For God's sake

Posted: August 08, 2014

WHEN Michael Grant was in the depths of his heroin addiction, his mother wrote him off for dead.

She had to.

"I said he's either going to die or get better. I had to accept the fact that he might die. It was so painful."

But that didn't stop the 58-year-old Center City professional, who asked that her name be withheld, from praying for her son.

She had to.

"I prayed for him all the time," she said. "This is what I got."

"This" is Philly Jesus.

Bearing his cross

For the last four months, Grant, 28, has been hanging out at LOVE Park nearly every day dressed as Jesus Christ and introducing himself as "Philly Jesus."

"I'm not the real Jesus. I'm just a huge fan," Grant said. "I'm doing it as a walking billboard for the King of Kings."

Sober for a year now, Grant said he found Jesus in a behavioral-modification program following a drug arrest.

"Jesus took the needle out of my arm and the crack pipe out of my mouth," Grant said.

Dressing as Jesus, he said, is his way of "planting seeds for Dad."

By Dad, he means God.

"Instead of me going up to people, pushing the Gospel on them, nonbelievers and believers come up to me and say, 'Hey, Philly Jesus, can we get a picture with you?' because everyone wants a picture with Jesus," Grant said. "That's a green light for me to share the Gospel with them."

Grant tells those who pose with him to tag him on Instagram and Twitter, where he's active under the handle @PhillyJesus.

Every other Saturday, Grant walks seven miles from Broad Street and Godfrey Avenue in Fern Rock through North Philadelphia to LOVE Park, carrying a 12-foot cross. Then, he walks back.

Grant said he made the cross by hand with wood and rope from Home Depot. He pimped his cross with wheels on the bottom.

"This is my way of letting my light shine, by carrying a cross in the 'hood," he said.

A couple weeks ago, the Daily News accompanied Philly Jesus on his trek down North Broad Street.

About a quarter mile into it, one of the first people to approach Philly Jesus was Rory McGlasson, a 36-year-old Irishman with a charming brogue who now lives in Huntingdon Valley.

"I have to ask . . . There's so many questions that spring to mind, like why are you walking down the street dressed as Jesus?"

"This is my way of sharing Jesus without preaching with a blow horn and condemning people. It's like making a statement," Grant answered. "When they look at me, I don't want them to see Michael, I want them to see Jesus."

"Michael?" McGlasson said.

"That's my name, they call me Philly Jesus. That's the name they coined me with."

"Who's they?"

"Just people."

"The people of Philadelphia?" McGlasson asked. "Are you from Philadelphia?"

Run over by a minivan

Grant was raised in a Catholic family in Olney, the older of two brothers. His mother said Grant was always a creative child. He did theater, loved drawing and even went to a clown school, learning to juggle knives and torches.

"He liked people's reactions, so he always liked reaching people that way," his mother said.

Grant started high school at Cardinal Dougherty, but said he got kicked out freshman year for selling weed. He graduated from Northeast Preparatory School in 2005 at age 19.

Back on Broad Street, McGlasson asked Philly Jesus, who was wearing earphones, what he was listening to.

"I got the Bible app, it's called YouVersion," Grant said. "It has all the versions."

"Is that like Spotify for Jesus?" McGlasson asked.

"It's a Bible app, you pick where you want, from the book of Genesis to the book of Revelation, and it has different versions," Grant said. "I prefer the King James Version, know what I'm saying?"

"I speak English," McGlasson said. "I know what you're saying."

One of the defining moments in Grant's life came in 2005 when his ex-girlfriend ran him over with a minivan. He had tried to stop her from leaving by standing in front of the car. It didn't work.

"I screamed 'Jesus!' as I went under the car," he said.

The minivan ran over his knees and abdomen. During his recovery he was given painkillers, which is how he became addicted to opiates, he said.

At his worst, Grant shot up to 20 bags of heroin a day. He practiced witchcraft and performed rap songs like "White Boy Wasted" under his rap stage name, Opal Weaver.

"I used to get mangled," he said. "Anything that I ever did I put 100 percent in. When I was doing drugs, I went hard for my drugs, you know what I'm saying?"

While an addict, Grant lived on the streets. How much heroin he did depended on how much he could steal or panhandle while working the Broad Street subway.

"Even though I was homeless I would dress myself as hard-core homeless - five jackets, five pairs of pants," he said. "I would probably make $200 a day.

"That little bag of heroin was my job," he said.

Grant said performing as Philly Jesus is what he does for a living now. He doesn't ask people for money and he doesn't get a paycheck, but people who believe in what he's doing will give him cash, clothes and shelter, he said.

Stations of the cross

About a mile into his recent walk, a middle-aged woman approached Grant, told him she liked what he was doing and gave him $17.

About half a mile later, Mark Pearsall, a man with missing teeth and a furrowed brow, came up to Philly Jesus, said he'd just been released from the hospital and asked him for money for food. Philly Jesus gave him $5.

Grant said he stays with family and friends these days and has no desire to get a 9-to-5 job. He's worked in the past - as a dishwasher, a banquet server and as an extra on the M. Night Shyamalan film, "The Last Airbender" - but he has a higher calling now.

Still, there's the question of bills. Even though he doesn't own a house or a car, he does have an iPhone.

"I'm on the family plan," he said. "It's Father, Son and Holy Ghost."

At the Olney Transportation Center, a man dressed all in red tried to pretend to hang himself on Grant's cross as he walked by.

"Nail me to the cross! Nail me to the cross!" the man screamed.

Grant said the man was mocking him.

"When Jesus walked with the cross . . . people were throwing rocks at him and spitting on him and all types of stuff. I'm not surprised," he said."You're always going to have your haters, you know what I'm saying?"

Philly Jesus ran into another of his haters near Wagner Avenue.

He was a young black man with his wife and two small children.

"Jesus wasn't a European!" the man screamed at Grant. "You still corrupt. You the crackerman!"

Philly Jesus did not take the insults quietly. He screamed Scripture back at the man with the fire and brimstone of a Southern Baptist preacher. Later, he denied getting angry.

"I didn't get fired up," he said. "I just said it with authority."

Grant's mom said he calls it "spiritual warfare" when he gets into it with his haters. She worries for his safety.

"Not everybody will like his views," she said. "You don't know what kind of crazy people are out there, especially from his former world."

Grant's former world ended, he said, when he was court-ordered to a behavioral-modification program for 73 days last year after violating his probation on drug charges. There he took a Bible study class.

"When I heard that door slam, that's when I hit rock bottom," he said. "But I didn't hit rock bottom, I hit God. God was the rock at the bottom."

Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University in California who has researched the correlation between religion and addiction recovery, said religious coping can be an effective tool in managing addictions, physical ailments and mental-health illness.

"Religion is a wonderful organizing principle, in other words, when someone engages in religious traditions, they give them structure, organization and answers to tough questions," he said. "That can be very appealing to a lot of people."

Though Plante has not met Grant, he said his turn to Christianity and Jesus Christ during his recovery was not surprising.

Plante said most recovery programs are based on a variation of the Alcoholics Anonymous model, which is "remarkably religious" and spiritually based.

Grant's mom said her son started speaking more about Jesus once he got out of custody, but it wasn't until a few weeks before Holy Week this year that he got into Jesus as a character.

She said he planned a "cross walk" with other "cross walkers" from the steps of the Art Museum to LOVE Park, which she went to watch.

"I thought it would be a Holy Week Easter thing and that it would die out," she said. "But he really became involved in latching on to a way to reach people."

Grant said he was inspired to start dressing like Jesus around the streets of Philadelphia after watching "Jesus Christ Superstar" one day.

"I was like 'Yo, I kind of look like the boy a little bit . . . let me get a white robe and sandals," he said. "I just went around my block to see if I had the balls to do [it.]"

Plante said sometimes recovering addicts will trade one addiction for another, more positive addiction, usually something like personal fitness or fine dining.

People also engage in behaviors that are reinforced, he said.

"So, if you start walking around Philadelphia looking like Jesus and you're a pretty friendly guy, people are taking pictures with you and now you have a reporter writing stories about you, now you're somebody and it's reinforced," Plante said.

At Broad Street near Ruscomb, Philly Jesus passed Omar Cain, who was blaring rap music from his parked car.

"So, is this what you do every day?" Cain asked.

As the two talked, Cain told Grant that he was a Christian rapper getting ready to do a video for his song called "Testimony" and he would like Philly Jesus to star. Grant gave Cain his cell number and told him to put him in his phone as Philly Jesus.

"I have to get this video out because there's so much we have to do for the young people," Cain said.

About a mile down the road, Grant was approached by one of those "young people."

Meko Rose Noel, 20, a Temple University student who was once homeless, stopped dead in her tracks when she saw Philly Jesus.

"You see this s---!" Noel said to her friend. "I need his number. I don't think we met by chance."

Noel told Grant that she had formulated a business plan with a friend the night before. She said she wants to provide shelters, health care, schools and banks for people who can't afford them.

"I was thinking about the plan and my heart got really heavy and I just started screaming, 'Thank you God! Thank you God!' " she said. "I think it's heaven-sent and I'm glad God chose me. I just don't understand why."

"This is a sign," Philly Jesus said to her. "This is confirmation."

"That it's meant to happen?" she asked.

"Oh, it's already done," Philly Jesus said.

Noel broke down in tears.

'Jesus liked to have fun'

Like method actors do, sometimes living out a role in one's daily life will help an individual become more like the person they are portraying, Plante said.

"If you put on a role, after a while, you feel that role, you become that person or role, that's a psychological technique," he said.

Grant is very clear that although he considers himself a "disciple," he is not religious.

"Make sure they know I'm not religious," he said. "Tell them I hate [organized] religion. I do what I do for Jesus Christ alone."

When asked to explain, Grant said organized religion is "a bunch of man-made rules" one has to follow to get into heaven.

"You look at every religion in the world and it's man reaching out to God," he said. "If you look at Jesus Christ, it's God coming down to man to do all the work for him."

As Philly Jesus approached New Vision United Methodist Church on Broad Street near Allegheny Avenue, a block party was underway with bounce houses and a DJ.

But nobody was dancing.

Philly Jesus wasn't going to stand for that.

Grant took to the pavement in front of the DJ tent and broke it down to Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough."

The crowd quickly circled around and took video of Philly Jesus as he danced by himself. He not only knew how to work the crowd, he also knew how to work his flowing locks into each dance move.

He brought smiles and laughs where there were none before. He moved two people - a middle-aged woman and a small boy - to dance with him at certain points.

As Grant walked away, Leroy Bonaparte, 56, of North Philadelphia, a trustee at New Vision UMC, chased after him.

"Thank you, we appreciated that," Bonaparte said. "That was awesome. I hope you come back and do it again."

"I like to have fun," Grant said. "Jesus liked to have fun. I want to show them Jesus can have a good time with you. His first miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding reception."

At mile six of his journey to LOVE Park, Philly Jesus wished for a Simon. Simon was the man said to have helped Jesus carry the cross.

At mile 6.2, Philly Jesus got his Simon, in the form of Sean Murray, a 44-year-old homeless man who was wearing a blue tie-dyed T-shirt that read "Nazareth Athletics."

Murray helped carry the cross for only about a block but he stayed with Grant for the rest of his journey.

"You know how New York City has the Naked Cowboy?" Murray said. "We have Philly Jesus."

As the two men talked, Grant asked Murray what the 1980s were like to live through.

"Like the movies," Murray said.

Philly Jesus told Murray he is still human and sometimes his own human nature will kick in.

"It's so much attention, I pray for the Lord to take away my pride, my arrogance, my lustful desires," Grant said. "A lot of women love Jesus. I definitely pick up a lot of chicks."

"Jesus gets bitches," Murray said.

"No, I meet a lot of women and you don't want to call them that word. I call them daughters of God," he said.

Walk in, not on, water

Before becoming Philly Jesus, Grant said he used to have a lot of one-night stands, but no more. His standards are sky-high, but he does dream of meeting that special woman.

"I'm a man, I'm single, I want to be with a woman," he said. "But I have to be with a woman who loves Jesus."

Philly Jesus has other human foibles too, like jaywalking, cutting in line and vanity. At least a half-dozen times on his seven-mile journey, he stopped to check out his reflection in the windows of cars and fast-food restaurants.

Philly Jesus also covets. He talks of creating Philly Jesus wine, Philly Jesus bread and Philly Jesus Halloween costumes, which would come with a Styrofoam cross. He dreams of going on a nationwide tour in a bus with his picture and "Philly Jesus" laser painted on the side.

"I look at this as promotion for my ministry, but I'm doing this for Jesus," he said. "Jesus doesn't mind if you have money, he minds if money has you."

When Grant arrived at LOVE Park, he cut in line in front of the tourists waiting to take their picture in front of the LOVE sculpture, so he could get his picture first.

"Hurry up, Jesus!" one man screamed.

After circling LOVE Park fountain several times while carrying his cross, Grant put it down, stood at the edge of the fountain, took a step off the ledge and walked on water.

Well, he walked through the knee-deep water.

He then outstretched his hand to the crowd and gestured for people to join him in the fountain.

Michell Heim, 45, of Oxford Circle, answered his call.

She immediately lost her flip-flops in the water, but that didn't stop her from going in for a big, wet, Philly Jesus hug, during which, she also lost the hat she was wearing.

Philly Jesus then took her to the center of the fountain, where he laid her back in the spray and "baptized" her.

"I saw Jesus and I got excited. It's definitely different than being baptized by my minister," Heim said. "It's exciting to be baptized by Jesus."

A part of Grant doesn't want to be Philly Jesus.

"My old self wants to live a regular life, have a job and a normal life, meet a woman, have kids, settle down, but God has me doing this," he said. "When God calls you, you can try to run away from it but it always catches up to you."

The one question Grant was asked most on his 7-mile journey through North Philadelphia was: "What is your purpose?"

His answer was always, "Just planting seeds." It remains to be seen if those seeds - and Grant - will grow.

In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good. - Ecclesiastes, 11:6.


On Twitter: @FarFarrAway

Online: ph.ly/crime

Blog: ph.ly/Delco

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