Mixtape preachers, Kemetic priests and a prostitutes

A reader submitted this New York Times profile of a street preacher named Leyland George. He has a boombox ministry. The profile is very brief and totally interesting, but it does raise some questions:

“I realized I could reach more people in the streets than any church, so I made the streets my church,” said Mr. George, 70, a Guyanese immigrant whose special brand of Christianity deplores the separation of people along racial lines.

Oh, that special unnamed brand of Christianity, one that deplores the separation of people along racial lines. Unlike all of those other unnamed brands of Christianity that do? What else do we know about the man’s theology?

Mr. George’s theme song is Bob Marley’s “Rat Race,” which refers to race and urban problems. On Thursdays, Mr. George often delivers his special “rat race sermons” on the same themes.

“There is only the human race,” he said, “and when you divide it into groups, you get a rat race.”

Mr. George remains silent and solemn on his thrice-weekly sermon-walks through the neighborhood, preferring to let the mixtapes speak for him. The portable radio and tape player hangs around his neck and delivers the day’s sermon as he clasps his hands over it and walks in rhythm to the music, stopping at red lights and bobbing to the blaring beat of soca, calypso, ska or reggae — anything with a spiritual or positive social message and a West Indian feel.

Just some great color, eh? But the reader noted that the lack of details about this man’s Christianity and wonders if the best way to describe George is “Christian”:

The profile gives very little background about his beliefs (even leaving the key moment of his religious conversion – the death of his young daughter – to a sentence fragment in the sidebar). It does, however, say that his “theme song” is “Rat Race” by Bob Marley, perhaps the most famous practitioner of Rastafarianism who ever lived. It also mentions Mr. George’s ballcap and handmade signs, which proclaim “Jah Love.” Jah, of course, is the Rastafarian name for God.

There is a Rastafarian movement active in Guyana, and racial equality is a theme of Rastafari theology. Without more background, I have to wonder whether the NY Times has gotten this gentleman’s religion completely wrong.

Without more details, it’s impossible to know, isn’t it! When the reporter wrote “Christian,” did he mean that as something different than Rasta? Perhaps some more specific quotes or self-identification from the street preacher would have helped.

Since we’re on the topic of the New York Times “Character Study” section, there was another piece by the same reporter a month or so ago that also led to questions. In this case it was about Baba Heru Semahj, formerly Officer James Georges of the New York Police Department. More:

Mr. Semahj has spent most of his life studying Kemetic culture and was ordained years ago as a Kemetic priest — the first in New York City, he says.

It does raise some issues of authority. When we discuss those stories about women being ordained as Catholic priests, we’re frequently talking about authority. In this case, the reader wanted to know who ordained Mr. Semahj:

Was that person a priest of a particular Egyptian deity (that’s how things went in the old days, but Mr. Semahj’s deity-of-the-day system is understandable with Ptah’s vocation’s crisis). It’s a loose end in the story, which is otherwise pretty complete with this fellow’s journey.

These “Character Studies” are very brief, which doesn’t give the reporter much room to substantiate the claims made by the always-colorful characters profiled therein. I rather liked the profile of Barbara Terry, for instance, a streetwalker who is still going at the age of 52. And Corey Kilgannon, the author of all these pieces, does a great job of incorporating religion into his stories. But the request for a few more specifics is sound.

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  • Jerry

    I wondered if the reference to inclusive Christianity is more about the de facto segregation since I’ve been reading stories like this one for years. But I think it’s more of a basic Rastafarian belief rather than his individual observation about the state of American church membership.

    Also, that’s an excellent point about whether or not he’s pure Rasta or something different. The wikipedia entry points out that some Rastafarians identify as Christians so that could be the case here.

    So you’re 100% right about needing just a wee bit of information to understand his background.

    Finally, a google search showed me how widely this story has spread including being pointed to by Christian media outlets. This shows that the influence of the grey lady is still alive.

  • Melissa

    Bob Marley was baptized into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church shortly before he died. Archbishop Abuna Yesehaq said that Marley preached the Orthodox faith.
    http://www.rastafarispeaks.com/cgi-bin/forum/archive1/config.pl?noframes;read=47421


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