The street preacher at the Book Festival was upset about the Harry Potter books because, according to him, those books are full of magic, demons and fables. Unlike the Book he was recommending. He was working in an irony-free zone in front of the Student Union.
The young Ezekiel in flip flops was God’s blowtorch and he was blowing scorching hot. He was a handsome boyish prophet isporting a T-shirt featuring the word “homo” with a red slash across it. Waving a sign lettered in 96 point Wrath he barked at we sinners like a pup in a pet store window aching for attention.
He snapped at students, admonished children, slammed storybook characters, peppered punks, harangued seniors and moved no one. He may as well have been crying in the wilderness of a glass booth, a19th century anachronism on display for The People to ridicule and dismiss.
I felt pity for this boy in love with a humorless belief system that left him brittle and isolated. I imagined him at home after a long day.
-How was your day, dear?
-The same old grind. Condemning strangers to eternal damnation and completely alienating anyone who may be considering a spiritual path.
-We need toilet paper.
-Did I tell you you’re going to burn in Hell?
-Don’t worry about it. I’ll pick some up. I made dinner. Hungry?
-Hungry for salvation. Will you go to Heaven when you die?
-Kids, why don’t you clean up in the kitchen while mommy and daddy have a little talk.
In response The People winced, mocked, shouted, listened, laughed, spoke up, gawked or simply ignored him. I did witness a miracle. I did not see anyone attempt to silence him. Thousands of years of civil disobedience by persistent prophets, both religious and secular have given us this blessing of liberty, this wonder of a diverse society that talks to itself in the town square, bickers and miraculously endures. We Americans are conditioned from birth to respect the individual’s right to expression no matter how alien from our own. In some corners of the globe such a simple gathering would have ended with tear gas and prison.
And then a second revelation came upon me, while chatting in the shade with a groundskeeper raking up litter.
-You’re from Russia? -Near Caspian Sea.
-What did you do before you came here?
-Writer. What you do?
-I make fun of politicians.
-Me,too. That’s why I left.
Bumper stickers call the roar of Davis-Monthan’s jets the sound of freedom. All around me I heard the sound of freedom. A handsome young muslim man in a clerical robe politely suggested to the street preacher they both shared a reverence for the Nazarene. The pit bull prophet would have none of that, barking that all Muslims are Hell bound. Rather than recoiling in terror, The People smiled at him the way we smile at a misbehaving child on Aisle 3 in Wal-Mart. I thought of the correspondence Thomas Jefferson had with a friend who was a preacher, writing that he wasn’t too concerned about the strict beliefs and practices of others as long as they neither picked his pockets or nor broke his bones.
My wife and I broke for lunch and sought out an empty seat under the large dining tent. We joined a nice young man at a table with empty seats. He overheard me telling the tale of the street preacher. I heard him sigh and quietly said,”they make it hard for the rest of us.” With those nine words he revealed himself to be a quiet, pious, devoted Christian, a gentle man who struggles to practice his faith. I thought of Mark Twain who spoke of how challenging piety can be. Twain said there was only one Christian in history he heard tell of and they crucified him early on.
Unlike the yammering caricature on the pavement many of my Christian friends are virtuous, smart and selfless souls who practice unconditional love, argue for social justice, give generously of their time and wealth to our community. Their inspired acts will never make it to the top of the news minute because their news is Good news.
My friend Tom's efforts with Workship or the stressed faith-based shelter or the humble church that donated time and money to help the public school next door get a decent playground they will never make the front page and compete with a fallen evangelist in a sex scandal for ink.
In the strip mall parking lot the nice gray haired man in a plaid shirt handed me a million dollar bill and informed me the word of God was worth more than a million dollars and I could find it on the back of the note. In the middle of the greenback was an image inspired by Emanuel Leutze’s painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. It’s apparent from the look on General Washington’s face that he and his men were heading to Trenton to escape a fire and brimstone preacher.
Later I revisited the scene and the rabid voice was still embarrassing all with his brittle intolerance. At that moment, touched by his loneliness, one of the children’s storybook characters from the festival walked up to him and gave him a great big bear hug. It was one of the Berenstain Bears. Mr. Fire and Brimstone stopped ranting,smiled and accepted the hug. No one had the heart to tell him the bear was Jewish.