Photo by Jerry Nelson
It's Friday, July 23, and an audience rings Pritchard park, where one preacher is launching into the middle of a sermon, pacing, stomping and shouting.
“You haven't obeyed your parents,” he says into a megaphone. “You have to believe...”
“Sit down, you've had your chance, let someone else talk!” one man shouts from the crowd.
Someone asks the preacher something about the meaning of God being love, and he waves it off. “I'm talking right now, I'll take questions later.”
“This guy sucks!” one woman shouts, clearly not satisified with the free entertainment.
After a few further barbs are thrown back and forth, the audience begins asking the preacher what church he's from and where he prays. Seemingly flustered, he pauses for a moment and says, “I pray in my closet.” The preacher's invoking Matthew 6:5-6 which, ironically enough, reads: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.”
But he's walked into the trap, and on cue, scattered shouts of “come out of the closet!” from the crowd turn into a chanting chorus.
As the crowd gets worked up, two men with open Bud Lights in cozies wind their way through the crowd, searching for a seat. They're spectators, and their reason for coming out here is simple.
“It's fucking hilarious,” one says to the other, motioning to the preacher and the hecklers.
Similar scenes occur all over the weekend as street preachers (often from outside the area) along with their opponents (usually locals), square off in displays of spectacle, shouting and (every once in awhile) actual debate.
With its ampitheatre-like layout, Pritchard Park is a popular venue for preachers in action. This exchange also took place on Friday.
Many of the street preachers are of the fundamentalist variety, as evidenced by the signs and brimstone rhetoric. Hell is frequently invoked, as is judgement and Jesus' imminent return:
Photo by Michael Muller
Preaching on Saturday
But despite their ubiquity at Bele Chere, both preachers and protestors are often reluctant to talk to the press. But Keith Higgins, from Atlanta, Ga., spoke to Xpress: On Saturday morning, he leans on a large wooden cross at the corner of Haywood and College , passing out information about his ministry, which he dubs Saved From What. Higgins says he doesn't always want to be associated with some of the other preachers, whose aggressive tactics he believes to be inappropriate.
“I just talk the Gospel with passing crowds,” he says. “We get a mixed reception. Some people are receptive and some just don't want to hear it. We don't try and force them, we just let them go by.”
But why Bele Chere? “The number of people,” he says. “Really, we travel all over. We just got back from the major league baseball All-Star game in Los Angeles. We go to the Super Bowl. Anywhere where there's lots of people. When there's something big like this and it's only three hours away, it's a no-brainer.”
Just about 10 feet from Higgins, Scott Smith, a schoolteacher from Georgia, warms up.
“This nation is in a famine, not a food famine, but a famine for the word of God,” Smith says as he looks around — most of the milling crowds continue on their way. “They don't even know the Ten Commandments. They think they're the ten suggestions. ... Now some of you may say 'I don't believe Jesus is the lord.' It doesn't matter what we believe. If you don't believe in gravity and you jump off that building, does it mean gravity doesn't exist? No.”
Smith receives little acknowledgement. He closes his Bible for a moment and asks them, under the unrelenting sun of the hottest festival in memory, if they're “walking in darkness.”
While the preachers do tend to draw their opponents out in force, it's not uncommon to hear a positive shout in the midst of the detractors, especially at lines like “You need a savior!” (a common phrase, it seems, in the repertoire of any street preacher).
Over by the Vance monument, the preachers can be a more belligerent variety. Signs proclaim the final resting place of “drunkards and fornicators” (take a wild guess) or, well, this viewpoint:
Photo by Michael Muller
That's a particular point of conflict in Asheville, with its sizable LGBT population, and the damnation of homosexuals expressed by the preachers is a frequent target of the detractors' criticism (including, it should be said, from other Christians who find it intolerant).
Local Jeremy Carter decides he's had enough and heads over to local bookstore Malaprop's, where he buys a rainbow flag to express his own particular view. He returns to Vance and brandishes it through the spiels of four preachers. His display does not go unnoticed.
Photo by Michael Muller
“The homosexuals have stolen the rainbow from scripture, and they've twisted what the Bible says. The rainbow is a symbol of god's judgement,” says Tony Denham, from Goldsboro as he stands on a platform and motions to Carter. “It's very ironic; this man is holding a symbol that will be the death of him. Flee! Flee your homosexuality! Flee your bondage!”
Carter, who receives cheers and thanks from some passerby, explains his own move as simply taking a stand against a hateful ideology: “I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household,” he tells Xpress. “There are probably people walking around right now, struggling with their sexuality. I don't want them to just hear this garbage,” he says, indicating Denham.
He is sooned joined by Batwoman (Ashevillean Hillary Frye, spreading the word about the Fanaticon convention).
Photo by Michael Muller
Legally, the preachers — and their detractors — are on fairly firm First Amendment grounds, which have wide protections for speech in public spaces (even allowing for personal amplification equipment) as long as the participants don't engage in physical violence or directly provoke others to it. It's not uncommon to see police observing the proceedings at the three major areas — Pritchard Park, the intersection of Haywood and College and the Vance Monument — where the vast majority of the preacher confrontations takes place each Bele Chere.
However, there's plenty of ways to make one's point or vie for verbal space. Also at Vance, a busker painted all in silver sets up in front of a street preacher bellowing about sin (“sinners die and they go to hell!”). Her rapid drumming drowns him out — and proves a savvy business move at the same time: Onlookers not only cheer her wildly but throw one, five and even 10-dollar bills her way to keep the noise going.
Photo by David Forbes. My apologies for the poor quality, caught this scene on my phone.
In addition to the preachers, there's also Cameron Heatherly, who proclaims allegiance to his own particular sect, the Church of Reptology and its deity The... well, best to let the sign do the talking.
Photo by Michael Muller
“Velociraptors are misunderstood: They were actually intelligent and relatively nonviolent,” Heatherly told Xpress. “They're preaching evil over there. We're for understanding.”
So, to review, street preachers bearing signs about hellfire and damnation were countered by, among many others, a drumming street performer, a local citizen brandishing a rainbow flag, Batwoman and followers of the Great Velociraptor.
Only in Asheville.
Of course, in a city of subcultures, many of whom they condemn, the street preachers also form their own — however temporary — with their internal arguments and different points of view (remember Higgins' objections to some of the others' tactics), along with a need to stick together. There even seems to be aesthetic trends: Signs bearing long lists of sins were a familiar sight last year, but this year seemed to have been mostly replaced by hellfire and judgment motifs.
Late Saturday afternoon, a group of preachers could be seen relaxing on Haywood. Marcus Pittman, from Virginia Beach, Va., had come to Bele Chere to preach for his third year in a row. He spoke to Xpress about what he sees as a holy mission to save souls from hell.
“We're getting the same response we normally get: Some people really like it, some people hate it,” Pittman said. “We don't have any expectation when we come out here to preach that people will love it.”
He mentioned the early Christian figure Stephen getting stoned to death, along with the similar demises of many of the apostles, “we know the Gospel is offensive.”
Why does he think Asheville crowds often directly confront street preachers?
“In Asheville, it's saying that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth: I think that's very offensive in Asheville. There's a lot of post-modern thought, universalism, a coexistence mentality,” he said, adding that “some preachers' approach is to specifically and aggressively be offensive. Some of what we preach is offensive by the nature of its exclusivity, but I have no desire to use derogatory slurs or offensive words for their own sake.”
That evening, Pittman himself was in front of Vance monument, thumbing through his Bible and readying himself before launching into his own sermon.
“Neither fornicators or idolators or adulterers or the effeminate or abusers of themselves or mankind or revelers or extortioners shall inherit the kingdom of God,” he says, quoting from Corinthians. “Understand, Asheville, that you've all broken God's law, and the only just thing for God to do with you is to throw you in hell if Christ did not come.”
“Bullshit, he's a fascist!” a man from the crowd shouted, pointing at Pittman.
Photo by Margaret Williams
“Explain yourself,” Pittman replies, before leaning closer and hearing the man's objection. “It's a good point, a loving God won't throw people into hell. But will a just God throw people into hell? God is loving, but he is also just. He must punish those who rebel.”
Not everyone enjoys the ruckus. Canadian visitor Donovan Kokot, observing Pittman, didn't think it should be allowed at all. He sees the preachers' activities as hate speech that should be banned by law.
“This is a hate crime where I'm from: You can't stand on a street corner telling gay people they're going to burn in hell just like you can't stand on the street and say black people are any less than white people,” Kokot says. “Seeing that this is somehow tucked under First Amendment rights is absolutely bogus. There's a clear distinction between preaching absolute, pure hate and free speech. It's completely distracting, the whole festival's been about this. Every street you go on, there's another preacher shouting through a megaphone and people shouting back. This is fascism, legalized fascism.”
Ashevillean Torva Logan, also observing, isn't too fond of the annual confrontations.
“People didn't come here to hear this, they're here by the city's grace, so basically the city has sanctioned a bunch of Christians to stand around and tell us we're going to hell,” she told Xpress. “I don't understand how this is helping the city at all.”
But whether people came for it or not, there it is, every year, as much of a fixture as funnel cake and beer. Ashevilleans, living in one of the more liberal cities in the Southeast, get a rare opportunity to directly confront some of the more hardline prosyletizers who condemn many of their own lifestyles.
Photo by Jonathan Welch
Nothing's quite as invigorating as a good enemy, after all, and the Bele Chere provides an opportunity for locals to cut loose against their ideological opponents in relative safety, with a built-in audience nearby.
Come to think of it, that's exactly what the preachers get too.