The street preacher in the minds of many Americans, especially in the diverse northeastern metropolis, is often regarded as a wild-eyed evangelical with either a sign or megaphone, decrying those who defy the Lord who will supposedly receive eternal damnation. On Temple’s campus, visits by such preachers are a regular occurrence. Other merchants of spirituality and wisdom take on less ostentatious forms, distributing books or pamphlets or even simply engaging passersby in conversation.
Perhaps the most unorthodox of these tactics is the unmistakable Philly Jesus, the Born-Again Christian street actor who portrays the likeness of Jesus Christ, complete with tattered robes and a staff or cross. He engages Philadelphians with Christianity and the Bible in a way that doesn’t intimidate curious onlookers, but invites them to ask questions and seek out Jesus for themselves. Philly Jesus – or Michael Grant, his real name – began his journey of Christian spirituality from a place of darkness, despair, and dependence.
“Before this, I used to shoot up heroin,” he said. “I was run over by a car when I was 19. My ex-girlfriend ran me over with her car. So when I was helpless underneath that car, I realized I wasn’t in control of anything. I was helpless. And I heard about this man named Jesus growing up, and that was my instinct, to call on him when I was underneath that car.”
In the hospital, Grant was given heavy-duty opiate painkillers for the immense amount of pain he was in. This eventually spiraled into a heroin addiction, which led to run-ins with the law, an arrest and eventually, rehab. At this point, he said, he fully embraced Jesus and used his faith to overcome his addiction.
“He delivered me from that lifestyle . . . I have three, almost four years clean and sober. And I’m still a work-in-progress like we all are,” he said.
From there, he began to do what he believes God is calling him to do: making fourteen-mile pilgrimages across the city bearing a wooden cross, playing hockey at Dilworth Park, rapping and engaging Philadelphians from every walk of life in conversation about the Bible and Christianity.
“I use my passion for the theatrical arts to bring Christ to life. God gives everyone different talents, you know, singers, dancers, actors. So I use my passion for the arts to share Christ in an out-of-the-box, unconventional way,” he said.
Naturally, someone walking around dressed as Jesus Christ in broad daylight isn’t always well received by everyone who happens to pass him by.
“I get death threats every day. I get made fun of every day. I get spit at. You know, people don’t like what they don’t understand, and misery loves company. So some people try to pull you in with their negativity and try to distract you from your mission. I use that as fuel,” he said.
However, he said that love and positive responses outweigh the hate and negative responses that he receives, and that even if these statistics were reversed, he would continue to do what he does out of love and a sense of duty and purpose.
“I do this not in my own will, not in my own strength. I do this by sincere faith that God loves me so much, that he died for me,” he said. “That’s what gets me through my day. That’s my hope.”