Viral Shirtless Runner Founded Student-Led Street Ministry Movement

The founder of a student-created and led ministry that aims to get bar-goers to pray on Friday nights is the man whose image went viral after crashing a news report during a shirtless jog in Chicago.

Former Moody Bible Institute student Ethan Renoe started a movement in which students stand outside bars in Wrigleyville, Boystown, and near State and Division every week -- regardless of the season -- holding a sign that reads "Free Prayer." They have been doing this for the past four years.

Renoe appeared in a weather report shirtless on Sunday night, the video of which has been viewed nearly 4 million times. "I love running in the rain, and I’m also single!" he said in the video.

An article on the school's website explains how Renoe founded the movement.

"Ethan and a friend were out walking around the city when they felt an urging to interact with the hundreds of people their age who were out in the popular night-life district of Chicago," the article said. "When they grabbed a pizza box and scrawled the message, they did not realize they were starting a ministry."

The 24-year-old appears in the video above, discussing his experience with "Free Prayer." He is also holding the sign in the Instagram photo below.


#tbt God did some amazing things on the streets of Chicago! #freeprayer

A photo posted by Zach Pritz (@zp_barn) on Dec 19, 2013 at 7:34am PST

Renoe told NBC Chicago about an experience he had while at the State and Division location with a truck driver who pulled over and told the students he had seen them week after week for the past year.

“It was one of those billboard trucks with naked girls on it,” Renoe said. “Every time he saw us, he felt convicted and didn't want to be doing what he was doing. He got out and talked to our people and I think they said he was crying because his life wasn't what he wanted it to be and they prayed for him.”

Student Noah Reynolds, the current leader of the movement, told NBC Chicago that the locations were chosen because of foot traffic. However, he mainly holds the sign at their Boystown location outside of a bar named Progress located at Roscoe and Halsted.

"My primary purpose of going there is to show this community love that has been severely damaged by those who claim to be Christians" said Reynolds. "That area has been hurt by people who claim Christ’s name."

A manager at Progress said their presence is a "non-issue," and that the students have never caused a disturbance. However, the group said they often get mistaken as members of Westboro Baptist Church, though they're quick to shut down that misconception.

"No! 100,000 percent no," Reynolds said when asked if their message is similar to that of Westboro Baptist, which is known for picketing funerals of soldiers. "Westboro Baptist is nearly the antithesis of what we are. Our message is a message of grace through faith. It doesn’t matter how far you have fallen, Christ loved you enough to die for you to set you free."

Although it's quite clear they aren't affiliated to WBC, Reynolds said people have spit and cursed at them thinking they are. So why not change the sign?

"We have had people suggest sign changes and we have tried 'God Loves You,' 'Free Prayer for Everyone,'" Reynolds said. "What ended up happening was we would get a lot of just thumbs up, so after thinking about it we decided to keep it as free prayer to have some ambiguity about it. The mystery of the sign gets people to come to us."

Despite the fact that some misinterpret their message, the group said the experience is still worth it.

"Some people come at us angrily, but I can understand that because that community is their stronghold and that's where their identity lies and they feel like we're attacking it, but that's before they talk to us," said student Andy Wood. "Regardless of lifestyle decisions we have the same opportunity to share the gospel and love people."

Moody Bible Institute said in a statement: "This particular group of students does this on their own initiative. While studying and training at Moody, we encourage our students to engage others in a positive way that benefits individuals and the city."

The group asks for all who may have questions to contact

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