SOS – an evangelism ministry birthed from the Jesus Movement of the 1970’s has stood the test of time over 35 years later. Take a virtual tour down memory lane discovering the beginnings of SOS Ministries.
A Brief History of SOS Ministries
In 1975, God called me to come to San Francisco and witness on the streets. I had lived in San Francisco before I was saved as a “hippie” and I always had a special burden for this city. My only plans were to get a part time job and spend the rest of my time witnessing on the streets. I never expected to start a street ministry.
I started attending a local church that was known for being evangelistic. They had a full‑time minister of evangelism and most of the church members had been through an extensive evangelism training program. As I met people in church, I would invite them to go witnessing with me. Usually they would agree, and we would set a time and meeting place. Almost every time, the person wouldn’t show up. Finally, I realized that most of these Christians, even though they had a lot of teaching on evangelism, had virtually no experience witnessing to strangers and were terribly afraid to do this.
Some Christians I knew had a band and they had started doing evangelistic concerts in parks. It seemed like a good way to reach a lot of people with God`s Word at one time. So I found out how to get permits, borrowed a small PA system from a church, and asked some friends who had a Christian band to play at Union Square, a small park in downtown San Francisco.
During a single afternoon, several hundred people would walk through this park‑‑businessmen, tourists, drug addicts, homosexuals, teenage runaways, prostitutes. When the Christian rock group started to play, they drew a good‑sized crowd. People would eventually realize that these musicians were singing about Jesus, but most would stay because they liked the music. The musicians shared testimonies about how they got saved and someone would preach a short message. A local ministry called His Way gave us New Testaments to give away and people took as many as we had.
As we did these concerts, I met many Christians who thought this was a great idea, and wanted to be involved. One brother, Ron Woodruff, was doing outdoor concerts in the East Bay and had a large PA system. He also had contacts with other Christian bands, access to a computerized mailing list, a typesetting machine, and a Christian printer. Ron had just formed a non-profit corporation for his ministry called Shama Sound Ministries, Inc. (“Shama” comes from the Hebrew word meaning “to hear” or “to proclaim.”) So we started printing up fliers of our concerts and mailing them out to Christians as well as giving them out at Christian concerts.
In a short time, we met leaders of several churches in the San Francisco area who wanted to do evangelism outreaches in San Francisco. We would schedule a weekend outreach and each group would bring 30‑50 Christians from their church. We got another 30‑50 Christians from our mailings, bringing the total to about 200. On Friday and Saturday nights, we met at a church for worship and prayer, and then went to some area to witness. On Saturday at noon, we had an outdoor concert, usually at Union Square, and then witnessed downtown. We started writing and printing our own tracts.
After several years of organizing weekend outreaches like this, which involved 100‑200 Christians every six weeks, twenty leaders who had been involved in planning these outreaches met together in January, 1980. At that meeting, we decided to plan a major, week‑long outreach for August, which we called SOS‑San Francisco. People are constantly asking us, “What does SOS stand for?” An SOS is a distress signal, a call for help. We wanted to send out an “SOS” to Christians all over the United States to come to San Francisco to witness for the Lord. People have suggested various meanings to the letters, but the only one I like is “Serve our Savior.”
We printed up thousands of posters and other literature inviting Christians to the outreach. Our mailing list grew to 5000 and we sent newsletters out all over the country. We set up booths and gave out fliers at every Christian event we could find. We shared about the outreach at churches and on Christian radio stations.
In July, David Wilkerson, founder of Teen Challenge ministry and now director of World Challenge, brought a team of thirty workers to San Francisco. They gave out 200,000 copies of a booklet David wrote called “Two of Me: the Struggle with Sin.” They also established a Christian coffeehouse in the heart of the Tenderloin district, the skid‑row area of San Francisco. This coffeehouse continued as an effective ministry for four years.
About 1500 Christians were involved in the first SOS‑San Francisco outreach. Every day and night we sent teams of Christians throughout the city to witness for the Lord. We printed up and gave out about half a million tracts written specially for San Francisco. We put up hundreds of SOS posters around the city. Every afternoon we had an evangelistic concert in a downtown park. Everywhere people went that week in San Francisco, they would run into Christians who would witness to them about Christ.
We planned a second SOS‑San Francisco for 1981. During this year, opposition to us by the homosexual community became very intense. A city‑funded organization called Community United Against Violence spearheaded a campaign against us in the homosexual press. Every week an article appeared which described us in the worst possible terms. “They harass local citizens . . . They condemn minorities . . . They cause violence . . . They cry out for our extermination,” said one flier. We became the targets of homosexual hostility towards Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell, even though we carefully avoided any political statements
In 1980, our ministry received a lot of criticism from San Francisco churches. In 1981, God showed us to reach out to these churches and serve them. That year, we were able to work with twenty local churches and established an excellent relationship with them. We really needed that support from local churches when we met such great opposition from the militant homosexuals. We also put together a slide show about our ministry and showed it to about ten thousand Christians at 50 churches and several large Christian gatherings.
At the end of 1981, a Christian brother donated part of the down payment on a San Francisco house, allowing us to buy a house that has become the center of our ministry. 1982 and 1983 were years of growth‑‑getting our ministry established, raising up leaders, witnessing to many people and counseling new believers. In 1982, Jeff Harsh, a Christian businessman from Kansas, came here at his own expense to videotape our SOS outreach and put together a presentation for us. In 1983, we conducted our first Institute of Evangelism.
In 1984, the Democratic Convention came to San Francisco and we planned our summer outreach to coincide with the convention. Thirty churches and ministries joined with us in the outreach and we planned two large Christian rallies in front of the Moscone Center, where the convention was held. Many protest groups had converged on the city that week and were planning large protest rallies. Thousands of media people were here from all over the world. City officials worried about riots and bloodshed. On Thursday, Jerry Falwell spoke at a meeting in San Francisco. A massive demonstration against him resulted in violence and several arrests. On Sunday, there were two marches by the labor unions and gay rights advocates, each with over 100,000 participants. Monday featured a massive anti‑war rally with about 60,000 demonstrators outside the Moscone Center. Among them were tens of thousands of punk rockers and “skinheads” who had come here for the convention. Several dozen of them were arrested.
Tuesday afternoon featured a pro‑marijuana rally at the Moscone Center. At the same time, a thousand Christians gathered at Union Square and marched through downtown San Francisco to the Moscone Center for a worship rally with Chuck Girard. Many of the punk rockers at the marijuana rally stayed for our rally, and we witnessed to them. As we worshiped the Lord for several hours, the spiritual atmosphere in the rally area changed. The next day we had another worship rally at the Moscone Center with evangelist Mario Murillo. Again, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the area was strong. After our rally, a “Peace in El Salvador rally” was planned featuring Martin Luther King`s widow. We stayed to witness. Their rally only drew about 200 people. The Christian presence was so strong in the area‑‑with hundreds of Christians preaching, carrying signs, and witnessing‑‑that people would arrive in the area, see all the Christians, and leave, thinking it was a Christian rally!
The next day, the National Organization of Women, one of the most influential groups in the country with over 250,000 members, had planned a rally on the day the first woman was nominated as Vice‑President. We sent all our workers there to pray, worship, and witness. Again, their demonstration fizzled with at most 300 demonstrators, all of whom heard about Jesus. During the week, we witnessed to many of the delegates, including Gary Hart and George McGovern.
In January 1985, the Superbowl came to Stanford Stadium. We planned a large outreach in San Francisco and at the stadium in Palo Alto. Evangelist James Robison joined us for this outreach. He preached in downtown San Francisco and at the Superbowl. His TV crew filmed the outreach and put together two shows that went on national television, informing a million Christians about the evangelistic work in San Francisco. In July 1985, several Christian ministries in southern California held the first annual SOS‑Hollywood outreach, a city‑wide outreach to that city based upon SOS‑San Francisco. In August 1985, our sixth annual SOS‑San Francisco outreach featured a march through downtown San Francisco and a baptism of thirty‑one people in the fountain in front of City Hall
Also in 1985, we began working with evangelist Jerry Brandt, who works with singles ministries throughout Northern California and hosts a program on Christian TV in the San Francisco area. Jerry got his singles groups involved in feeding the poor at our outreaches. He also began praying for the sick at the outreach, and we saw several people get healed. At our Christmas outreach, he raised the funds to purchase a thousand sleeping bags to give away to the homeless. All three network TV stations featured stories on the outreach and the Sunday newspaper had a large article on it. This outreach was a powerful witness of the love of Christ to the people of San Francisco. For too long, non‑ Christian groups have been helping the poor while Christians have been doing very little. This was an opportunity to demonstrate Christ`s love by helping with people`s physical‑‑as well as their spiritual‑‑needs.
Looking back, I still marvel at the way God used some very ordinary Christians to establish a powerful street ministry in San Francisco. When God called me to San Francisco, I never expected to do anything but witness on the street with a few other Christians. I knew nothing about establishing a ministry, setting up a non‑profit corporation, putting out newsletters, or coordinating evangelism outreach involving hundreds of Christians. But after five years of witnessing on the streets, getting little response either from unbelievers or Christians, I became a leader of a ministry that was having a significant impact for Christ on one of the wickedest cities in the world