Point, counter-point: Free speech thrives in Portland's Congress Square
PORTLAND — Cory Tracy rolls his wheelchair to Congress Square Park and parks at his customary spot against a monolithic black utilities box.
It's an inconspicuous location made conspicuous by Tracy's presence.
Each day since May, weather permitting, Tracy wields his attention-grabbing, hand-painted protest signs: "Atheists don't need to shout," "I mock all religion," and "Thank God for atheism," among others.
"I'm too rational to believe in God," Tracy said on a recent evening. "My body's crippled, not my mind."
Tracy's protest is meant to counter-balance a nightly fixture in the square: proselytizers from the Deliverance Center. For more than 40 years, members of the church have preached the gospel from beneath hand-painted signs of their own. In bold voices, they rail against abortion and same-sex relationships, and implore passersby to embrace the Christian Bible and its teachings.
Pastor Stephen Reynolds was 7 years old when he began proselytizing from the square. Now 54, Reynolds said he takes Tracy's recent counter-protests in stride.
"He's very polite," Reynolds said. "He's not against us personally."
Nonetheless, Reynolds sees Tracy's presence as an example of the city's dissolution from civility to combativeness, while others say the church is responsible for causing trouble.
Tracy said he doesn't remember the accident that changed his life.
At age 27, Tracy was displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and returned home to Maine, his native state.
He took a job with his brother-in-law, installing vinyl siding. One day, he fell from a ladder. He was in a coma for about four months, he said.
When he woke up, Tracy was diagnosed with dysarthria, he said, a condition in which the "muscles of the mouth, face, and respiratory system may become weak, move slowly, or not move at all after a stroke or other brain injury," according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
Tracy, now 36, speaks in a strained, almost breathless voice. He also has difficulty walking. The accident injured his ankle badly enough that he needs a wheelchair to move more than a few steps, he said.
Tracy said he grew up as a "heartfelt" Catholic, until age 12 when he "accepted the cold embrace of reason," he said. Nonetheless, Tracy was a regular churchgoer with his father until just a year ago. He said he enjoyed his father's company so much that church was a pleasant experience.
The pair stopped going when the father's car broke down, and transportation was suddenly complicated. Around that time, Tracy said, he "came out of the closet" and confessed his atheism. His father was understanding.
"He was a little disturbed," Tracy said, "but he knows I'm weird, so he gets it."
Despite his atheism, Tracy wears mala beads, a traditional Buddhist necklace.
"My atheism isn't as pure as one might hope," he said. "One could call it hypocrisy. ... I'm an open-minded atheist."
Nothing precipitated Tracy's decision to protest in Congress Square.
"I find this amusing," he said of the proselytizers, "but I think it needs to be counter-balanced."
It's also convenient, he said. Tracy lives alone in an apartment on Congress Street, about a block away from the square. If the weather is nice, there's no reason he can't take a spot next to the church members, who arrive at Congress Square Park every Monday through Saturday at about 5 p.m. and preach for about an hour.
"I'm a fair-weather foe," Tracy said.
On Sundays, the preachers migrate to Tommy's Park in the Old Port. Tracy rolls his wheelchair about a half mile to meet them.
'The proverbial foxhole'
Tracy said he receives mixed responses to his signs, which include saltier variations such as "WTF???," Nipple!" and "Shut up!" On his first day of protest, a middle-aged homeless woman tried to pry the sign out of his hands. More recently, the same woman asked Tracy for 50 cents, he said.
For the most part, his efforts are encouraged, Tracy said. People laugh, honk their horns and stop to take pictures. One such picture-taker was Portland resident Sam Peisner.
Peisner said he snapped a picture because the juxtaposition of the preachers and Tracy's "WTF???" sign was compelling.
"He sums it up rather succinctly, the opinions of most," Peisner said of Tracy.
He also said there's something almost instigative about the preachers' message in liberal Portland.
"They're trying to disrupt in some way, knowing that they're outsiders in this setting," he said.
Portland resident Sam Mateosian echoed that sentiment.
"I disagree with their point of view and I'd rather not hear it," he said of the preachers. "I support Cory's 'WTF' sign. I think that's a very fair sentiment."
The preachers also receive a mix of detractors and supporters. Over the course of an hour on a recent sunny evening, two people stopped to argue with them. One person screamed angrily at them and a few people thanked them for their message.
"On a day-to-day basis, that's how it is," Reynolds said. "Some are for us, some are against us. Most are against us."
Reynolds said the anger is unwarranted. He said the preachers are trying to save souls from damnation, and their work is as urgent and important as trying to save people from a burning building.
"If somebody would step back and look, they'd see we're reaching out to them while they call us their enemy. (They say) we're hateful or we're angry and we're the ones that are the enemy," he said. "We're not trying to offend anyone."
The Deliverance Center, at 1008 Congress St., was founded in 1967 by Reynolds' father, James. In its earliest incarnation, the center was dedicated to "the transformation of alcoholics and drug addicts," according to its website.
Reynolds said the city has become become vastly more liberal over the decades, particularly as out-of-staters have moved to Portland. The tenor of debate has changed, too. Years ago, people were more apt to discuss their point of view, listen to the opposing side and remain cordial. Nowadays, he said, it's different.
"They're just angry, hateful and against you," Reynolds said. "There's no coming out of that."
Reynolds said Tracy's protests can be hurtful, but illustrative of the work that needs to be done. When people react positively to Tracy, he said, it helps the preachers know how many people need salvation.
"People will be mad and angry at one voice, and laugh and shout for another voice," Reynolds said. "It's obvious the choice they're making. Hearts are being revealed. And so it makes us want to reach out to people even more."
Portland resident Michael Agneta, a recovering alcoholic, spends every day in the park, rain or shine. He's been sober for "five years, six months and three days," he said recently.
He also supports the preachers.
"The preachers are absolutely correct and nobody's listening," Agneta said. "Cory has freedom of speech, but the thing is, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, who are you gonna pray to? A chair? A bicycle? What happens when you're in the proverbial foxhole? There's no atheists there."
Tracy disagrees. Despite his hardships, he said he hasn't felt the need to seek solace in a higher power.
"When I first came out of (the coma), I just felt really, really grateful for everything," he said.
Nonetheless, he admitted, a lot of people assume he's bitter.
"Hopefully," Tracy said, "my smart-ass smile says differently."