I didn’t know the Jesus Man personally.
No, I don’t mean THE man, Jesus – the real guy who is the divine heart of the Christian faith.
I mean John Brown, an 80 year old from Alabama, who died earlier this year.
In news reports about Brown’s death, he was vividly remembered as the “Jesus Man”. Since 2001, Brown stood every Saturday on Lakeshore Parkway in Homewood, Alabama, and held up signs about Jesus stuff and he preached sermons through a portable PA.
A few things stood out to me about the Jesus Man, this self-funded proclaimer beside a bustling road and shopping precinct. While it’s remarkable that his front teeth were embossed with gold letters spelling ‘Jesus’, how amazing to see a street preacher making the mainstream news – and he wasn’t being mocked or vilified.
Out of all the “unprecedented” headlines of 2020, I didn’t expect “The Jesus Man dies” to be up there.
Most of the articles I saw about John Brown were almost affectionate. The Jesus Man was quoted as saying some passersby would insult him, while others cheered him on. Even though he didn’t hold back from declaring a bold message – allegedly, he had about 100 different, confronting signs – Brown was a local legend. A landmark. A notable fixture on the footpath of his community. “For thousands of drivers, seeing or hearing [Brown] let you know it’s a Saturday and you’re on Lakeshore Parkway,” was the succinct summary of Brown’s impression by WBRC News.
Given the year we have all had, you might be surprised like I am to know the Jesus Man keeps returning to my thoughts. Out of all the “unprecedented” headlines of 2020, I didn’t expect “The Jesus Man dies” to be up there.
But what sticks with me about John Brown is thinking about the potential input he had into the kingdom of God via Lakeshore Parkway. I have absolutely no desire to emulate the Jesus Man’s sign-and-sermon, Saturday show, but John’s public witness stares me in the face like, well, a street preacher brandishing a giant placard.
When people from other religions stopped to question Brown, he routinely spoke to them about Jesus, declaring “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to my Father except through me.” For this father of nine who emigrated from Jamaica in 1963 and was shaped by “holy boldness”, the roadside congregation he ministered to was where he was supposed to be.
“The reason why I’m here is because God put me here,” Brown reportedly told The Birmingham News years ago. “What is wrong with one righteous man in the street telling people about God? I’m only a servant.”
Being a servant of God is something I aim to be. I wonder if my community knows that? Without reaching for the nearest megaphone or sandwich board, how might I help my neighbourhood to know that I’m about the same thing as the Jesus Man?
“It’s about salvation,” as Brown put it. Yes, Jesus Man, it is.