2016-06-30
In the SUV waiting at the corner, the British news team is ticked. The crew from ITV had been having trouble all day tracking the holy man known as Whatsyourname, and now they were anxious about getting him to a studio in Philadelphia, 100 miles away, in time for a live satellite interview. Whatsyourname had refused to ride with them. "I'd like, in fact, I insist, that John drive me," he told them. In the car he tells me, "I don't like their attitude."

Now, as we are about to drive off, two priests run up, waving and tapping frantically at my car window. They are from Poland, they explain. They were passing by when they recognized my passenger walking along the icy sidewalk in his bare feet and white robe. "We saw you on television and just had to tell you what an inspiration your ministry is!"

After ten minutes of this, the SUV backs up. The cameraman glowers at us from behind the wheel.

Whatsyourname, as he likes to be called, is an itinerant preacher who, from the robe to the beard and shoulder-length hair, is a dead ringer for Jesus. More precisely, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Warner Sallman's popular 1941 portrait, "Head of Christ," which was reproduced 500 million times, becoming one of the most recognizable images of the 20th century. Whatsyourname strolled into Hazleton, Pennsylvania, seemingly out of nowhere, last October. He preached on the streets and when asked his name would reply, "What's your name?" Even after the local paper revealed him to be Carl J. Joseph, 39, Whatsyourname stuck.

People knew only what little he had revealed--that he'd taken a vow of poverty and lived on charity; that he claimed he was called to spread the Gospel, a mission he started nine years ago. He said his mission had already taken him through 47 states and 13 countries. Police ran a check and found nothing of concern--an arrest in Ohio for failing to disband a disorderly crowd gathered to hear him preach. (Charges were dismissed.) The Rev. Gerard Angelo, pastor of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, visited Whatsyourname and deemed him genuine, "He has a strong religious faith and doesn't claim to be Jesus." Eventually, Father Angelo invited the missionary to participate in a Mass.

Since then, Whatsyourname has ignited a revival in the predominantly Catholic area. When he appeared on "The Sam Lesante Show," a favorite local program, the show got so many calls they had him back three times in two months. Nursing homes and hospitals beckoned. Thousands have flocked to hear him speak at local churches. "People who haven't been to church in 30 years are returning," said Angelo. "I've never seen anything like it." Miracle stories abound--including one about a car suddenly repaired after Whatsyourname placed his hands on the hood. Time magazine and "20/20" have come calling.

In "Training in Christianity," philosopher Soren Kierkegaard pondered what it would be like to be a follower in the presence of Jesus. He wrote that 19th-century Christians vainly believed that if they'd been around at the time of Christ, they would have instantly recognized him as the Son of God and rallied behind him. Kierkegaard disagreed: Jesus looked so much like every other Joe that his divinity was utterly unrecognizable. That's why his claims to be God were considered an offense to reason and demanded a leap of faith. Kierkegaard said his fellow Christians, failing to find an idealized Christ, would have responded to Jesus as others did--by crucifying him.

After Whatsyourname addressed a senior religion class at Hazleton's Bishop Hafey High School, the principal told the local paper, "He confronts you with the question, What if Jesus was here?" This put a twist on Kierkegaard I'd never considered. Whatsyourname showed that standing in the presence of a man who resembled a popular image of Jesus, but who claimed not to be Jesus, not only didn't violate reason, it somehow managed to inspire an amazing display of faith.

The morning I arrived in Hazleton, I took a walk near the church where I was supposed to meet Whatsyourname. Along Broad Street, Hazleton's main drag, storefront after storefront is either empty or boarded up, giving the impression of a town badly in need of a miracle. Whatsyourname never showed, but before I had waited too long, Connie Muir, a local woman who assists Whatsyourname, came to take me to Sam Lesante's television studio. On the way, I asked about the day she first saw him.

"I was driving home from work," says Muir, "when I spotted this man in a white robe walking along the highway. Because it was October 25, I thought the robe was a Halloween costume. Then I saw the bare feet, and I knew he was a missionary or prophet." She asked her son-in-law, who shares a small duplex with Connie's daughter, their two kids, and Connie's other two children, to drive back and offer the man a ride. "When my son-in-law brought him home, Whatsyourname walked in and said, 'Peace be with this house.'" He's lived there ever since, on a futon in the living room.

At Lesante's studio, the sight of Whatsyourname standing amid a blur of shirts and ties was surreal. Sam showed us to a conference room. "So, how are you?" Whatsyourname asked, his soft voice barely audible.

"Great," I said, and commented on the weather.

"But how is your spiritual life?"

"Oh. It's . a journey."

"Are you close to God?" His wide eyes peered into mine.

"My journey has its ups and downs," I said. "Some open highway, and, um, lots of toll booths." If there's anything I loathe, it's being expected to have pat answers for questions humankind has struggled with since the Garden of Eden.

"What do you make of the mystery of Christ?"

I slipped a tape into my recorder and rewound it. "Okay, then! What do you think draws people to you?"

Whatsyourname closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and tilted his head toward the ceiling.

"They come," he whispered, "they come because theirs is a search for answers. And I tell them to love one another. To reach within. To share that love with the One. And to share that love with all who choose to respond to it." Then he lowered his head, opened his eyes, and gazed at me, as if to say, Next question.

That evening, Whatsyourname and I attended Mass at St. Joseph's. Every head followed Whatsyourname as he paced the center aisle, eyes fixed ahead, to a front pew. He's probably the closest thing to a celebrity this town has had in a long time, and he fills the role well. After the service, Whatsyourname sat quietly, meditating, I supposed. A frail woman in her 80s approached him meekly. Her husband was at home, gravely ill. Could Whatsyourname please, please visit him?

Waiting for Whatsyourname in the foyer were at least 40 more people. A woman rushed over and clasped his hands. As he spoke with her, the others quietly formed a line behind her that ran the length of the room and snaked back. A drill everyone knew? One woman cried. Another hugged him. I saw him pray with at least six people. Whatsyourname stayed 45 minutes, until he'd given each person an audience.

Back in the car, Whatsyourname seemed happier than he had earlier, as if ministering to these people had revitalized his spirit after a long day at the office, so to speak. Or maybe he was simply basking in the adoration of so many folks eager to touch the hem of his garment.

I asked what they discussed with him. "One guy had a legal problem," he said. "Another struggles with alcoholism, and I prayed with him. One woman asked whether it was okay to get divorced."

"What did you tell her?"

"That a true marriage is based on consent," he said. "God cares about our intent and not what we say in public. That was an insight to her."

Time magazine has noted the "whiff of disingenuousness [that] clings to" Whatsyourname. He refuses to discuss his own family, birthplace, or even where his many stories occurred, which invites you to imagine all sorts of outrageous--or perhaps utterly mundane--details he's afraid you'll discover. (The Toledo Blade has reported that nine years ago, Joseph was arrested for sneaking into an adult movie theater in that city. He pleaded no contest, the paper says, but later failed to appear for a court date.)

Whatsyourname does refer to a conversion experience spurred by a low point in "the mystery of evil." Kent Jackson, a reporter at The Hazleton Standard-Speaker, speculates that Whatsyourname's conversion is so complete that his past may be irrelevent, and would only be a distraction to his ministry. Sts. Paul and Matthew, of course, revealed their low points, as do evangelical preachers.

But who can question Whatsyournames commitment, even if we're not sure what that is? I've watched him stand barefoot on a freezing night, talking for five minutes with a goofy teenager who, from what I could tell, merely wanted to see how long he could make Whatsyourname stand in the snow. And if Whatsyourname routinely sits all night with sick and dying strangers, as Connie Muir says he does, then perhaps he deserves the sainthood she believes is his destiny.

Still, it's the Jesus look I can't get past. When I asked about the robe, he said it was because he didn't want to support exploitative clothes manufacturers. "And I found that a loose-fitting garment is practical for living outdoors." Practical? In the snow? Admit it, I said, the get-up is a huge reason you draw crowds (and, I didn't say, British television). "Of course," he said. "And the crowds hear the message."

I asked if there was ever a time he did all the same stuff--walk town to town, preaching and praying with the sick--but wore everyday clothes, like jeans and a T-shirt.

"Oh, sure," he said.

"How was that different?" I asked.

"Nobody paid attention."



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