Cry to the Heavens
In the summer of 1984, a plague of hamster deaths was visited upon our home. I was 12, and my religious experiences had thus far been limited to opening Chanukah presents and praying before math tests. As my beloved pets shuffled off this mortal coil and into assorted shoeboxes, I sought spiritual comfort for the first time, attending synagogue and signing up for Hebrew school.
It turned out to be a phase. By the time the ink had dried on that last bat mitzvah thank-you note, my Godly fervor had congealed into lukewarm agnosticism. Like the hamsters, it expired quietly and with little fanfare. Ever since, I’ve wanted to understand those for whom devotion goes beyond a dalliance, especially the brave pilgrims – or stubborn killjoys – who choose to sell salvation in one of America’s most free-wheeling and sinful cities. So on a summer afternoon, I sought enlightenment from SF’s famous street preachers.
Owen Dias greets me with a grandfatherly smile and an ultimatum: quit my whoring or burn in hell. I can’t take it too personally. For 25 years, Owen and his giant lacquered sign have been warning shoppers on Powell and Market streets against unlawful sex – which he defines as anything other than marital relations between a virgin man and a virgin woman.
Owen has been warning the hell-bound, horny masses since 1974. He was restoring a ’63 Buick Riviera when he got the divine call. Just like that, his life as an unassuming body-and-fender guy came to a screeching halt. He unloaded his Pasadena auto shop and picked up a sign. It was a small, homemade affair – nothing like the towering and expertly lettered work of art that currently shouts warnings about homosexuality, AIDS, masturbation, whore-mongering, and even necrophilia.
Owen points to the sign’s craftsmanship, proudly rapping his knuckles against the word “fornicator” to demonstrate the quality workmanship. “Sturdy!” I agree, like we’re two Martha Stewart fans chatting about decorative planters.
The Belize native tells me he grew up a churchgoing fellow. But that ended when he was called by the spirit. “Religion is not of God,” he says. “He called me out of it.” That was fine with Owen, who had always been bothered by the hypocrisy of religious leaders, especially when it came to sex. “They preach lies. They say you don’t need to be a virgin to get married, to have a Christian marriage,” he explains, shaking his head.
For a dozen years, Owen and his sign were as ubiquitous to downtown LA as the smog. He rose at 5 a.m. and turned in at midnight. The Lord moved him around some, he recalls, before bringing him to the Bay Area in 1986. Ever since, he has spent five days at the Powell cable car turnaround and two days at 14th and Broadway in Oakland.
San Franciscans have given him a mixed reaction. Giggling teenagers snap each other’s photos near his sign. A man pushing a stroller squints to read his message and frowns. A young woman holding her husband’s hand proudly announces to Owen that she was a virgin on her wedding night. “Yes, but was he?” Owen shoots back. The wife grumbles and her husband laughs as they head toward the San Francisco Centre.
“To some it’s a turn off, but to some it’s good,” he admits. “I try to be a light to the world, providing a message that hasn’t been taught in America. People are very confounded.” City workers chat with Owen while they sweep the street. Sometimes, strangers want to argue. That doesn’t bother Owen, though he admits to being annoyed by one frequent question posed by his verbal sparring partners: “If sex is so bad, how do you think you were born?”
Though he’s quick to point out he’s never had sex or even masturbated, Owen resents being cast as an antisex puritan. “Nothing is wrong with sex, but it is not for those who want to walk with God,” he explains. “There are two paths, one of the flesh and one of the spirit.”
I approach Jose Rodriguez to ask him about his ubiquitous JESUS CHRIST LOVES YOU sign, but I can tell he thinks I’m trying to sell him something. His eyes are wary. He’d rather go about his business without interruption. I try to be friendly, interested, not pushy. Jose warms a bit. The irony isn’t lost on me.
The soft-spoken 55-year-old is a common sight at Giants games, street fairs, parades, and downtown shopping areas. Despite his reserved demeanor, he stands out in every crowd. His hat, shirt, jacket, and homemade sign are emblazoned with the same simple, capitalized message.
Jose, who holds a day job as a receptionist, came up with both the idea and the uniform in 2000, a year after he moved to San Francisco from New York. He spends each afternoon after work and one weekend day holding his sign. He is a lone wolf living by a solemn code. “I’m not here to preach, engage, correct anyone, or tell people how to live their lives. I’m very strict about that,” he explains. “I am strictly affiliated with no one. I join no one. I don’t allow anyone to join me.”
He bristles at anyone trying to shape his message. “Other Christians tell me I should say this or that, but I just let it be. My focus is to deliver a message, not to judge people,” he says. People are relieved not to be accosted or scolded, he says, which makes his interactions with them overwhelmingly positive.
“People quote it back to me, tell me they love me too,” he says, a bashful smile lighting his bearded face. “I’ve been hugged and kissed by both men and women. I welcome it with no judgment.”
As I approach the 16th Street BART station, a man is shoving his finger at Reverend Jose Garcia, screaming and spitting through missing teeth. Jose, a 45-year-old preacher at Monte Sinai Iglesia de Dios, grips his worn, leather-bound Bible with one hand and tries to calm the wild-eyed stranger with the other. Between outbursts of “officer down!” the deranged man accuses Garcia of being a cop and shouts, “You ain’t nothing but a bitch!”
Several members of Jose’s flock huddle nearby, clutching religious tracts and flyers for free English classes. We exchange nervous smiles. “Sir,” Jose calmly repeats, until it sounds like a mantra. “Please respect me as I would respect you.” Eventually, the man marches away, gesticulating wildly down Mission Street.
For members of Monte Sinai, a Latino Pentecostal church in the Mission, occasional confrontation is part of the job. For two decades, they have been loudly praising God at Mission district BART stations. In their buttoned-up best, members conduct revival-style sermons in Spanish amid a backdrop of commuters and drug dealers, bustle and despair.
Jose and six others founded the church in 1991. Since then, it has grown to nearly 300 parishioners – church leaders credit the growth to aggressive outreach. It can be a dangerous strategy. “Sometimes they try to hit us or start yelling or pushing,” says 22-year-old church musician Christian Monterroso, who accompanies Garcia during his sermons. “We just back away. We don’t react or we say ‘sorry if I offend you.’”
The confrontations are worth it, Monterroso says, for the occasional passerby who will offer testimony, weeping and finding relief after unburdening their souls.
San Francisco is a tough city in which to win converts. From the Barbary Coast to the Folsom Street Fair, libertines have always found a warm embrace in its welcoming cleavage. We gift wrap our licentious history and sell it to tourists, forgive dalliances among our leaders, and host bacchanal bashes that draw millions annually.
So to take on the job of a street preacher, it helps to have the patience of a saint. As the angry man’s spittle dries at the Mission BART, Monte Sinai musician Monterroso reflects on a key piece of Christian doctrine: turning the other cheek. “Sometimes you want to get angry but you can’t,” he says, weariness creeping into his smile. “It’s part of the deal.”
While Owen, Christian, and both Joses failed to turn me into a true believer, they did make me question my assumptions. People are complicated, and the ultra-religious are no exception. In San Francisco, we accept that the guy in the bondage mask is also an inspired cook or a passionate social justice advocate. It’s time to extend our famous open-mindedness to everyone. So, the next time a guy calls you a whoremonger, introduce yourself – he may also delight in recommending a great bistro near Union Square.
Want to hear some street preaching? Here’s where to find it.
Location: Mission BART stations, Mission Street. Monte Sinai Iglesia de Dios (Mission District).
Most weekdays in the late afternoon and early evening at the Powell Street turnaround or surrounding couple blocks on Market, Giants games, and street fairs.
Powell and Market, five days a week – including weekends, six hours a day.