Nomad Carries Spirit of Hope to Pa. City

Carl Joseph has spent nine years traveling through 47 states and 13 countries spreading the word of God. (AP)
 By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2000; Page A1

HAZLETON, Pa. Since the day the prophet appeared at the bottom of their  hill three months ago, barefoot and wearing a long white robe, the gloom has lifted off this old Pennsylvania coal-mining town.

One by one, the residents here awoke. The priests in this mostly Catholic enclave say the pews are suddenly full, sometimes with people they haven't seen in 20 years. Two local doctors say their patients heal more quickly  after this nomad prophet visits the hospital. "I've never felt so good," said Marietta, one of the hundreds of callers who flooded a local TV talk show to discuss the stranger's impact. "He's given me more than anyone in my life."

"Man Who Looks Like Jesus Arrives," the local paper announced the day after the man arrived. And indeed he does look like the textbook Jesus, with a childlike face and a sandy beard and his head cocked always at an angle.  Since then they've taken to calling him the Prophet, the Messenger, the Mystery, the Angel.

His real name is Carl J. Joseph, and in the last nine years he has wandered through 13 countries and 47 states. He walks, usually on bare feet, and occasionally hitchhikes. He owns nothing but the robe and blanket he wears on his back and never takes money for any reason. For food and shelter, he relies on the goodwill of people he meets along the way. Somehow, he is always immaculate, down to the fingernails.

His way of dressing and traveling just evolved, he says, more for practical reasons. "It was not intentional," he said in an interview. He then realized that he could evangelize more effectively on foot.

"If I walk, I'm more accessible to people. Jesus walked. Buddha walked. And Gandhi walked," he said.

Wherever he stops, he draws large crowds, and once he landed in trouble. In Greenfield, Ohio, police arrested him for disorderly conduct after he would not break up a crowd of teenagers who had gathered around him. The case was  dismissed, but he had made his mark. His public defender, Carol Davis, said the worst of those teenagers "changed the course of his life" after the nomad's visit.

He models his life on Jesus and the apostles, he says, though he never claims to be the son of God. His message is deeply traditional, almost pre-Vatican II, urging people to go back to church, follow strict rituals, respect the pope.

"We tend to highlight the moral abuses of the church. But the good news is far better than the bad," he said. "The church has always had a single leader, and that's the pope."

He has traveled through the Bible Belt, but that culture makes room for itinerant preachers and strange religious experiences. Eastern Pennsylvania, on the other hand, is an unlikely place for his brand of evangelizing. The  region is 80 percent Catholic, with a church for about every 1,000 parishioners, and a local power structure in which priests trump mayors.

Yet somehow the nomad has stirred some deep slumbering need. There are obvious reasons they took to him: In some neighboring towns nothing has replaced the coal mines; unemployment is high and young people don't stick around once they leave high school. Priests say they preside at five times as many funerals as baptisms, and grimly joke that their real job is undertaker.

In winter the town feels desolate, streets of empty houses buried in snow. Hazleton, a region of 40,000, is better off than its neighbors. Still, after four months of the prophet's visit, it's hard to find a local skeptic.

"There's a strong foundation here, but coal dust has settled over it," explained the prophet from the rectory in
neighboring Mahanoy City where he has been sleeping the last few days. "To get through this spirit of pessimism and cynicism they needed a ray of light."

When he speaks at town meetings, sometimes 2,000 people show up. They listen to him preach for hours on his standard subject of love and God's grace, then raise their hands and ask the questions they should be asking their priests: Why do children die? Can divorced Catholics go to heaven? Are angels real? How can we be happy?

His answers are simple and reflect traditional Catholic teaching. "Everybody wants to be happy," he said at a town meeting. "But we believe false things about what we need to be happy. Happiness is not the love of one person and it's not having all we want. True happiness is the great mystery of God's love."

The town's reaction has prompted some soul searching in the collared class. Whether they're suspicious or welcoming of the holy man, traditional priests here realize his success at connecting with their parishioners is sending the established church a message.

"He reaches people we priests haven't been able to reach in all these years," said Father Girard Angelo, the normally gruff dean of the local Catholic community who surprised everyone when he decided to embrace the stranger. "It makes me ashamed."

It's unclear exactly when he showed up in Hazleton, as different people claim to have seen him first. He walked barefoot from Berwick, a town 65 miles to the west. Connie Muir spotted him by the side of Highway 93 as she was driving home from her job as a microfilm archivist.

The late October day was chilly but the prophet wore a robe as thin as a hospital gown. Muir had a thicker robe made and kept the old one, in a red vinyl bag filled with what she calls his other relics.

Figuring they'll be part of the annals of saints, Muir, a devout Roman Catholic, has kept almost everything the prophet has touched: the rosaries nuns have given him, his original blanket, even the prescription he got after his wisdom tooth was removed.

The prophet stayed with Muir and her family for 66 of his 71 days in Hazleton, she says proudly. "Your human intuition said you should be freaking out, but I had no fear at all, none," she recalled. "That's how I knew he was the Prophet." Plus, the normally persnickety cat jumped right into his lap, Muir recalled.

"Everybody here is Catholic, but there aren't too many people on fire. We needed a revival, a reawakening, a jolt."

Over the weeks, Muir learned some details of his recent past. His actual name, his age 39 and something about his background. He has a mother and father and brother, all from Ohio. He went to parochial school but experimented with other religions.

Beyond that, he deflects questions about himself. When people ask him his name, he responds "What's your name?" and after a while the town has come to call him that: Whatsyourname.

His method reflects a past of dabbling in Eastern religions. He emanates calm, never raising his voice or losing his temper or laughing out loud. His preferred mode is passive, losing himself in another's troubles.

Nowhere has he had more impact than Hazleton. After he wandered around town a few days, Muir encouraged him to go on a popular local talk show. The day after the show "the phones would not stop ringing," recalled the host, Sam  Lesante. "I'm telling you, I got 200 or 300 calls from people wanting to ask him questions."

The next week Lesante invited him back and let viewers ask questions. Eight phone lines stayed busy for three hours: Can Catholics believe in reincarnation? If I am an invalid and can't walk, where should I find strength? How do I get over drug addiction? Do you date? Have you ever been with a woman sexually?

Stories circulate of people whose lives he has changed. Father Angelo recalls a drug addict who lost custody of her two sons. She came to church one day, placed a note in the prophet's hand and he went to see her. Now, says Angelo, she stayed clean.

The prophet is famous in town for his special effect on young people. After meeting him, one local band girl took the safety pins out of her eyebrows and went to confession.

A woman who asked to be identified only as Gerri, brought Whatsyourname to meet her son, who she describes as "scary, with tattoos and no job." He talked to him for three hours, until after midnight. That night at 2 a.m. her son went to confession at an all-night chapel. The next day he found a job. Every Sunday since he gone with her to church.

"I don't know why he listened to you," she told Whatsyourname. "I've been trying for 30 years."

Philip Benyo works in geriatric medicine at St. Joseph's Hospital. After he brought the prophet to see his patients, "their conditions improved," he said on a talk show. Their blood pressure dropped, they began to walk. "They were discharged much earlier than expected."

After meeting Whatsyourname, Frank Polidora, an orthopedic surgeon and a Catholic, asked him to come on his rounds at Hazleton General Hospital. He now defines that visit as the most important three hours of his life.

One woman whose husband was dying wanted Whatsyourname to pray with her. When they were done, a calm overtook her, Polidora recalled. She found not only peace, but meaning in her husband's death.

"He's taken me to a new level," the doctor said. Polidora does not believe this man is Christ, only that he gives you a sense of what it was like to have Christ roaming the Earth. To express that, he written a poem:

"Suddenly he appears walking barefoot on the highway/ He is not recognized/ Then the word spreads and he spreads THE WORD.

"Who is he?

"Where is he?

"Whence comes he?

"Why is he here?"

The myths grow. Some in town say when he walks barefoot in the snow he doesn't leave footprints. Others say
mysterious lights appear in photos of him.

Few here accept the inevitable, that he will soon move on.

"He can't leave," said Muir, making rationalizations. "He has to stay, for his own growth. He's swung too far toward detachment." Just in case, though, she has filled out dozens of postcards with her address and a stamp so he can  keep in touch. (He refused to take them).

For the moment, the prophet is camped out here. As his story spreads, national media is calling, and he needs a place to take phone calls. Plus someone who knows the pope's secretary is sending a tape of Whatsyourname to the Holy Father.

Already, though, he's getting restless. Soon, he says, he'll head further south to Pottsville. And after that?

"Where the spirit leads me," he said.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company