Jesus in Philadelphia
By Mark Makela
For nearly every day the last eight months, Michael Grant, 28, has dressed as Jesus Christ, and walked the streets of Philadelphia to share the Christian gospel by example. With long brown hair, a thick beard, and wearing a white robe and brown vest, he very much resembles the Westernized depiction of Jesus. Soon into this endeavor, he acquired the nickname of “Philly Jesus,” which he has gone by ever since.
“I’m not here to preach. I’m here to plant a seed. I portray Jesus and bring awareness to him, but don’t try to convert anyone. Jesus is like my Michael Jordan. I’m just wearing his jersey,” he said.
Several years ago, Grant was a heroin user and homeless. He panhandled, exaggerating his condition by dirtying his face and changing into rags to increase his daily earnings from handouts. When he was arrested and sentenced to a behavioral modification program, he hit a low point and discovered the Lord. “When I hit rock bottom, Jesus was my rock,” he says. Grant thought of how he could share his faith in a positive way and seized upon an idea of dressing as Jesus to create a “visual ministry,” drawing upon his theater background from high school musical productions.
When wandering through Philadelphia, Philly Jesus is met with a combination of stares and enthusiasm, but mostly the latter, and frequently receives hugs and high fives. Grant has acquired the status of a local celebrity of sorts and every day is besieged incessantly with requests to pose for cellphone photos.
Philly Jesus offers guidance to those who seek it and prays with them. He stopped to greet all beggars he passed on the street, prayed with them, and gave them money. “I correct people when they call me ‘Jesus’ and I tell them ‘Philly Jesus,’” Grant said. “Also, I quote scripture all the time.”
Philly Jesus, who has an iPhone and posts numerous photos of himself and group portraits daily to Instagram and Twitter, states that he is here to introduce others to God. He stresses that he is not here to force anything upon anyone. It’s his goal to be a positive introduction or reintroduction to Christianity.
“I don’t have another job; I don’t have a home of my own. I stay with friends. Sometimes I couch surf. When people offer me money I accept it. I won’t ask for anything though. I don’t solicit,” he says.
Philly Jesus thinks part of his success stems from his optimistic outlook on life. He prides himself on having a fun-loving and approachable demeanor, with a healthy sense of humor. In November, an ice skating rink opened at the base of City Hall. Often Philly Jesus can be found skating with verve and using his walking staff as a hockey stick. “Jesus could walk on water and I skate on ice, ” Grant quips.
“I put the Christ back in Christmas. I explain that Jesus is the reason for the season. But that’s not all.” He continued, “People come up to me all the time, a lot of atheists, saying how much I inspire them, because I don’t care what I look like, and that I’m following my passion, going full throttle all the time.”
In the “city of brotherly love” it is apt that Grant is spreading Jesus’s messages of faith, hope, and love. Philly Jesus says he plans to continue this for years and years, and that he hopes to travel to other cities, to give speeches, and even to write a book of his experiences.
“When I’m older, when wrinkles form on my face, and my whiskers turn gray, I’ll morph into ‘Philly Moses,’” he said, “and then I’ll need to find a true believer to become the rightful heir.”