Small Miracle

Taken On Faith

Cover Story

March 12, 2000|By Story by Rob Hiaasen | Story by Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff

Hazleton, Pa. -- He walks on frozen water.

Also, in the bitter cold, people claim his hands radiate heat. People say he can see in the pitch dark, that he can lower older people's blood pressure. Folks say his Scripture-based street ministry has brought people back to church in Hazleton, where Catholic churches seemingly outnumber homes.

Since he arrived last October, 39-year-old Carl Joseph has placed his soft hands on the hood of a sick car and on the belly of a woman with child. Churchgoing women get goose-bumps when he sings "Ave Maria." Younger women cruise the streets of this northeastern Pennsylvania coal town, just hoping to see him walking barefoot in his white tunic and blond, Nazarene-style hair.

"I firmly believe he's a modern-day St. Francis of Assisi," says Monsignor Anthony Wassel at St. Joseph's Church near Hazleton. "He's not looking for anything, and he's not asking for anything," says Father Austin Flanagan, a hospital chaplain in Hazleton.

But public opinion cuts both ways. Some people suspect this guy dyes his hair. See those dark roots? And he looks as if he has stepped out of the cast of some off-Broadway production of "Jesus Christ, Superstar." If he were in jeans and a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt instead of a white robe, he'd be called "homeless unemployed man" and not "Hazleton's mysterious nomad," as ABC's "20/20" called him.

"My biggest question is how Joseph could become so popular preaching the same things priests convey every Sunday at the pulpit. Why does the message mean more to people coming from him?" Hazleton newspaper columnist Mark Guydish asked his readers. "I don't get it."

Why so popular, indeed. Since his arrival in October, Joseph has piqued the spiritual curiosity of Hazleton and, through the lens of the national media, points beyond. By his own proud count, this "Jesus look-alike" and "13th apostle," as newspapers have described him, has spent nine years roaming 47 states and 13 countries. But of all the towns he's drifted through, Hazleton has welcomed Joseph most warmly, with open hands, homes and chapels.

While people on New York's Broadway wouldn't blink, people on Hazleton's Broad Street get out of their cars to shake his toasty hands. They nudge their school-aged children into his robed arms. People like cancer patient Anthony Vetter treasure their visits with the preacher, who makes house calls.

"When he embraced me, I never felt so much heat," Vetter says. "I feel a little more positive now about cancer treatment."

All the man is doing is preaching goodness, Vetter says. "Why be skeptical?"

Why, indeed. In his four months here, Joseph has managed to prove something to Hazleton. He's not Christ, never claimed to be. He's not taking anybody's money. He's harmless. And whether it's his robe or his message, he's inspired people to talk and think about their faith.

When the spirit moves him, Joseph will move on -- he's been preaching in Harrisburg this month. He says he's been invited to London, too. The press might care then or not. People might follow along or not. That's not the point, Joseph says.

"This is God's will."

A folk hero

White, Catholic, blue-collar Hazleton in the late winter is like any small northern town in the winter: cold, gray and desolate. February is not its best month. About 23,000 people live here "on the hill," but few are outside this Thursday afternoon. Too cold. But there he is, Carl Joseph, walking barefoot in his white tunic.

To say nothing newsworthy ever happens in Hazleton would be inaccurate. In 1994, more than 70 Olivia Newton-John fans met in Hazleton -- home of the "Hopelessly Devoted Fan Club," the only U.S. fan club hopelessly devoted to Newton-John.

But since his arrival last fall, Joseph has made news left and right. The man has become a folk hero -- from his recurring guest spot on a local cable TV show to the well-traveled story of his being assaulted by a foul-mouthed, knife-toting man trying to rip the robe off his back. (Joseph was not injured, just scared.)

In a region where unemployment is high because coal mines are dusty memories, Joseph has provided a community-wide pick-me-up.

"These are tough times here in Hazleton, and he's been a bright spot," says Mayor Louis Barletta. "I don't see him doing any harm. Actually, he's been an inspiration to a lot of people."

On a cold afternoon, the only sensible thing to do with a man dressed as a westernized version of Christ is to invite him to lunch. "This should test their dress code," Joseph says, walking barefoot into an Applebee's restaurant on the road leading out of Hazleton. Joseph does not order food, but he is thirsty.

"Do you have good water?" he asks a young waitress named Kim. Joseph does not trust tap water. Kim lingers at the table before promising to return with bottled water. A bottle of Roland Spring arrives, compliments of a man at the bar.

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