By Justin Walton
In the French Quarter, just outside the chaos of Bourbon, stands a group of black men dressed in street clothes partially covered by long, traditional robes—some are quiet bystanders, some are outspoken, all have bibles in their hands. It is a late, Saturday afternoon and the first wave of typical Bourbon Street festivities is already underway. The distant sounds of brass instruments and the banging of percussion based street performers drifts through the air. Mostly, the chaotic sounds of exaggerated conversation and the occasional gleeful shout dominate the area. Every so often, the metallic clangs of a streetcar can be heard rumbling on its track. The smell of stale cigarette smoke fills the nostrils. It is a crowded, loud, debaucherous place full of drunk, hard-headed tourists.
Many Saturday afternoons—spent on Bourbon Street—I have seen these street preachers discussing scripture for anyone that is willing listen, and to gather content for their YouTube page (GMS Louisiana Saints 2). Sometimes, this group is left to discuss amongst themselves. The endlessly flowing crowd engaging in excessive indulgence just passes by the preachers with no more than a disapproving glare. Though more than a few times, I have seen drunken individuals attack this group for their beliefs. The inebriated persons often call the group “blasphemous” or “insane.” There’s one particularly tense scene. A furious individual, unable to walk in a straight line, gives a slurring speech about the heresy of the group’s preaching and the terrible sin they’ve committed. However, the preachers do not snap at this person. Instead, they prefer to calmly dismantle the angry accusations. The intoxicated individual storms off towards Bourbon Street, presumably to drown his anger in another shot or two. “The reason you see people screaming at us is because they don’t agree with us,” one of the most talkative amongst them said, “this not a thing for everybody, we fully understand that.”
These preachers don’t just “fully understand that,” they practice a kind of restraint that is rarely seen in discourse today. Everyone who approaches the group is met with the same level of respect. Even when people angrily disagree with their interpretation of the scripture, no bitterness is returned; “The Lord is not gonna wake up everybody on this side.” Their argument is replete with biblical allusions that is then applied to create a world view significantly different from what most people accept as normal.
The negative perception imposed on them by those who listen fails to recognize their controlled discourse as a reasonable alternative to their own religious views. In fact, their discussion is similar to the varied discussions held at Hyde Park, London. Their “soap box” may be a corner on Bourbon Street, but that doesn’t take away from their reasoned yet alternative religious views. To look at their clothes, to judge the location of their speech in order to conclude they’re crazy is just a personal attack on people who hold different views and express themselves in a unique location.
These street preachers will be the first to tell you they didn’t just show up on the street corner but, “had doubts about different literature that was taught in this society, deep down I knew, growing up in school, there’s something greater than them just teaching us we came out of Africa.” The same talkative went on to cite several passages from the bible to prove his point, that the current view on the origin of black Americans’ is wrong and that the church as well as other institutions were using their influence to push a narrative that oppressed black Americans.
It is difficult to get them to talk about anything but the true meaning of the bible. In fact, it’s almost impossible. Every answer to every question I ask, whether it’s about religion or not, somehow links back to the bible. This is a committed group. A collection of nine guys who’ve dedicated their lives to religion. Just their presence alone all but demands attention. They display a sign that predicts the future enslavement of white people and a graphic that depicts a white Jesus as the devil. The drunken masses make quick assumptions based on these sights. They label these people as “crazy” or “insane” without any meaningful inspection.
It seems natural to demonize this group, and their message, as religious radicalism. They would disagree with that conclusion. “This is not a religion,” the outspoken man said, “this is based on stolen heritage.” It’s easy to judge this group based on the way they look and a few isolated snippets of their preaching. “People in America wanna base everything on skin color, they wanna base everything on the color of a man’s hair, the color of a man’s eyes,” he said, “It’s really about the spirit, you know, that’s how you can tell who a person is, is by the spirit, man.” He pauses for a moment and turns his head toward Bourbon Street, “People have a hard time doing that over here in America.”