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The Silly String was pink and green and yellow and it covered Sam Bethea’s ballcap like a tangle of fluorescent spiderwebs, little bits of it cascading down over his face and onto his shoulders, long pieces of it swinging from his elbows and brushing against the asphalt. Fistfuls of glitter had been thrown at him, too, along with a white powder, probably flour. Plus, he got doused with water, and sports drink, and some type of oil, and ... wait, I think that’s urine, he says he thought at one point. But as it all came down on him a week ago Monday night, the 48-year-old (evangelist? street preacher? human megaphone?) from Charlotte just continued to deliver one of the same messages he’s been delivering constantly and loudly on the streets of uptown for more than five years now: “JESUS LOVES YOU, GUYS!” Over and over and over again, Bethea bellowed “JEE-SUS SAAAAVES! JEEEEEE-SUS SAVES!” in the middle of the demonstration. He refused to let up, even when a contingent of the protesters — who had gathered in the shadow of the Republican National Convention-related events held last week in Charlotte — seemed to shift the focus of their chants from anti-President Trump to anti-Sam Bethea. As the Silly String was just starting to coagulate on his cap, dozens marched through the night while angrily shouting, in unison: “F--- YOUR JESUS!” Within a few hours, as word spread across social media, some were heralding Bethea as a hero for steadfastly responding to hatefulness with a message of love. Is it that simple, though? It’s worth noting that Bethea — well-known to many who venture uptown, be it for work or for large events (back when they were actually being held) — has been a near-constant presence at protests involving Black Lives Matter, and that he is openly opposed to the BLM movement. It’s also worth noting that he has intentionally put himself in the middle of these demonstrations, and that some strongly feel he has deliberately tried to agitate protesters. So while some think he’s a hero, others wonder what exactly he’s trying to prove out there — and believe that, in this ongoing saga, Bethea might actually be a bit of a villain. ‘It was like a light bulb’ By his own admission, Bethea was one of the bad guys as a young man. He says that when he was 15 his dad walked out on the family (leaving his mother to be a single parent to him and his two younger siblings), and at age 16, Sam was arrested for the first time, for arson, after he “got mad at my mom and threw some gas on the house and threatened to burn it down.” Bethea would later get kicked out of Garinger High School, in 10th grade, although frankly he might not have been around enough to graduate anyway. After all, jail became like a second home to him. Between the ages of 16 and 26, he says, he was arrested 29 times and served stints in the Mecklenburg County Jail for a laundry list of offenses, from petty crimes like shoplifting and trespassing to more serious ones like communicating threats and gun charges. A collection of Sam Bethea’s arrest mugshots from the 1990s. Courtesy of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department His last arrest, on Sept. 29, 1996, came after he attempted to ditch a .357 Magnum that he’d illegally purchased while fleeing CMPD officers in a foot chase. He cites the incident as a breaking point that finally taught him to respect the authority of the police and inspired him to go straight. But the even bigger revelation came six months later, when — while working as a stocker at the old Walmart on Eastway Drive (now a US Foods) — he had a chance encounter with the pastor of an independent Baptist church who frequented the store. The pastor asked him: “If you were to take your last breath, and you stood before holy God, and God asked you, ‘Sam, why should I let you into my kingdom?’ What would you tell him?” Bethea fumbled through a response before landing on: “I know I’ve done a lot of dirt in my life. I’ve asked God to forgive me. I love God. And I hope on that day, he’ll let me come into his kingdom.” The pastor told him he would go to hell based on his answer, that he was “trying to go to God, the father, without coming through his son, Jesus Christ.” “It was like a light bulb. It was like —” Bethea snaps his fingers “— ‘I’m missing that. I don’t have that man in my life.’ So an old 68-year-old white man explained to a 26-year-old young Black boy a relationship versus religion. That I had a head knowledge, but not a heart knowledge. And right there, March 1997, at a Walmart snack shop, Jesus Christ saved me.” “Sam Bethea died at the Walmart,” he says, “and Jesus came alive.” Finding his (booming) voice Over the next 17 years, he had his share of successes and failures. He finished high school through an adult program at Central Piedmont Community College, but dropped out of Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., after spending 3-1/2 years studying ministerial training. He got married, but it ended in divorce. He was invigorated by the volunteer work he did with a prison ministry group in Charlotte, but far less inspired by what would become a nearly 20-year career at Walmart. Then early one afternoon in 2014, he finally found his purpose. Or, rather, Bethea says the Holy Spirit found it for him. While he was riding his bike through the bustling streets of uptown to get to work at the Wilkinson Boulevard Walmart, “the Holy Spirit said, ‘Tell ’em I love ’em,’” he recalls. He says he couldn’t muster the courage at first. But a few days later, he was ready. And from the eastern edge of First Ward to the far side of Bank of America Stadium, he roared. “I GOT GOOD NEWWWWS! JEE-SUS SAAAAVES! JEEEEEE-SUS SAVES! HE LOVES YOU, GUYS!” “I was so ready for it to be over,” he remembers. “When I got to where there were no more clusters of people, I was just like, ‘Phew!’ I mean, everything was sweaty. But I learned something: that the best worship you can give God is obedience. I was obedient to what he called me to do.” Bethea continued answering the call by continuing to share a simple message that echoed off the city’s canyon of skyscrapers as he rode through uptown, audible outside up to four blocks away and audible inside more than 20 stories above the sidewalk. A year later, he quit Walmart, cashed out his retirement savings, and set up his makeshift shop for shouting at Trade and Tryon streets. Practically every day. “I tell people I got a big mouth ‘cause I got a big God, and I gotta tell it,” Sam Bethea says. Jeff Siner [email protected] It didn’t play well at first. ‘Personally, I am not a fan’ Think about it. If you’re walking down the street and you encounter a man yelling about religion at the top of his lungs to no one in particular, there might be an inclination to avoid that man. Meanwhile, if you’re a business owner and this man is doing his yelling right outside of your place of business, you might worry that people walking down the street might also be inclined to avoid your place of business. And in fact, many complained. But police sided with him every time because he wasn’t amplifying his voice and was protected by the First Amendment, he says, adding that he was quickly able to establish a friendly relationship with officers on the uptown beat. (Asked about Bethea, CMPD spokesman Rob Tufano calls him “an energetic force in the uptown backdrop. ... He never misses an opportunity to engage with officers and community members. Wish I had half the lung capacity of the guy. Just a straight-up good man.”) There have always been people who would prefer he just go away, but as he became a regular presence on his corner (as well as outside of concerts and sporting events, at street festivals, and more), the number who developed an affinity for him grew. Plus, those who stopped to talk to him would discover he wasn’t the raving lunatic he might appear to be to some, but a warm, engaging and thoughtful individual. When you get right down to it, though: Is his approach actually effective? “He has a true heart for God, and he really believes in what he’s doing,” says Rodney Morgenstond, who worked with Bethea at Walmart for five years and is currently reentering ministry himself in Gastonia. “But I believe that before you plant a seed in the ground, you have to fertilize the soil. You have to make sure that the ground is ready to receive that seed, so that that way it can grow into something healthy. I don’t believe that you just stand there and you throw seeds on the ground, and hope that they grow. ... “So personally, I am not a fan of (the yelling), because I feel like it will turn off more people than it will attract, and I also believe that ... well, truthfully, a lot of people feel that’s obnoxious.” Which brings us to the protesters. ‘Nobody can be louder than me?’ It all started back in September 2016, during the protests in uptown following the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. Bethea says that, on the first night, the sea of protesters happened to converge at Trade and Tryon, where he — as usual — was doing his thing. Sam Bethea, photographed in 2016 for The Charlotte Observer during a break from protests in uptown. Katherine Peralta Observer File Photo “They weren’t violent, but ... you knew they were mad,” he says. “I’m like, ‘I’m gonna (leave).’ And the Holy Spirit said, ‘Stay.’ I’m like, ‘What I’m gonna do with all these people?’ They were yelling, banging on pots, had bullhorns and all this. I couldn’t even hear myself. He said, ‘Continue to do what you do. ... As if they weren’t even here.’” So he obeyed the voice. But he didn’t exactly pretend they weren’t even there. Instead, when the person with the megaphone would try to lead a chant, Bethea would bellow “JEE-SUS SAAAAVES!” so “they wouldn’t know when to sound off.” After an hour of engaging in what he calls “spiritual warfare,” the protesters moved on. He stayed put. But when they passed through the intersection again the next night, he says the Holy Spirit told him to follow the group of protesters, and — once again — “‘to continue to do what you do.’” Once again, he obeyed the voice. He followed them around every night till the protests ended, he says, continuing to shout even as protesters would curse at him, throw things at him, and occasionally even shove him. Kass Ottley, a community activist who founded Seeking Justice CLT and helped organize protests in 2016, says she understands that type of behavior from protesters. And she says she doesn’t appreciate his. Specifically, she remembers Bethea disrupting a moment of silence her group was having outside of The Omni hotel for Justin Carr, a protester shot to death by another man on the second night of protests following Scott’s shooting. “It’s like, ‘Come on, dude, seriously?’” Ottley says. “It was a lack of respect. You can’t be a man of God and not respect others. If he was having a moment of silence, we would have respected him.” And just generally speaking, she feels, “He’s agitating people that are already upset and emotional,” adding that “he can’t play the victim when he intentionally follows the protesters, when he knows his loud message is not wanted.” Bethea laughs at the notion. “I’m just amazed at this,” he says. “OK, I’m one man. It’s hundreds or thousands of you at one given moment. Nobody can be louder than me? Or nobody can be as consistent as me? Look, I’ve never thrown nothing at you. I’ve never pushed you. I’ve never smacked your phone out your hand. I’ve never done some of the things that you’ve done to me. But I’m the bad guy. I’m the bad guy.” “They hate my message,” he adds, “and honestly, I hate their message.” Being anti-Black Lives Matter That’s right: Bethea is deeply opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement. He says all life matters. He says BLM protesters are divisive, prone to using hateful rhetoric, building walls between themselves and the police when they should be building bridges. He says if they really cared about Black lives, “when Black on Black crime is happening in the ’hood, they would be over there in the ’hood, raising their voices up, wanting justice. But it’s only when a police or a white person kills a Black person.” He says there are “some bad apples” within the police department, but that “we still gotta love on ’em” and that defunding the police is not the answer. And he says that some of the protesters are every bit as bad as those bad apples. “All these people out here — just like that officer who put his knee on the back of George Floyd — that’s throwing bricks and beating up white people and vandalizing businesses, they’re just like that officer. Two wrongs don’t make a right. ... Somebody has to be the bigger person and stand up, and say, ‘No. I’m not gonna go along with a tit for a tat. You kill my dog, I’m gonna kill your cat.’ You can’t do that.” So he was out there in the thick of things as often as he could be during the protests in Charlotte in the wake of Floyd’s May 25 killing in Minneapolis. He was there again during the RNC-related protests in August, a counter-protester fully (and loudly) exercising his right to counter-protest. “I do not support Black Lives Matter, that organization, at all. Because, yeah, it’s anti-God,” says Sam Bethea, shown here mixing it up with protesters along College Street in uptown Charlotte on Aug. 22. “To me, all life matters.” Jeff Siner [email protected] Then a week ago last Monday, multiple individuals came prepared to try to shut him up — or, at the very least, to humiliate him. ‘Emotions are gonna be high’ Bethea’s constant presence “seems to cause all kinds of adverse interactions,” says Justin LaFrancois, who is publisher of Queen City Nerve and has attended “99.8 percent of the protests” while covering them extensively for the Charlotte-based alternative newspaper. “I’ve seen him instigate instances, I’ve seen other people instigate instances with him. It kind of goes both ways. Of course emotions are gonna be high for everybody. So, if he feels like people are trying to silence him, he gets upset; if people feel like he’s trying to silence them, they get upset.” Whatever the case may be, on that Monday night, a handful of people at the protest decided to unload on him. It happened near Marshall Park, just before a couple of Bethea’s supporters arrived to join his one-man counter-protest. “When we walked up, he was in the middle of a group of people circling around him,” says Laura Gennings, who represents several ministries and is on the leadership team for Freedom Cities Awakening. “Like, he was the prey and they were the predators. He had Silly String, flour, glitter (on him), and he was holding up his sign, just saying, ‘Jesus loves you, guys.’” “Then we joined in. ... We were singing together. And people were still coming up, putting megaphones right in our face, mocking us, throwing things on us ... you know, a lot of hate. I mean, it was a very hateful crowd. I’m not saying that’s what every protest is like. But that particular one, they had nothing good to say about anyone.” Shortly thereafter, Queen City Nerve tweeted a video of protesters marching through uptown while shouting, “F--- YOUR JESUS!” The next day, as media outlets (many of them with a conservative bent) began picking up on the story, Bethea posted a selfie of his hat and vest covered with foreign substances accompanied by this caption: “BLM - Does my ‘Black life matter’? I was out there marching, with you guys.” Two days after that, when Bethea meets with a reporter near Trade and Tryon, he brings along the cap, which he’s left messy. “Matter of fact,” he says, “there was one lady there when they were doing this, and every time they would do some Silly String or powders or stuff, she would dust me off, pull it off. I said, ‘No, no, no, ma’am, please do not pull it off. Leave it. Leave it.’ ... Mainly, this was my thought: I want you all to see what you’re doing to me. I’m not doing this to you guys.” Routinely, the interview is interrupted so he can exchange a pleasantry with a different acquaintance who’s passing by: a middle-aged security guard, a young female professional, a disheveled-looking older man, and on and on. He’s kind to each. He sends all of them off with a “God bless you.” He doesn’t seem like someone looking for trouble. And yet ... ‘You can’t make me hate you’ Sometime after midnight, on the same night of the Silly String incident, Bethea went live on Facebook. Watch it, and you’ll hear him refer to protesters as sinners while repeatedly praising and thanking the police. Halfway through, he says to members of CMPD, “Thank you, officers, for serving our city! We love you!” Then, suddenly, Bethea changes focus. “Say what? Can’t hear you?” The camera quickly is trained on a young man, who presumably made a comment that Bethea didn’t like (though it’s not audible on the recording). “Say it for the camera. Take the mask off,” he barks. The young man looks back at Bethea and exchanges more words (also inaudible), but is clearly moving away from Bethea. And as Bethea continues trying to engage him, there’s a whiff of anger in the street preacher’s voice. “Be a man. Be a man. Be a —” But then Bethea abruptly interrupts himself. He calls after the young man: “I love you! You can’t make me hate you. I love you!” The exchange illustrates a dichotomy between Bethea as an agitator and Bethea as a man of Jesus, an example of behavior that could be used to prove the arguments of both his detractors and his supporters. It illustrates that, while the Silly String caked onto his hat may have been an explosion of color, there might be many shades of gray here — even if he sees it as simply as he sees his message: in black and white. “They say, ‘It’s not the message, it’s the man.’ But I know it’s the message,” Bethea says of the protesters. “‘Jesus saves. Jesus loves you.’ ... It’s offensive to people who don’t know Jesus, and most of them don’t know Jesus. That’s why they don’t like that message.” He shrugs his broad shoulders, then adds: “I’m part of the answer. I’m not part of the problem.”
Théoden Janes has spent 14 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.
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