Is Jesus in your heart? That’s what he asked me, while he held a sign that said ‘John 3.7.’ Busking religion, in city centre Belfast.
Belfast is a hot-spot for buskers. Amped-up with the rest of the strummers and drummers are a particularly persistent group of buskers. On the street armed to the teeth with leaflets and optimism, busking Jesus to anyone who’ll listen.
I only approached ‘John 3-7′ to inquire if he was with the GAA. You always see it in Croke Park on TV, those big signs in the crowd at hurling finals saying ‘John 3-7.’ I often wondered what that meant. I presumed there was no direct hurling reference in the Bible, no half-time advice for struggling corner-forwards. So I thought it must be some passage that mentioned team spirit. Or perhaps playing against the wind…
But the guy holding the sign told me it was just a way of getting Jesus into Croke Park. He said they’ve been doing it since the early ’80s – born-again Christians from Belfast. Why Jesus can’t go online and buy tickets like everyone else – or get them from his local GAA club – didn’t seem up for debate. Not to mention he’s been getting into GAA matches without paying for the bones of 30 years.
Then ‘John 3-7′ started telling me about his own transformation. The obligatory story of chronic addiction and wasted life all miraculously turned around. By Jesus. Overnight…
Then he asked me to pray with him.
That was the line in the sand. I’ll happily listen to the sales pitch, the life-stories, and the spectacular road to redemption. Which again, always seem to happen overnight, so in road terms, more a by-pass than an actual motorway. But the minute they seek to involve me in their convictions – like trying to get me to pray with them on the street – that line in the sand is crossed. And I think that’s fair enough, considering most people don’t even look at these Born-Again-Buskers twice.
Where as I give them a good run-out – a pre-season practice match. They get a chance to exercise their miraculous patter on a potential convert. I give them the whiff of excitement, the fleeting notion this might be their first – their very own personal convert. In busker terms, like as if someone dropped a wad of fifties into your guitar case. And then offered you a record deal.
But that’s the trouble with these religion buskers – it’s a very fine line. Give them an inch, and suddenly they’ll be looking for you to bow down and repent upon your whole existence, on the strength of a five-minute sales pitch. On the street, at lunchtime, on a Saturday. They really need to learn some boundaries…
As I ran away from ‘John 3-7′ before he made me pray, only a hundred metres up the street I met the the next Born-Again-Busker. This guy was something special. This guy was carrying a massive metal crucifix over his shoulder. With a little wheel on the end of the base, so it wouldn’t drag along the ground as he lugged it along. Like those wheels you see on amputee dogs, when they’ve no back legs.
He told me he’s been traveling across the world with this cross for the last 35 years. He had a leaflet with pictures of himself and his cross, everywhere from the Soviet Union to El Salvador. Just him, and his cross. And his wife. She played the guitar. But of course…
I asked him could I have a go on his cross. At first he wasn’t too keen, but persistence convinced him. So he got out from under it, and placed it down on upon my shoulder. It was hollow and lightweight – for a crucifix. I felt he was cheating a little bit, between the dog-wheel and the lightweight frame. I told him I expected it to be heavier. He said it used to be heavier, but he had to change the design, now he was sixty. It reminded me of the bit in Only Fools and Horses, where Trigger gets an award for using the same sweeping-brush for twenty years. Then he reveals that same brush has had eight new handles and twelve new heads. Disappointed by his laziness, I gave him back his hollow cross, took a leaflet, and walked on…
Then standing outside MacDonalds was a chap taking a radically different approach. His sales pitch was focused on the evils of cigarette smoke and how to quit. Using Jesus, and the Bible. Whatever about GAA strategies, I’m pretty sure there isn’t much on smoking cessation in the Bible. If there is, that book is a whole lot more comprehensive than I’d given it credit for.
I collected all the leaflets for later consumption, like the way you steal sachets of sugar from a cafe. To enjoy at my leisure later on, and possibly choose which direction I’ll take. No point rushing into these things. But try telling that to a Born-Again Christian. Everything seems to happen overnight once Jesus gets involved.
The one thing all the Born-Again-Buskers had in common, was their rejection of the notion of the church, or any sort of organised religion. They all said it was about your own personal relationship with Jesus – cutting out the middle-man. Which in a world of organised religion, is probably why these outsiders operate out on the street, instead of inside prime real-estate surrounded by goblets and frocks.
I came away from my encounters with the Born-Again-Buskers thinking about Fig-Rolls. In many ways, what they’re offering is the keys to the cash n’carry. By going directly to the source and cutting out the middle-men, you eliminate your exposure to grumpy supermarket cashiers, you won’t bump into anyone you don’t want to meet, and you won’t feel guilty about not giving money to that fella collecting for Ataxia outside the supermarket door.
However, like the man holding the ‘John 3-7′ sign – or the disappointingly lightweight cross – you risk looking a bit fucking mental, going all the way to the cash n’carry just for a packet of Fig-Rolls.