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<p class="p1">Junior Lofton, a Christian preacher, talks to a group of pro-Israeli protesters and students. Lofton, 73, has been preaching to students for 32 years as of April 2014 and typically visits Turlington Plaza three days a week.</p>

Junior Lofton, a Christian preacher, talks to a group of pro-Israeli protesters and students. Lofton, 73, has been preaching to students for 32 years as of April 2014 and typically visits Turlington Plaza three days a week.

He’d said his morning prayers, assembled his plastic cross. He’d staked out his usual spot near the bus stop. He’d been spit at, and it wasn’t even noon.

Now, it was time for salvation.

A bell rang. Students flooded out of classrooms, filling Turlington Plaza at UF. Junior Lofton, 73, gripped his cross and shuffled into the crowd.

“Friends!” he shouted. “There’s two roads: one to Heaven, one to Hell. Which one are you on?”

“I’m on both,” one man joked, walking away.

Junior wiped sweat from his brow.

For 32 years, the preacher says, he’s been pointing students to Christ because he wants them to avoid a path that nearly ruined his life.

“How about you?” Junior asked another student. “Are you born again?”

“I got class, man.”

Junior turned to someone else. “What about you, young lady?”

No reply.

“What if you died before class started?” he called to no one in particular.

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“Then I won’t have to pay my rent!” someone yelled back.


Street preaching isn’t easy on a college campus.

In January, a visiting preacher walked onto Turlington Plaza and screamed for three hours about women belonging in the kitchen. One student stood next to him holding a sign that read: “NOT A CHRISTIAN, JUST A DICK.”

In February, another preacher roared near the classrooms. A 26-year-old student slapped him in the face.

Three days a week, Junior shuffles through the plaza.

He smiles but never takes no for an answer. He hands out business cards that say “Jesus Saves.” He compares anything red to a communist — except his Bible. He reveres Republican politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan: “Good, decent people you can trust.” He believes no human is born to be a homosexual.

“I’m not trying to win a popularity contest,” he shrugged.


When Junior was 3, his father, James, died from pneumonia, leaving behind a wife and five children.

The family squeezed into a three-bedroom place in east Gainesville. The roof was constructed from rough-cut lumber. “The cheapest stuff,” Junior said.

The children slept on pasteboard boxes or huddled in two quilts. Growing up, Junior says, he shared a room with one of his four sisters. There was no air conditioning. You stood on the porch if “you wanted to catch a breeze.”

To support her family, Ethel Lofton worked seven days a week at restaurants, diners, a nearby military camp during World War II. She picked oranges and sold the juice in one-gallon bottles on campus. Cut. Flip. Squeeze. Repeat.

With his mother busy, Junior found trouble.

At 13, he took his first drink from a jug of moonshine. By 16, he was addicted to alcohol. Since Alachua was a dry county during the 1950s, Junior says he and his friends spent their days learning where bootleggers dropped off moonshine, then stole from them at night.

During high school, his thoughts turned to conquests: “How many women could I sleep with?”

Instead of college, Junior did roof tiling. In the evenings, he’d cruise around with buddies in sports cars, searching for pretty girls and drinking homebrew.

Soon, Junior earned a reputation for boozing and womanizing.

But alone, he wept.

In his 20s, Junior suffered from night terrors. He woke up panting, sweating through the sheets.

Eventually, he sought help for his drinking. From family to friends, the advice never changed: “You just quit.”


It’s early morning on Turlington Plaza. Big blue buses hiss as they stop to unload students.

Junior slouches in the usual spot, leaning on his cross. A short woman with thick, black hair stands next to him — his wife, Debbie, 60.

The couple met more than 40 years ago.

Junior was teaching an adult bible-studies class at Windsor Baptist Church, about 20 minutes outside Gainesville. Debbie Nobles was one of his students. She was 14.

When Junior first saw her, he thought she was beautiful — and the thought spooked him. After class, he hopped in his pickup and prayed while speeding home.

Two years later, Junior and Debbie started dating. They biked around the city of Windsor and fished on weekends.

Debbie’s parents were uncomfortable with the relationship. Junior was going on 30, and Debbie wasn’t legally an adult. “But they saw that we were serious,” Debbie recalled, “and did finally give us their blessing.”

After dating a few months, Debbie married Junior on June 21, 1970, beneath a giant oak tree in Windsor. She was 16.

They raised four children over nearly 44 years: Delbert, 50; Tamara, 40; Lance, 35; and Pamela, 31.

Sometimes Debbie mills around the plaza, dispensing advice while Junior preaches. She thinks he’s misunderstood.

“He’s here preaching because he loves people so much,” she said. “We’re not the kind of people who force religion.”


The day Junior came to Christ, he didn’t know a single Bible verse. It was April 1967, and he was lying in bed after a night of heavy drinking.

Sunlight leaked through the blinds. The 27-year-old slowly opened his eyes but couldn’t sit up for fear of getting sick.

His clock radio buzzed, and a preacher’s voice filled the room.

“Jesus can give you peace. If you don’t have peace, he can give it to you...”

Junior groaned. Too much noise.

He groped for the off button, but when he tried to sit up, his skull throbbed. He fell back, forced to listen to the program.

The voice talked about two roads in life — the broad and narrow. “Where are you heading?” the preacher asked.

Junior didn’t try to pretend. Nights were spent on booze and women. Days were spent recovering. He had recently split with his first wife and was learning to care for Delbert, their son.

He needed a change.

When his lover crawled into bed and started whispering in Junior’s ear, a realization washed over him. He wanted a pure life with Jesus.

He told her about his desire for transformation, but she just glared, tears forming in her huckleberry-blue eyes.

“Your friends told me you would do this,” she said. “They told me you would leave me.”

For two hours, Junior sat still at the foot of the bed, cradling his head.

Then he walked into the shower and scrubbed himself clean. He was born again.


Nearly 50 years since his conversion, Junior’s skin is wrinkly and white. He smells like cottage cheese and takes slow steps. His voice is gravely, as though someone wore it down with sandpaper. His muddy eyes sit behind golden-brown frames.

Junior’s still a handsome man. His shoulders fill out collared shirts, and his silver hair is combed to the right. His back hurts, but not enough to keep him from preaching. The prostate cancer he suffered from two years ago would have kept him away for good, but he beat it.

Junior stayed optimistic after accepting Christ, but his struggles didn’t end.

On November 29, 1979, he beat his wife, according to Alachua County court records. Five days later, Junior pled no contest to spouse battery. A judge ruled him guilty, and he was sentenced to seven days in county prison.

Junior said he never hurt Debbie, “Otherwise, we wouldn’t still be together.”

He said this is what happened: He and Debbie went over to a friend’s house in Windsor. The group discussed “life and religion.” Alcohol wasn’t involved. Conversation turned to argument. A cop was called. “It wasn’t a big deal.”

Junior said he only spent two days in prison. The third day, he was released.

One afternoon on the plaza, he raised a finger and pretended to touch someone’s hand. “If you do this,” he mocked, “it’s battery.”


Service was about to start at the Church at Orange Heights. Women dumped out coolers and scraped off dinner plates. The sun set across the steeple.

For 11 years, Junior’s been attending the Hawthorne-based ministry. During a recent service, he walked into the sanctuary and sat alone in the back.

Junior waved at a friend, shook a hand. A single word flashed across the screen: “FELLOWSHIP!”

Junior pointed excitedly at the stage. “That’s my wife there in the choir!” he shouted over the crowd.

As the opening bars of “Amazing Grace” floated across the room, Junior rose slowly with the congregation.

He sang to himself, hands clasped, eyes clenched. Voices thundered around him:

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound....”

“I told Debbie, ‘I can’t keep a tune to save my life,’” he said earlier. But here, in his quiet center of faith, he was confident.

When the congregation reached “that saved a wretch like me,” Junior’s right hand shot up, waving side to side. His voice rose higher with the chorus of believers.

“Yes, Lord!” he shouted. “Yes!”


When former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist spoke on campus during a cold weekday in February, a crowd of about 100 students encircled him and cheered.

On the opposite side of the plaza, gust blowing across the pavement, Junior stood alone in the misty rain.

He shivered, then started shuffling.

“God hates me, and I can’t go to Heaven,” he said.

Holding up the Bible, he shouted, “Show me where it says that!”’

Jasmine Bensinger, a Christian student passing through, stopped and talked about her boyfriend, who belongs to a different church.

“I’m wrestling with whether I need to change what I believe,” she said.

The preacher pounced.

“Yeah,” Junior said, “but here’s where you’re going to end up.”

He pointed at the girl. “He’s going to end up trying to guilt you.”

“Maybe not,” Bensinger replied. “I know him pretty well.”

Junior refused to let go.

“Sometimes,” he said, “people get too religious and don’t try to find the truth. But the truth is Jesus.”

He asked Bensinger to keep him updated on her predicament. She thanked him, took a card and left.

The commotion over Crist had thinned out, and stray students wandered through the plaza, searching for shelter and lunch. The drizzle continued, gathering like tiny diamonds on Junior’s rain jacket.

He shuddered as he looked to the swirling sky. In three decades preaching in Gainesville, he says he hasn’t saved anyone.

“I think I’ll have to call it a day,” he said, “and call my hunny.”


Junior and Debbie live in Windsor in a trailer-sized home five minutes from the church where they met. The place sits behind a swinging gate at the end of a country road. It has a front porch for Junior’s crosses and a back porch for bird watching.

The field, framed by trees, stretches in all directions. There’s a green pond in the backyard, which Junior uses as a gun range. A wooden playground sits next to the house. The couple has 14 grandchildren with a 15th on the way, and they visit often.

Junior calls this wooded sanctuary his “R&R” from the war zone on campus. But even here, the preacher tries to save souls.

In early April, Debbie visited Cedar Key with her sisters, so Junior hosted a father-son church event. The men were going to teach the boys to shoot rifles.

Six hanging targets were perched on a dirt mound by the pond.

“Is the line ready?” a man called out.

A string of young boys lying on their bellies nodded their heads. Fathers sat behind the smallest ones to help balance their shots.


Six rifles boomed in the air. Targets bobbed, struck. Wild bullets kicked up dirt.

Junior sat under a canopy by the house, smiling.

A teenager wearing glasses walked by. “He doesn’t have a father,” Junior muttered.

Junior called to the boy. “How did you do?”

“I did all right,” he replied, handing over his target.

Junior examined the sheet, his eyes widening.

“This is good, good, good, good,” he marveled.

The boy’s older brother walked up. Junior was equally impressed with his shooting. He promised both brothers they would all go hunting soon.

Then he asked, “Do you guys have a relationship with Christ?”

[A version of this story ran on page 5 on 4/23/2014 under the headline "Turlington Plaza preacher shares word of God, his life"]

Junior Lofton, a Christian preacher, talks to a group of pro-Israeli protesters and students. Lofton, 73, has been preaching to students for 32 years as of April 2014 and typically visits Turlington Plaza three days a week.

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