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Have you seen him? The Jesus Guy hits the streets around Tampa Bay

Maybe you've seen him walking down the street and done a double-take: the Jesus Guy, convincingly bearded, Bibled, barefoot and robed.

Lately he has been moving through our quiet neighborhoods and high-crime streets, showing up at churches, making memorable cameos at funerals. The Jesus Guy has been to Ybor, east to Plant City, west to Clearwater. He has walked the rural roads and busy highways of Tampa Bay to occasional catcalls from passing cars.

"Dude, you walk on water?" someone might yell. Or "Save me!" Or the ever-popular, "I love you, Jesus!"

Have you noticed how sooner or later, all things remarkable and strange seem to make their way here?

So I wanted to meet this Jesus Guy. Serendipity! My sister saw him and gave him my number. It took a while for him to call, though, because why would Jesus have a cell phone? (Yes, my editor opines. Modern Jesus would be wired to as many people as possible. Also, he would drive a car, possibly a hybrid.)

But the Jesus Guy is simplicity in sackcloth, even if he has been in Time and the Washington Post over the years, even if there is a documentary about him.

We meet at a church, a place where people seem to take him in stride.

You want to be cynical about the Jesus Guy, to assume his is a shtick as slick as our recent visit from the Naked Cowboy in his tightie-whities and guitar. The Jesus Guy seems … nice. He says "How are you?" like he wants to know. He does not seem crazy. No, he says, he does not think he is Jesus.

His name is Carl, actually: Carl James Joseph, though he goes by the biblical "James." He is 49, Detroit-raised, a barefoot traveling preacher. He has done this in 14 countries and every state but Hawaii, Alaska and Montana. (A guy who spreads the Word walking would find folks awfully spread out in Montana.) He visits hospitals (in sandals). He seems to talk to anyone who wants to talk to him.

He doesn't carry money — safer that way — and only sometimes rides in cars. He keeps it simple, though he did get asked to the movies not long ago and saw Avatar. "That," the Jesus Guy says, "was impressive."

When someone really wants to help him, he asks to shower or launder his robe. His bare feet are so accustomed to outside he glides over wood chips in a parking lot like he's crossing a carpet.

Does he go hungry? "In fact, I'm a little overweight," he says, patting his robed belly. "People can be very generous, especially over the holidays." Others, not so much, like the person who once winged a soda bottle from a car and hit him in the chest.

"And it's amazing," he says. "It can be the very religious that can be the harshest." Which to me is not so amazing.

We chat about the brouhaha over at the Tampa City Council and the atheists who declined to say "under God" in the pledge. On this he espouses a gentle "When in Rome" philosophy.

Okay, what of Ybor City, the entertainment mecca? The Jesus Guy laughs. He has a nice laugh. Ybor, he says, is our "special child."

What does the Jesus Guy think of us? He didn't realize how big or diverse the place was. It's been at times, truth be told, chilly.

"There is a need to be here," the Jesus Guy says, and he can say that again.

Have you seen him? The Jesus Guy hits the streets around Tampa Bay 03/09/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 10, 2010 12:08am]
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