The Hipster Fred Phelps
It’s Cyber Monday and Grant Chisholm is manning his retro-cool vintage furniture store, Grant Michael Industrial Antiques, in Portland, Oregon. “A lot of people send me hate mail,” he says. “I just received some hate mail from someone who said they were going to protest my store.” His store doesn’t offer much to protest, unless you really don’t like a “1930's bowling alley wood top repurposed and refinished on an industrial, cotton mill, roll cart base.” Chisholm’s shop, one of two Portland locations (Grandma’s Funky Furniture is the other), brimming with rusted, upcycled signage and worn leather chairs, isn’t the problem. Most of Chisholm’s customers—whom he describes as “pre-yuppies who voted for Obama, movie stars, and homosexuals”—don’t know much about him, aside from his great taste in estate sale finds.
“I know how to turn it on and turn it off,” he says, “I never use my store as a pulpit. That’s just good business. They’re not paying me to tell them about Jesus.”
Grant Chisholm moonlights as a street preacher. According to his sidewalk rhetoric, God hates strip clubs, “homosex”, Catholics, football, and probably most Portland residents. “The bible says Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated,” says Chisholm. “Do I believe that God has the capability of hating? Absolutely.”
Chisholm’s presence is familiar to those working in Portland’s sex industry. A Facebook photo posted by Shon Boulden, owner of Portlandia-featured hipster nudie bar Lucky Devil Lounge, shows Chisholm with a sandwich board slung over his shoulders proclaiming “Jesus Saves From Hell.” The photo collected more likes and views than anything the club had ever posted Lucky Devil dancer Molly Golightly recalls Chisholm’s visit, during which he yelled “God Hates Titty Bars” through a megaphone—while wearing a stylish dark green peacoat.
Boulden, who was raised Christian and played in his church basketball league before entering the strip club business, says sales were up the night of Chisholm’s visit. “I think it was good for business. Patrons and employees thought it was amusing and everyone had kind of a laugh at it.” Boulden says the preachers yelled, “we hope you die from breast cancer” through a megaphone.
Outside of Sassy’s, a Portland strip bar famous for its tattooed, pole-acrobat Suicide Girls models, Chisholm wore a black hoodie and looked indistinguishable from most club patrons—apart from the fact that he was also wearing a sandwich board that warned customers and dancers to “Repent or Perish.” He stared calmly ahead, looking somewhat bored, as another preacher pointed at the club entrance and yelled: “You whores and whoremongers, you prostitutes, you will not make it in to the kingdom of God!”
“I spend about 20 minutes in front of each one until the police show up,” Chisholm explains. “Curse it and move on.” And his tactics, he says, are successful. “Most of the places I’ve preached at are now vacant lots. I do believe in the power of God, when you rise up against something that’s just blatant debauchery.”
In November, Chisholm was visited by a veteran thumper from North Carolina named “Bible Brian” Cranford and, joined by Grant’s father Ray Chisholm, they travelled the city, preaching the gospel. In the center of Portland’s Old Town district, drunken revelers trolling shot bars and mechanical bull-riding taverns were met with a megaphone-wielding Cranford: “There is no party in hell! The party in hell has been cancelled, due to the fire!” In a 30-minute posted to YouTube of the group protesting a local gay bar, a preacher can be heard bellowing, “Do you have AIDS yet? Nasty, filthy sodomites on their way to hell!”
“Most people would think I’d have to be gay to be as into design as I am—but I’m a bible thumper,” Chisholm says of the distinction between his day job and nights protesting outside bars. “I just like nice things. I’ve had fellow street preachers tell me my pants are too tight.” While free of tattoos and piercings (“Hipsters are dirty and ride 10 speeds because they don’t have any money”), he acknowledges standing out from his fellow evangelical street preachers.
“I like to break the stereotype that preachers are these backwoods hillbillies,” he says. “I really do like fashion. And I can’t dress like some bum and sell a $1500 table.” Indeed, Chisholm cuts a striking figure. Baby-faced handsome with short dark hair, his cheeks are just chubby enough to give away the 70 pounds he recently lost. Photos on his Facebook page show him usually sporting a black bowler hat, sunglasses, tight jeans, and a black leather jacket. If a unified public perception of a fundamentalist protest preacher exists, it’s based on Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps, who wears the hillbilly look with aplomb—a giant white rodeo hat and red, white, and blue windbreaker. Chisholm’s alterna-Phelps image doesn’t strike as an affectation, either—he’s a born and bred Portlander who shrugs that one “should try to dress nice, or whatever.”
Chisholm recalls a time about twelve years ago, when he preached outside a Texas religious conference about sexual abuse in the church. Westboro Baptist Church was there, too. “They were cussing out the people and the kids were singing God hates America, and it was horrible,” says Chisholm, “I’m interested in people’s living actually being changed by Jesus Christ. Those guys, they just think it’s their job to tell people God hates their guts. They’re not God. They don’t know who he hates.” He’s eager to distinguish his crew from Phelps’s church, but admits, “People mix us up with them all the time.”
Raised in the poverty-stricken Foster neighborhood in Portland, Chisholm started street preaching at age 19. “My dad was there,” he recalls. “In front of a whorehouse at 92nd and Foster—a horrible white trash area. He had a truck that said ‘breeding grounds for sex offenders’ and my friends were like, ‘What’s your dad doing there?’”
Open-air preaching has a long legacy in the United States, with variations ranging from the showy antagonism of modern-day “God Hates Fags” evangelicals to the sit-ins of 1960’s liberation theologists like William Stringfellow. The rule of law affecting street preachers varies as well. While extreme harassment tactics caused Fred Phelps and his daughter to be banned from entering the United Kingdom and sued on several occasions, Chisholm says he’s never been arrested. Portland bar owners interviewed for this article noted that Chisholm made sure to remain on the sidewalk, refusing to even enter the parking lot at Lucky Devil Lounge.
“Essentially, being antagonistic and offensive isn’t a crime,” says Sergeant Pete Simpson of the Portland police department. “You can stand on the corner and preach about whatever you want and there is unlikely to be a crime. But if a person steps into the street and block traffic to preach? Now there is a crime.”
Aside from standing just outside of the law, the essence of street preaching is often entangled with a stance outside of the church as well. In The Word on the Street: Performing the Scriptures in an Urban Context, theology professors Stanley Saunders and Charles Campbell argue that “by cutting through the trappings of organized religion, street preaching has historically challenged the exclusiveness of both the institutional church and the ordained ministry.”
And a quick glance at Grant Chisholm brings on the worry that his indie rock clothes and vintage furniture business are some kind of cover, the way that missionaries have long attempted to blend in to communities they’re sent to convert. But talking with Chisholm reveals a personal aversion to religious authority: “I don’t belong to any church. I’m not into the church thing—it’s just a big show.”
It’s not that independent preachers like Chisholm are opposed to a show—making a scene is part of his conversion approach. “There’s been times when I wanted to just sing to them, or give them popcorn, or do whatever,” says Chisholm, referring to the milder tactics of some evangelical outreach types. “But I’ve converted more people just by ripping them to the core. I love to put my finger in people’s faces and just judge ‘em.”
And Living in Portland, there’s a lot to judge. “I’ll see the Naked Bike Ride and I’ll hear the Lord say to me ‘what are you doing,’ so I just grab my horn and go and preach,” he says of just one of Portland’s famously hedonistic public events. “I just know that it’s exactly what I’m supposed to do.” His “bible thumping” takes him away from Portland often, to cities as far as D.C. and New Orleans. He says he’ll go anywhere to preach at a “homosexual parade or a Superbowl.” When asked why anyone would hold a religious protest at a Raiders game, as Chisholm did for several years in Oakland, he responds obliquely with a proverb: “The Bible says the wealth of the wicked is stored up in the righteous.”