A Chance Meeting and A Changed Life

Street Preacher, Officer Realize They’ve Met Once Before

“I’ve got good news. Jesus loves you,” Sammie Bethea yells to passersby in Uptown.

In Uptown Charlotte, it’s not unusual to overhear people talking about Sammie Bethea. The 46-year-old street preacher spends hours at the corner of Trade and Tryon streets praising Jesus so loudly that workers swear they can hear him evangelizing from six stories up and two blocks away.

Most people don’t realize this man some call “The Jesus Yeller” used to be a gun-toting, dope dealer, who was arrested 29 times before the night that he says Jesus intervened.

Lt. Keith Caviness remembers. He was there.

It was just after midnight on September 29, 1996.

Bethea, 25 at the time, was walking to a friend’s house to smoke weed, play video games, and show off his new .357 Magnum.

Caviness, just a few months older than Sammie, was working on a drug interdiction team.

Mug shots of Sammie Bethea from the 1990s.

As he walked along Central Ave., Bethea saw a police car drive past him, then turn around and head back his way. Before it reached him, Bethea took off running. Caviness jumped from the police car in chase.

Bethea tells an exciting story about his attempt to outrun the cop. He got far enough ahead that he thought he could toss the gun into a bush, but it fell right in the officer’s path. Then he sprinted up a hill, still ahead, only to find the police car and its driver at the top.

“I knew at that point that I was going to jail,” he recalls.

Last summer, Bethea was doing volunteer work in the Reid Park neighborhood when he recognized Caviness as the guy who locked him up that last time. Caviness didn’t remember it at first. But as Bethea told him the story about the foot chase, the memory came back.

“That last run in with the law was of God,” Bethea recalls. “The police were there for me. He was there for me. I thank God for putting him there.”

After that arrest, Bethea says he let Jesus into his heart and got straight. He had a long career with WalMart until a couple of years ago, when he left his job to evangelize full time.

Lt. Keith Caviness

Caviness now visits regularly with Bethea, who lately has also started preaching from a bicycle. At least once a month, Caviness picks him up and takes him to lunch. They occasionally tease each other about the foot chase — particularly about the length of the lead Bethea describes and whether he could have outrun Caviness if his partner hadn’t been there with the car.

But mostly they talk about how similar they’ve become — each trying to help the community in their own way and how ironic it is that they found themselves working side by side after all these years.

“I’ve learned not to judge anybody because everybody has a story,” Caviness says. “And everybody has it in them to change.”

As far as those who are bothered by Bethea’s style of evangelism, he asks:

“He’s a good person. Would you rather him return to his old life? I sure hope not.”

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