Philly is blessed with a generous allotment of public space at its very center. On any day of the week, weather permitting, there are throngs of people at Love Park, Dillworth Park and near the Clothespin. Around this 45-foot-tall sculpture by Claes Oldenburg, I’ve seen an assortment of petty hustlers selling everything from loosies to oddball T-shirts, such as one that said, “IF YOU SMELL SOMETHING STINKING . . . IT’S ILL-ADELPHIA BECAUSE WE’RE THE SH!T. Black Israelites can often be found nearby. Wearing studded wrist bands, studded belts and studded vests over studded, knee-length, fringe tunics, they rail against white people and gays. I’ve seen these guys not just in Philly, but Washington D.C. and Minneapolis.
Today, a beefy dude sporting a chain necklace with the Star of David thundered, “God is going to destroy this homosexual land! God is going to destroy this lesbian land! Barack Obama has done as much as he could, to push the homosexual agenda. I remember the don’t ask, don’t tell, in the military. Obama started that! You all love that stinking African, but he’s disgusting. He’s not your people, black man! He’s a conniver! Stop having sex with the big whore . . . called America.”
Among the displays, there’s a plastic kneeling Virgin Mary with “DEVIL” on her forehead, “666” on her right cheek, a moustache drawn with magic marker over her lips, “WHORE” on her chest, and “SLUT!” over her crotch.
A board with a white Jesus had “666,” “Image of the Beast” and “IMPOSTER” as captions.
Another board, “ISLAM IS IDOL WORSHIP AND A LIE!!”
A “WE ARE NOT AFRICANS” board features unflattering photos of Africans, such as a boy’s face caked with animal feces, a terrified girl being held down and about to have her clitoris sliced and several people with huge lip plates.
An explanation, “MUST read and think about this: There were many Dark skin Nations which were created but not all Dark Nations are the same. The original Ishmaelites are dark skin but are not Africans, the East Indians are dark skin but are not Africans, the Natives of Australia are dark skin but are not Africans, neither are you so called Negroes which are dark skin are not Africans according to biblical history and prophecy.”
Jesus is black, and only blacks, Hispanics and Amerindians can go to heaven. “The white man is the devil the Bible speaks of. The white man will join the cops to kill the black man! The white man will become a politician to pass laws to kill the black man, the Hispanic man and the native man! The white man will kill us because we have no protection! The white man was a murderer from the beginning. When Cain murdered Abel, you know that story, God put a mark on him, and the mark is his blood showing forth through his skin. That’s why white people look red! So-called Caucasians ain’t white, they’re red, and it’s not just their necks that’s red, they’re red all over!”
A couple years ago, a black lady told me, “You know, they used to only talk about black people as the chosen people, but now they include Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Mexicans. They just want more followers.”
Today, the Black Israelites had an unwelcome guest, and that’s Michael Grant, better known as Philly Jesus. Twenty-nine-years-old, Michael has become a fixture around this area. As he pranced and smiled in front the Black Israelites, an old black woman screamed, “Cut that shit out! You ain’t Jesus! Hey people, he got arrested last week! Jesus doesn’t get arrested!” The old woman forgot that Jesus was arrested. I mean, that was the denouement of his earthly visit.
Other blacks took photos with Michael and tipped him. A smiling, suited black man shook Michael’s hand. Two kids around 15 asked Michael to bless them, which he promptly did, free of charge. As they walked away, I noticed they were handcuffed to each other. It was some kind of fashion statement.
When Michael wasn’t riling up the Black Israelites, he was dancing among the jets of water of Dillworth Park. Done, he stood in the shade of dwarfish trees and told me about his life. After two weeks of unseasonably cold weather, it finally warmed up, so more skin was showing, and more smiles. There were bright colors everywhere. Knowing they won’t freeze that night, even the homeless cheered up.
I dress like this to remind people about Jesus. I’m a Christian, and this is a way for me to share my faith. I’ve been doing this for two years.
Sometimes people get angry. People look at me and they don’t know what to think. They’re like, Is he serious? Is he joking? So they come up to me and find out, and I tell them I’m sincere. I’m sincere about what I’m doing.
I’m not doing this to mock Jesus. I’m a Christian.
Watching Bible movies, you know, watching Jesus movies? God, He led me to do this. They bring Jesus to the movies. I bring Jesus to the streets.
I use my passion for the theatrical art to bring Jesus to life.
I was raised in the theater, on stage. When I was young, my mom would put me in, like, plays, musicals, so I’ve always had that in me. My mom was an actress, and I’m an actor too.
I just use that talent for acting to bring Jesus to life.
This is America, so, you know, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, people can express themselves, and dress any way they want, so, you know, that’s what I’m doing.
I’m expressing that right. You shouldn’t care what people think of you, you should only do what makes you happy.
God, he knows our hearts. People don’t like what they don’t understand, you know. People are quick to judge.
Sometimes I get spit at. People spit at me. I get death threats. People say, “I’ll kill you!”
One time I was in a bar, someone took a drink, spit it all over my face, like a glass of wine. They put it in their mouth and spit it all over me, on my white robe, because they were offended. This was at Howl at the Moon on 15th Street.
It’s a nightclub. I went in there dressed like this because I want people to know that Jesus was a friend of sinners. He was a friend of everybody.
I go to nightclubs to dance, I love dancing, and to drink wine.
I only drink wine. I don’t drink hard alcohol or beer, I just drink wine. Red wine. I don’t drink every day. I drink, like, probably two or three times out of a week.
I like to have a glass of wine with my dinner. Jesus drank wine. Jesus’ first miracle, He turned water into wine, and at the last supper, He had blood and wine. When I drink wine, I eat bread with it.
Before I had Jesus come into my life, I drank the hard stuff. When I used to shoot up heroin, I used to drink bottles of vodka. Hard stuff. Hennessy.
Just the other day, I was arrested at the Apple Store. I’m an Apple customer. I have an Apple phone. I go into the Apple Store nearly every day for the last two years. Never had a problem. When I went in there that one time, an employee looked me up and down. He said, “Come on, dude, you’ve got to take this somewhere else!” And I said, “No, I’m allowed in here like everybody else.” So I stood my ground, and I got locked up.
They twisted the story. I carry a little cross. It’s a little bigger than me. They said it was blocking an aisle, which is not true. I carry my cross everywhere. I take the bus with my cross. I go into restaurants and bars with my cross. I go everywhere with my cross.
My cross is in the garage today.
Now I’ll have to go to court. That wasn’t the first time I was locked up. I was locked up in 2014, because someone handed me money at Love Park. I don’t charge. If someone comes up to me and says, “Yo, can I take a picture with you?” I don’t charge, but tips are welcome, you know. It’s a donation. Someone handed me money, and a cop saw that, so he said I was soliciting, “You have to leave the park.” I said I wasn’t leaving because it’s a public park, so I got locked up, for two hours.
People who like what I’m doing, they give me donations. It’s enough to survive. I get something to eat, and I use it for transportation. I bounce around. I don’t have a house of my own, I don’t pay bills, I couch surf. I bounce around between my friends and family. I have a lot of friends.
Before this, I used to shoot heroin and smoke crack. I used to rob and steal from people. I used to break in everywhere. I was hooked for seven years.
I was run over by a car when I was 19, so the doctors were giving me pills . . . for the pain, and that’s how I got hooked on drugs.
I wasn’t an addict before. I did start to smoke marijuana when I was twelve.
I was born in Philly, in the Northeast, around Cottman Avenue.
I finished high school. I went to college for a little bit. I studied recording engineering.
I’m still doing music. I’m a rapper.
The first single to my album is coming out soon, this summer. It’s called “High.” It has nothing to do with drugs. I’m high on God.
I was raised Roman Catholic. I still go to church, but I don’t consider myself a Catholic or follower of any religion. I’m a believer of Jesus.
I want to do this forever, until I leave the earth.
When I stop looking like Jesus, I’ll turn into Moses. As I get older, and have gray hair, and wrinkles on my face, I’ll be Philly Moses.
I don’t know if the country is in trouble. No one knows. Only God knows.
God can come back any second. No one knows. It says in the Bible that God will come like a thief in the night. He’ll come when he’s least expected.
I just live my life one day at a time and just hope for the best, you know, and try to keep a positive mind.
This is the worst it has ever been in human history. With all the wars, you know, all the diseases, it seems like it’s building up. The earth is getting overpopulated with people. There’s more stuff, more technology, which is hurting the earth. Human beings are like parasites to the earth. See all the cars? And they’re, like, giving out all the gas, the carbon monoxide? It’s bad for the atmosphere. The earth is, like, you know, wanting to cleanse itself. That’s why the earth is acting up. That’s why you have these earthquakes. That’s why you have these tornadoes. It’s the earth trying to cleanse itself.
The Bible talks about this. These are the signs. The signs will come. These are the warning signs.
The signs are all around us. The end of the world can happen right now. As we’re talking, you can see a big tidal wave just wash over everything, or an asteroid, you know, it can just boom! You never know. The same thing that killed the dinosaurs. Remember the dinosaurs? They’re extinct. Something drastic happened to them.
I’m a Democrat.
I’m registered as a Democrat. I believe that human beings have the right to vote.
I voted for Bernie Sanders. I voted for Obama, yes.
Obama is the best president we’ve ever had. Ever.
Personally, I don’t agree with the transgender stuff, but it is what it is. In the Bible, you know, it does say you’re not supposed to do stuff like that, according to the words of God, but the Bible also says, everyone is a sinner. No one’s perfect. Only God’s perfect.
Jesus saved me when I was at my lowest. I’m a lot better than what I was, I’m off the drugs, but I still have my struggles, you know. As a human, I have doubts, fears, anxieties, like how am I going to get married? Have kids? Sometimes I worry about the future. I’m trying to travel the world, you know, stuff like that, and it takes money to do those things. I’m trying to figure out how to generate an income.
I used to be a banquet server. When I was in high school, I used to serve wines and hor d’oeuvres at special events. I used to be a dishwasher. I used to work in a restaurant as a waiter. Stuff like that.
I’ve only been to Florida, Delaware, New Jersey and New York.
Last week I went to Times Square for the first time, to scope it out. I was dressed normally. Now I want to go back as Jesus once a week. I like New York because it’s bigger. I like to be around lots of people.
My parents don’t agree with this, they don’t like it, but we’re still talking.
The last thing I want to say is, “Peace and love. Love one another. Treat others the way you’d treat yourself.”
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.