

That includes the Democratic National Convention in Denver last month and college campuses too numerous to name. On Monday, the family was preaching on University of Michigan Quad.

While on the phone with me, Woroniecki cut out to respond to someone who had come up to him with a pat on the back and words to the effect that, "I'll be gettin' rich while you do this."

Woroniecki's response: "That's not riches, man; what you're talking about is poverty."

Woroniecki and his wife gained national attention six years ago when it was divulged they counseled Andrea Yates, the Texan who confessed to drowning her five children in a bathtub. She was judged not guilty by reason of insanity and now resides at a mental health facility in Texas.

Woroniecki disputes reports from Yates' trial suggesting his spiritual influence contributed to her state.

"I told her to love her children just like Rachel and I love our children," he said Monday.

After touring the Northeast, the Woronieckis hope to winter in Lima, Peru. He says he finds far friendlier receptions in South and Central America than here.

Along the way, they'll work at odd jobs to pay for food, fuel and incidentals. - including a broken leg Ruth incurred while playing football with her siblings. They're still awaiting bills on that to their post office box in Montana.

I asked Woroniecki if he would consider attending an upcoming reunion of our high school class. He last attended many years ago and, after he started preaching loudly, pretty much got himself booed out of the auditorium.

"Probably not," he answered with a laugh. "I don't think I'd last too long. I don't think I have too many friends there."

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