Brother Ron, driving down Wisconsin Ave. for Jesus

Brother Ron drives his "godmobile" across Marquette's campus daily. Tribune file photo.

Story by Ben McCormick

Special to the Tribune

When people see a 1983 Ford station wagon driving the streets of Milwaukee covered in religious signs, they stare, trying to understand Milwaukee’s most famous street preacher.

The man behind the wheel, “Brother Ron,” has been actively preaching for more than thirty years. Ron, who asked that his last name not be used in this story, was not raised to believe in God. But on Sept. 7, 1981, at age 36, he experienced what he calls a “miracle,” leaving behind a life of truck driving, drinking and smoking for a life of Christ.

That night, Ron was accused of assaulting a woman at a party, an accusation he calls a case of “mistaken identity.” He said men at the party were drinking and carrying guns. Ron was sober at the party because he had a truck delivery that night. He had left his gun in his truck.

According to Ron, the men at the party planned to kill him for the alleged assault. Scared for his life, he prayed for the first time in years.

“I’ve faced death before, but that night, it was different,” Ron said. “You just know. You feel that this is it, no more chances.”

Ron said the men marched him out the door to kill him when he tried to leave the party. Once out the door, the men froze, allowing Ron to get into his truck safely and leave the scene. He went home later that evening and read Scripture until morning.

“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the right place at the right time,” he said. “After that night I have never been the same. I just threw my hands up in surrender.”

He immediately became a churchgoer, but grew dissatisfied with organized religion and decided to form his own ministry, which he eventually took to the streets.

Now 66, Ron can be spotted driving down Wisconsin Avenue in his Scripture-decorated car daily in the early afternoon, and said he has no plans to stop.

Ron’s first encounter with “mobile preaching” occurred when he saw a man helping his ministry with a gospel message printed on the panel of his truck. This inspired Ron to print Psalm 51 on the trunk of his 1978 Chevrolet Caprice.

From there, he gathered more signs and a speaker system, resulting in the preaching style seen on the streets of Milwaukee today.

He received the car he currently drives as a donation, like most of the other 11 cars he has used in his ministry over the years. The signs covering his car were all donated as well. The messages playing through his loudspeaker are taken from the internet and CDs.

The car has had many different nicknames over the years. Ron referred to it as his “Godmobile,” but has heard it been called other names, including “Ghostbusters” and “Eyesore.”

Ron has encountered strong opposition to his message, beyond simple insults. While driving, Ron said he has been shot at several times, been threatened with a knife and had his tires slashed and his windows broken. Outside of his car, he said he has been spat on, pushed, and had rocks thrown at him.

Ron has been charged with traffic and noise violations in nine different cases dating to February 1997. He is due in court on Friday on a civil charge of assault and battery.

In the incident that resulted in the charges, which occurred July 15, 2010, Ron said his neighbor, whom he identified as an atheist, was walking under an apple tree on his property when an apple fell and hit her on the head. Ron said the neighbor called the police, and the responding officer was one Ron had “offended” months earlier.

Ron’s neighbor could not be reached as of press time. The Department of Public Safety declined to comment, and the Milwaukee Police Department did not return a phone call or email as of press time.

Kate Venne, Marquette’s director of university communication, said the Office of Marketing and Communication and DPS have not heard any complaints about Ron.

Despite Ron’s daily preaching, Marquette students and faculty have trouble understanding his message.

“I think people like that generally have good intentions, I just don’t know what his intention is,” said Jahnavi Acharya, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences.

The Rev. William Kurz, a Marquette professor of theology, said it’s understandable that people are confused by Ron’s message.

“I admire his perseverance over many years, but his car is so weird and crammed with stuff you cannot even tell what his message is,” Kurz said in an email. “What you do hear and see usually comes across so negatively that I’m afraid he turns most people off or they just think he’s crazy.”