PORTLAND, OR—The parking lot of Arborview ShoppingPlex is, in most respects, no different from that of any other suburban shopping center: Shoppers and commuters hurry to and fro, busy with the hustle and bustle of hectic modern life. But something about this particular scene is different. The parking lot is alive with song.
"Give me oil for my lamp, keep me burnin', burnin', burnin'," sings Portland-area resident Gerald "Jerry" Svoboda, a kind, bearded Christian with a guitar and a story to tell.
"Everybody!" he shouts before repeating the chorus.
In a time when community involvement often seems to be a thing of the past, it is rare indeed to find someone who reaches out to others in the hope of making the world a better place.
But here, on the outskirts of Portland, such a man exists. Though a community-mandated restraining order prevents Svoboda from actually entering the mini-mall complex, this modern-day minstrel continues his mission: to spread his message of love, hope and happy sing-along fun.
Ignoring the irritated stares of passing shoppers, he strums gently on his acoustic guitar. "Let me tell you all a story," says Svoboda, a "part-time retirement home play therapist and full-time lover of the Lord." "This is a story about a man… a man who lived 2,000 years ago… a man from Galilee."
Though onlookers eventually begin pelting him with debris, the soft-spoken crusader and self-described 'songsmith' is not deterred.
Svoboda has been playing his self-penned inspirational tunes for community residents since 1989. Sometimes, in area churches or veterans' lodges, he provides slide-show accompaniment, featuring watercolor Bible story illustrations by his friend Warren. Some would say his unique brand of personal ministry is not terribly effective, since in the eight years he has been musically witnessing, he has only converted four people to the Lord, and three of those were among a vanload of retarded adults on a field trip. But to Svoboda, each one is a victory.
"If even one soul is saved by my music, I'll keep telling my story. You know what? God loves you… and I love you too," he says, forcibly embracing a passerby.
"I enjoy talking to people, especially the kids. Because of my long hair, they trust me," he says, casually brushing aside one of his long locks like a young girl. "They know I'm one of them. I talk about this in my song 'C'mon Teens, Let's Hang Out With Jesus.' I admit, I may not know any songs by the Grateful Dead, but friend, I'm here to tell you all about the victory over death by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!"
Teenagers remain the primary focus of Svoboda's music and mission. He approaches a group of pierced, leather-clad rockers. "Say, how are you boys doing today? Just doing your own thing? I think that's neat. Say, do you ever think about God?"
Moments later, Svoboda is savagely beaten by the youths. His good-time spirit, however, is strong as ever.
"Don't worry about my ripped clothes," he says, smiling and tenderly icing his blackened eye. "I have plenty more baggy, earth-tone sweaters at home just like this one." Within an hour, he has changed clothes and received first-aid care, and is back in action.
Despite his remarkably positive attitude and never-say-die spirit, Svoboda is no stranger to adversity: An alcoholic for some 11 years, he found the Lord in 1985 after being jailed briefly for molesting cats. But with the Lord's help, those troubles are thankfully far behind him.
"And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love," he sings as the minivans and family wagons drive away at day's end, ignoring him. "Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love."
Soon, mall security will come, as they do every night, and demand that he leave. But until then, Jerry Svoboda has a story to tell—a story for us all.