An Anniston man and his young brother were arrested by Oxford police Sunday, charged with trespassing after the two preached to passersby at Quintard Mall.
The older brother, 19-year-old Canaan Elkins, said he wasn’t told by police or mall security that he was on private property at Quintard Mall before he and his brother, Landon Elkins, were arrested. Police and mall staff dispute his claim.
Elkins, who lives in Anniston and pastors Muscadine Holiness Church in Ranburne, said that while he was driving home from church Sunday evening, Landon spotted a carnival in the parking lot of Quintard Mall and said the two should hold an impromptu sermon there.
“As soon as he said that I felt the Spirit telling me to go ahead and do it,” Elkins said.
The two stood on the sidewalk, at the corner of JCPenney near the carnival, and began preaching to motorists and carnival customers, Elkins said. The mall, open noon until 6 p.m. Sundays, was closed for the evening at that time, he said.
After they had preached for about an hour Sunday evening, an Oxford police car appeared, Elkins said. Soon after, several police officers and mall security approached the two, he said, telling them to stop preaching.
“I’ll stop preaching when the Holy Ghost tells me to stop,” Elkins said he told police.
Canaan Elkins said an officer told him he’d be arrested if he didn’t stop, so he turned around and placed his arms behind his back, and was arrested and placed inside the police car, he said.
Elkins said he couldn’t hear the police talking with his younger brother, but the latter told him what happened later.
Landon Elkins said that the officer told him the two were on “his property.” The younger brother replied that “the whole world is God’s property,” Elkins said, at which point his younger brother was also arrested.
Canaan Elkins said he was not told by police that he and his brother were trespassing on private property until after they arrived at the police station.
“I would have never thought that was private property,” Elkins said.
Elkins said that after his arrest he felt good about his actions, saying to himself in the police car, “Praise the Lord. Thank you, Jesus.”
“We’re supposed to give thanks to him when we’re persecuted praising his name. I felt thankful that I was doing his bidding,” Elkins said.
Brooke McCulley, marketing director for Quintard Mall, said she’d not heard of evangelists preaching coming to the mall before, and that both Elkins and his brother were told that what they were doing was illegal.
“The mall security officer as well as the Oxford police officer, both told the two that they were on private property,” McCulley said. “The two individuals were asked repeatedly to stop. When they did not comply after repeatedly being asked to stop, Oxford police arrested them.”
The mall’s rules state that “picketing, demonstrating, distributing handbills, soliciting and petitioning require the prior written consent of Quintard Mall management.”
Oxford police Chief Bill Partridge said that the brothers were warned they were standing on private property, but that they refused to stop when asked by police.
“There are plenty of public places that you can do that activity. They do it all the time at U.S. 78 and Highway 21, and we have no problem with that,” Partridge said. “That’s freedom of speech. We’re not going to violate someone’s constitutional rights to do that.”
Oxford police Capt. L.G. Owens said that the arresting officer reported that after being told the sidewalk was private property, the younger brother told police that “this is God’s property and belongs to no man.”
Malls nationwide often deal with problems caused by groups of teenagers, but rarely have issues with evangelizing, say retail experts.
Jesse Tron, manager of communications for the International Council of Shopping Centers, said cases like the one in Oxford are rare.
“It doesn’t happen too frequently, from what we hear,” Tron said. “But we don’t have stats on that.”
Shopping center administrators’ primary concerns are for customers to have a pleasurable shopping experience, Tron said.
Typically, mall staff will ask someone breaking mall rules to leave before calling the police, and even after that occurs, police usually are able to handle the matter without making an arrest, Tron said.
A former New Jersey police officer was arrested in November 2013 for trespassing after he refused to leave a mall when asked to by mall security for passing out religious material, according to news accounts.
Canaan Elkins said he doesn’t evangelize in public often, but only “every now and then, when I feel led to.”
He has preached on sidewalks along Noble Street, and in medians in between streets in Oxford, Elkins said, where he said he’s never had a problem with police. Those sites are public property.
A video posted to YouTube shows Elkins preaching beside a road in Heflin, speaking through a megaphone as motorists pass by.
Of those he and his brother preached to at the mall Sunday evening, a few told the brothers that they appreciated the sermon, according to Elkins.
“A few hecklers, they’d yell profanity, but that always happens. Even around here,” Elkins said.
Elkins said his younger brother was unnerved shortly after his arrest.
“When he first got in the car he looked at me and started crying, and I started praying with him. By the time we got to the station he was fine,” Elkins said.
“The Police Department acted very professional and courteous,” said the pairs’ mother, Shena Elkins, by phone Wednesday.
Her sons weren’t held in a jail cell, and officers stayed with them, talking and keeping them company until she arrived to pick them up, about three hours after their arrest, she said.
She hopes the charges against her sons will be dropped, and that while she thinks the mall handled the situation poorly, she would “rather have to pick them up from jail for preaching than for drugs.”
Canaan Elkins is to appear in Oxford’s municipal court July 1 on the trespassing charge. The court date for Landon Elkins, a minor, is not a matter of public record.