What God Gap? Part 1

A Bush voter marches against Bush

By Jeff Sharlet

Bill McDonald doesn’t claim to know what Jesus would do, but he knows what Jesus wants Bill McDonald to do — march against the Bush administration. McDonald has accepted his assignment and has driven from Carterville, Ill., a tiny town near the Missouri border, with a fellow Christian to join a protest on the second day of the RNC. But he’s not budging on his vote: It’ll be cast for George W. It’s kind of complicated, the mystery of What God Wants, but there it is.

Back in 1995, when McDonald launched his career as a street preacher, he weighed “about a thousand pounds less” and wore his hair high and tight, like a soldier’s. His voice wasn’t as “soft and melodious as you hear it today.” So the junkies and winos who made up his regular congregation nicknamed him “Sarge.” McDonald liked that, since he’d recently retired from 20 years in the army. His ease in the midst of a couple thousand protestors, many of whom are eying his “Jesus is Lord” hat and his sign — DELIGHT YOURSELF IN THE LORD JESUSAND HE WILL GIVE YOU THE DESIRES OF YOUR HEART — is the result of a lifetime spent telling GIs how to soldier and drunken and hungry men how to get to Heaven. But Sarge has come with his hat and his sign and his Bible not to preach but to march.

“I’m here to give God an opportunity to be part of the democratic process. He’s got as much at stake in this as anyone does.”

Sarge is wearing an extra large t-shirt that hangs down to his knees. Across his chest it reads, “Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign.” Stretched between Sarge’s shoulder blades are the words, “March for Our Lives.” Sarge used to march for a paycheck and for country, in that order. Today he’s marching for his flock, one member in particular — a woman who broke her wrist and can’t even get a cast.

“So she’s just gonna try and keep it real still for 14 weeks.” He chuckles from the right side of his beard. Not because that’s funny but because Sarge doesn’t get mad. He’d say that Christians don’t get mad. They get, of course, Jesus. But they also need health care, housing, and jobs. “What they don’t need is mumbo-jumbo. ‘Compassionate conservatism.’ Poor people need something for this!” He rubs his belly like he’s a good luck Buddha.

Sarge isn’t into “scalps,” conversions won by droning Jesus into the ear of someone who is hungry or hurting or just kind of lost. “I lift up Jesus,” he says, “and Jesus does the persuading. I’m not really an arguin’ man.”

When Sarge tells me that he has decided to vote for Bush, a grey-haired woman starts circling him, her eyes jumping between his hat, his sign, and the legend on the back of his t-shirt. Sarge doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. He’s rifling through his Bible for a verse he wants me to read. The woman alerts several other protestors. Rumors ripple outward and “legal observers” in neon green baseball caps sift through the crowd, whispering to each other and trying as best they can to get close to Sarge, in case he’s a “provocateur.” Sarge can’t find what he wanted in the Bible, but his finger catches on another verse and he laughs. “Well, that’s pretty good, ain’t it?” I lean in, the legal observers peer over and around him, to see that he’s pointing at Proverbs, 14:31: “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”

“Yeah,” Sarge sighs. “That’s George.”

“Which part?” I ask.

“Well, let me put it this way. You got billions for a war in Iraq, but you got, what, how many hungry people right here?” Sarge swings his arm around and his audience falls back. Beyond the neon-green legal observers, there are some very skinny men and women, young and old. They’re pierced, as the press likes to point out, but one glance at their teeth — or the lack thereof — reveals that they’re hardly “wildly affluent,” as the New York tabloids charge.

“See,” Sarge says, “for the poor, now, it’s like the blacks in the ’60s. You sit there and listen for decades, or centuries, while some rich guy says, ‘Hold on awhile.’ Well, after awhile, you get fed up, you know?”

So: Why Bush?

“Proverbs 14:31, man.”

“ ‘He who oppresses…?’”

“ ‘Whoever is kind,’” Sarge replies.

Sarge is a political independent, but he’s voted Democratic most of his life. Born in the Bronx, raised Roman Catholic (“that was okay,” he says), he “met Jesus” in the Army. “December 17, 1975.” He beams at the memory. Those who recall the exact moment of their salvation often rattle it off like a challenge, as if to say, “can you remember any moment in your life with such clarity?” But Sarge is thinking about God. Remember when we met?

For ten years, he kept the relationship quiet. Then, another date, August, 21, 1985: Sarge jumped out of an airplane. He wasn’t a paratrooper, it was just supposed to be fun. He woke up four days later. Nine grand mal seizures on the way down. Three blood vessels popped in his brain, one for each aspect of the trinity he’d been neglecting.

After he mustered-out of the Army at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, he began preaching on street corners. St. Louis, Kansas City, Indianapolis. For years he’s been going to Mardi Gras. “Anyone wants to talk, I’ll listen to ’em. It’s the gutterpunks and the skatepunks a lot of the time. Also, gay men and women. I don’t seek ’em out, they just come to me. That’s gotta be Jesus, ’cause I know I ain’t cute.”

Look, he says. He waves toward a group of women in tight pink dresses standing near us. Across their chests are the words, “Axis of Eve.”

“God doesn’t say ‘Bang! You fail.’” Sarge points toward one of the women, who turns and stares. Sarge repeats himself “ ‘Bang! You fail,’” and points to another. And another. And another. The Axis of Eve glares with perfect pink fury. Sarge smiles. “God doesn’t actually say that.”

So, Sarge — why Bush?

Sarge is pro-life and anti-gay marriage, but that’s not what swung his vote. “I’m not a red-state, blue-state kinda guy,” he says. When Bush campaigned through Missouri in 2000, a little boy asked the then-governor to pray with him. Sarge saw Bush get down on his knees and close his eyes and pray with the kid. Sarge knew it was a photo-op, but to him prayer is like bread, and Bush had just shared his. “I don’t mind telling you. He’s a God-man.”

Kerry could be a God-man, too, but Sarge hasn’t seen Kerry’s belief with his own eyes, and Sarge is a practical man. That’s why he doesn’t have much use for Bush’s policies. He doesn’t think Bush has delivered. “But his faith, man, that’s solid.”

Bush on his knees was, for Sarge, a small-r revelation. What followed was an epiphany. Sarge went up to Philadelphia to march on Bush’s nominating convention, God-man or no. While he was there he read about a woman named Cheri Honkala, a radical local activist who’d founded a group called the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. She and a several homeless families had just been evicted from an abandoned building. “It was owned by a church!” says Sarge. “And it was next to a mosque! And nobody cared, they put women and babies out on the sidewalk like bags of trash.” A picture of Honkala caught his eye: She’s walking out of the building, bent over, a giant rolled-up bundle of canvas on her back. “I just knew I had to find this woman.” He drove east to the Delaware River and west to the Schulkyll and over, looking under bridges and in parks, asking beggars where he could find Cheri Honkala. Why?they asked. He couldn’t answer. It wasn’t a crush. He’s happily married, two kids, two grandkids. It wasn’t political. It was a God-thing. Seeing that picture of Honkala bent double with a home for other people’s families on her back — it felt like the moment he opened his eyes four days after jumping out of a plane.

Afternoon was winding down when he found a tent city and Honkala at its heart. “I’m not a cop,” he told her. “I’m not a reporter. I’m a street preacher, so don’t give me no bull. I just wanna say a prayer for you.”

Sarge flips open his Bible to the first page of Proverbs, where there’s a snapshot of Sarge arm in arm with Honkala, a small woman with red hair and a fighter’s dark eyes and a broad face, half of which is a smart-alecky smile that makes her look like a much, much prettier Abby Hoffman. It’s the same woman who’s shouting into a megaphone right now, across the plaza, getting ready to lead thousands in an angry march to the Garden. “I enlisted in her army,” says Sarge. It’s hard to hear her over the drums and the sirens. We get just three words: “God is watching!” She’s not a Christian in any sense Sarge can respect, but she is, he says, a preacher. A God-woman. In 2000, she knelt with him in prayer. Sarge realized then that he was needy; and that she was kind. Proverbs, 14:31.

Police megaphones flare up over Honkala’s, telling us to clear the sidewalk. Cops start herding those on the outer edges. Sarge hoists his Jesus sign and begins walking. For all his girth, he’s not an ambler. He weaves through the crowd like a great white otter.

“Sarge,” I call after him. “2008. Bush vs… Cheri Honkala.”

Sarge stops, twists around. “Man, that’s a tough one.” He laughs out of the side of his beard, rolls his gum around his teeth, pats the Bible with Honkala’s picture pressed between its pages. “I’m guessing I’d go with the lady.”

Jeff Sharlet is editor-in-chief of The Revealer and co-author of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible.

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