SALEM — Tyrone Spates doesn’t get paid to stand daily on a busy Salem intersection here proclaiming the love of Jesus, but he considers it his job, referring to it as “God’s work.”
Rain or shine, he even works regular hours Mondays through Saturdays, from about 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., taking a break only for lunch.
As reported by the Statesman Journal newspaper of Salem in a front-page feature story, the former Tennessee prison inmate credits the power of God with getting him through open-heart surgery while incarcerated, and he is grateful for what he considers a second chance of life.
According to the newspaper, Spates has become a human landmark where northbound traffic from Liberty Road Southeast spills onto Commercial Street Southeast. He is easily visible, wearing a fluorescent yellow sweat-shirt emblazoned with the words “Jesus Loves You,” and smiling and waving his arms with both hands clenched in the “I love you” sign.
He also has similar shirts in orange, black and purple. He also occasionally stations himself in West Salem, near Wallace and Glen Creek roads.
Spates has become a celebrity, of sorts, in Salem. Many of those driving by smile, wave or honk back, or even roll down their windows and talk to him while waiting at the light, thanking Spates for the inspirational message. But a few make obscene gestures or yell at him to go find work.
Sometimes people hand him money, which Spates said he usually donates to the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency’s ARCHES Project to help feed local homeless.
But Spates also gives back on his own, often filling his backpack with dozens of homemade sandwiches and distributing them downtown on his way to and from his “job.” He said he dreams of someday having a building where he could feed many homeless, because he knows what it is like to be hungry.
Spates, 51, was candid with the newspaper about his extensive criminal record. He moved to Salem shortly after his release from prison, where he served 22 years for violent crimes.
He came to Salem last May with a woman, seeking a fresh start. But the relationship ended, and Spates wound up on the streets, first living in a tent, then at Union Gospel Mission. Although he has siblings and four grown sons back in Tennessee, he considers Oregon his home now.
Doug Lethin, a chaplain at Christian World Fellowship, a United Pentecostal church in south Salem, was curious one day about this man who was waving and smiling with such exuberance in front of traffic. He pulled over one day and asked Spates to tell him his story.
Lethin has been involved in prison and jail ministry for nearly 40 years and has empathy for those struggling with re-entry to society. Lethin offered him a place to stay at his church’s Reformation Outreach Ministry House, and also bought Spates rain gear when the weather turned inclement.
Spates eventually took him up on his offer, and now regularly attends Lethin’s church.
Lethin believes Spates has no ulterior motive in his street outreach and simply seeks to bring joy to others.
Spates has an Instagram account, with more than 400 followers at “soldier 4 jesus.”