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Black sheep, meet black sheep

The only sound louder than the roar of downtown traffic is a preacher. His sermon, passionate and improvised, roars over buses and conversation.

 MacEwan students purposefully take more inconvenient routes to avoid him.

This man is an Edmonton staple. There are few residents that don’t know him either by face or rumour.

His name is Dale Kornel. While he desperately works to hide his identity, I managed to find his last name hidden in a slew of police reports. It was a battle to even use his surname for this piece.

Kornel has been spreading the gospel around Edmonton for 29 years. Despite his public presence, he desperately fights to remain anonymous. Those against him act as agents of Satan, and I suppose I qualify for finding his home phone number after hours of Internet sleuthing.

He’s Edmonton’s “Angry Street Preacher” – a figure that unites the city in collective disdain.

I’m an Atheist. I’m an in your face Atheist. As young as four, I received time out for insisting, “God was imaginary” to the elderly staff at my daycare.

My parents, both the escapees of small-town Southern Ontario, always vowed we would sleep through Sunday mornings, undisturbed.

If being an atheist isn’t enough, I’m also a lesbian. I am an in your face, burn your bra, “to Hell with your policies” lesbian.

I’m known to confront “pro-life” protestors, tearing their pamphlets and arguing until I’m asked to leave.

Needless to say, Evangelical Christians and I don’t get along. I’m the kind of person so steeped in sin, I might set fire upon entering a church.

I’ve lived in Edmonton for just over a year, and Kornel caught my eye within days.

“Great,” I thought to myself, dodging him to quell my desire for argument, “another asshole that wants me dead.”

By no surprise, my friends were baffled I wanted to talk to him.

That said, I always prepare.

First, I met up with MacEwan’s head of security. As head, Ray Boudreau oversees the safety of campus life. Kornel had to be on his radar.

Boudreau confirmed he was well aware of the preacher. Kornel was the soundtrack to Boudreau’s downtown life, though he takes no issue with Kornel’s presence. Instead, his passion is the mark of a democratic society.

“Sometimes, we take exception to someone freely expressing their opinions.” Boudreau smiles, “Because they feel those opinions are so wrong, they shouldn’t be allowed to spread them.”

I choose not to assert my opinion on Kornel’s opinions.

After a moment, he adds, “Religion and politics just get people riled up.”

I also called Derek Gannon. He lives and works on Whyte Avenue. He passed Kornel every day, to and from shifts. After contacting EPS and the city, he got the green light to preach alongside Kornel. Donning a studded denim vest and black shades, he went to drown Kornel out.

In a semi-viral video, with 594 shares and 47,000 views, Gannon’s sermon decrees, “you don’t need to believe in God in order to be a good person.”

Once an aspiring priest, Gannon knows the Bible intimately. He says the while his defiance was intimidating, it also taught him to be brave.

“People like Dale should be a reminder to all of us that there will always be someone to stand up against. And we should.”

It’s cold on October 9, 2019, but not terribly – the survivable bite of prairie autumn.

I work to stomach my biases, force them down into the pit of my stomach. My previous conversations leave me eager, but apprehensive. 

Can this possibly go over well?

Kornel does not use a megaphone. Instead, he uses an earpiece microphone reminiscent of Britney Spears in 2008. He has his hands free to wield his towering wooden sign that reads, “Christ Jesus Came into the World to Save Sinners” on one side, and, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” on the other. Each is decorated in black print.

His sign makes me grimace. I try to hide my disdain.

 “You’re supposed to be in red!” his bright laugh echoes from the speaker.

I glance down. The grey and red sweater I had texted him about was, admittedly, more grey than red.

He has a point, so I laugh with him.

I then ask if I can film. He says yes.

For 12 and a half minutes, I record his life story.

His tale begins with a lifelong sense of purposelessness. He felt disconnected from the world.

Kornel talks about working as a firefighter and his disjointed relationship with faith until he was 32 before he had his revelation.

“I remember once going to a fire,” he muses after almost three minutes of improvised testimony, “and in that fire, a very young boy, two years old, died in that fire.”

Students file by, keep their eyes forward.

“And I wondered within myself: how is it that, if there is a God, that this young boy would die in a fire?”

What am I doing? Here I was, watching a wiry and wide-eyed preacher ask questions I teased classmates with — could God exist with so much suffering on Earth?

“What is going on? If there is a God, why would he allow something like this to happen?”

Kornel tells me that he’s always lived in the city, and always will. Even into his sixties, Edmonton, Alberta, is his home.

He played hockey as a kid, which helped prepare him for frozen toes while preaching.

So, he layers, as prairie folk should. His ski jacket, snow pants, gloves, and boots are the same shade of black – the only contrast is his tan hunter’s cap, which shields his ears from the biting wind.

He jokes that preparedness comes with years of practice.

His sermon concludes; but, before we can conduct a less public interview at the Dirtbag Café, just behind MacEwan University, he must first disassemble his set up. The sign and its pole separate, leaving it in two parts. Most of his set up is stored in a locked box atop his family friendly SUV.

He deposits his boots into the back and secures Velcro sandals to socked feet instead. Without a coat, he wears a collared shirt, blue plaid, the top two buttons undone.

Much to my surprise, he looks profoundly normal.

He locks the door, and offers a white smile, “you know, you’re a pretty smart cookie.”

I can’t tell if my “detective work” impresses or disturbs him. The heathen in me hopes for the latter.

Kornel insists on buying my coffee, and I accept with little resistance. I’m here to dialogue, not argue.

After an anecdote about a dishcloth, I ask about his family life.

His parents liked to party. As a child, he remembers his father playing in a band. Mom and dad would come home drunk and argue long into the night.

He is the third of four children, but he was always on the outside.

“You’re looking at a black sheep,” He chuckles.

I counter, “Black sheep, meet black sheep.”

Our definitions of black sheep differ. He is a black sheep in the sense that he is isolated from the general population, often on purpose.

I’m a black sheep in that I might fall victim to a hate crime for existing.

Same sheep, different herd, I suppose.

At 15, his rock star dad passed from cancer. Life, to him, was devoid of meaning.

He met his wife in flying lessons. He purposefully signed up for her courses to “bump into her by chance,” which eventually paid off.

Regarding his tactics, he admits he was “cagey.”

They had children, yet he was hounded by purposelessness. His relationship with God was detached. Until his early retirement from the Fire Department after 32 years, Dale the Street Preacher was the barest fraction of a Christian.

Then, he picked up a bible. Five chapters into Genesis and his fair-weather friendship with God became a lifelong commitment.

I recall skimming bibles hidden in hotel rooms, and the sky didn’t open for me. Nothing happened, other than renewing my confusion. People seriously wage wars over this?

He also has an affinity for names. Kornel books off Tuesday evenings to pray for each name he remembers.

“I get down on my knees, and for usually two hours, I roll through hundreds and hundreds of people and their names. That’s all I do: I pray for people. So that they will be safe, some will be saved. Some will, if they are saved, go on for the Lord.”

An entire evening set aside to pray for others — the thought intrigued and surprised me, but not as much as what he said next,

“They don’t even know,” he looks me in the eye, “You’re on that list. You’ll be prayed for, too.”

Not only that, his online church knew about our meeting. 150 people across North America were praying for me. By name.

For all the times people “prayed for me,” I wasn’t moved. Misfortune was misfortune, well wishes aside. The prospect of over 100 strangers wishing me well, however, came as a shock.

Me? The lecherous, pot-smoking, lesbian trapped in the prairies?

“Holy,” was all I could manage. The pun was unintentional.

I ask how Dale identifies on the Christian spectrum.

 “Well, I’m a…freak?”

I laugh despite myself, “On the spectrum, you place yourself in freak status?”

“Yeah,” white-blond eyebrows jump, “Even most Christians are like ‘really?’

Christians are not his greatest enemies, but instead, his adversaries. On our hypothetical spectrum, it begins at Atheist, to Freak, with Christian in between.

A sip of my mocha must indicate I have no contribution, so he continues, “Like CIA agents — they’re willing to take a bullet for the president, right?”

This is an interesting metaphor to unravel. Similar to secret agents, those devoted enough to Christianity should be willing to do the same. Metaphorically, of course. I’m not sure who would take a hit out on Jesus, considering how well it went last time.

So, I nod, and he concludes, “That’s freak status.”

My coffee is finished, but I’m not, neither is he. We were talking about openness. What is there to shy away from with your sins laid out? It’s a hypothetical I had fun dissecting.

“I got nothing to hide. I’m a sinner,” his hands are folded neatly in front of him, “I do try to protect my family, though. ‘Cause I don’t want a Molotov cocktail coming through my window at 2 in the morning.”

I stare.

“’Cause I know the end result of that,” suddenly, he is serious, “I’ve worked that. I’ve seen that.”

A farmhouse spraying fire into a frigid black sky. No survivors. I am visibly overwhelmed by the concept, and he circles back to our original point of discussion, “But, yeah, I want to be honest and open. I’m no different than anybody else. I needed to be born again, just like everyone else.”

I resist the urge to say he is, by trade, very much unlike anyone else.

He continues, “While I’m up on that box, I’m not better than anyone … I know why I use that box.

“Why?” I can’t help but interject.

“It’s the authority of God.”

When our conversation concludes, he offers to buy me some lunch for the road. This time, I decline the offer. I had plenty to digest already.

I leave with souvenirs: five pamphlets, and a free Multilanguage Bible. First, I gave Genesis a shot. Maybe by the grace of God, I narrowly avoid stepping into a busy intersection doing so.

But, I doubt it.

I wasn’t converted. I’m as Godless as I’ve ever been.

I wave at Dale, though, since now I know his schedule. He waves back, preaches through. I get prayed for every Tuesday, by name, by people I’ve never met.

And, you know, there are worse feelings.  

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