This is the first post in new series, Local Viral, on Philadelphians who’ve gained notoriety on social media or YouTube.
Philly Jesus still wears street clothes… sometimes. He puts on his holy garb and takes up his staff when the spirit moves him, and the spirit moves him a lot. He wants to make clear during our first interview that despite his local celebrity, his intentions are pure. He aims to spread the message that Jesus is real, and if you’re a visual learner, like he is, what’s better than a breathing, walking visual reminder?
Romans 5:19, his favorite verse, says, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” Philly Jesus (real name: Mike Grant) began studying the Word three years ago, in a court-mandated drug rehabilitation program. To understand what got him there, turn back the clock to 2005, when he was with his first serious girlfriend. He was 19; it was a “puppy love,” but things took a dark turn. How things got that way, he won’t say: “It’s a really long story, and I don’t really feel like getting into it.” She ran over him with a minivan, he says, leaving him badly injured and his knee permanently damaged. During recovery, he became addicted to his painkillers. When doctors saw that he’d become a drug seeker, the scripts stopped, so he went looking for something else, and eventually he found crack and heroin. The next seven years were those of an addict, until, he says, the Word changed all that.
Social media helped Philly Jesus blow up. In 2014, he was arrested for disorderly conduct and failure to disperse. At the time, police did not give many details on the circumstances. Philly Jesus was taking donations, and the cop thought he was soliciting. He says the cop knew him from his past, and didn’t believe he was out there in earnest. (The charges were later dropped.) As the officer removed him, he made a fuss, and soon people had their phones out. The story went viral.
He doesn’t have a house. He’s been couch-surfing with friends and family. He can’t count the number of people he greets or blesses in a day. He doesn’t have a full-time job; this is his thing. People are welcome to give him donations, and they do, and he gets by. There are “negatives and positives,” but “Jesus went through that too.” When I ask him about his time as a rapper, he kindly corrects me, he’s never stopped. He’s the “savior of hip hop manifested in the flesh.” And he says he’s got heat coming.
This interview has been condensed and edited from multiple conversations: One at a cafe, one in Dilworth Park as people began to approach for photos, and another two later by telephone. When I reached him in the evening, he apologized for being tired. He had been out preaching in the rain.
“I’m back at Grace where he found me at the foot of the cross,” he said in the park earlier. “I’m staying right where he found me, and reminding myself that I was a scumbag.”
Do you rely on anything other than the word to stay clean?
No. Nothing at all. Just the word. Just being a Bible-believing Christ follower, that keeps me motivated to stay clean and sober.
Did you ever consider being a reverend or a deacon?
No, hell no. That’s not my style. My style is in the arts, you know? I’m an artist. I was always an artist. Like a jack of all trades, like a man of many talents, and I want to share Christ in an artistic way.
So, it’s an art for you?
Yeah. I always grew up in music theater. Always performing and stuff at a really young age. I just took that talent that God gave me and his Holy Spirit led me to use it, use that talent for him.
How do you decide what to share on social media?
I can be really impulsive sometimes. Sometimes I say things before I think about it. That’s my flesh side. I’m learning to have more self control, God’s working on me to have more self control when it comes to making statements.
I don’t regret anything, because it makes you who you are, and you learn. I don’t regret it. I don’t regret nothing.
There are some posts that I have deleted. Where, I would put it up, and I leave, and then I’d think about it, like oh no, I got to take that down. I have done that before. But most of the time, I keep things up.
When you say that, are you referring to things you’ve said in regards to homosexuality that you’ve since deleted or was that more in general?
More in general. Like blunt statements pointing the finger at people, because the Bible does say, who are you to judge? Our job is not to play the Holy Spirit, our job is to love one another. The same way God loves us in our hot mess.
What’s your stance on homosexuality now?
I love everybody. Doesn’t mean I have to agree with everybody. I love a thief who’s in the 7-Eleven stealing something. I don’t agree with him stealing something, right? But I still love him. Just like me. God loved me when I was shooting up heroin. He didn’t condone [of that.] But he still loved me.
You know how they legalized same-sex marriage? And people were coming up to me and saying, “Philly Jesus, what do you think about this?” I stand on what the word says. The word says matrimony is between a man and a woman because they can reproduce.
They were saying I hate gay people. I don’t hate gay people. I have gay friends. Even as I made that stance on same-sex marriage, during that time, I was going to gay pride events, embracing homosexuals. I let them come to me. I hugged transsexuals. I love them. There’s no hate in my heart.
Tell me about your hip hop.
I’mma spit that holy water. Been keeping it up my sleeve, ’bout to drop it… It’s like hood trap mixed with rock and roll, that’s my style.
How can you be so sure that you’re the savior of hip hop?
Because I am.
You had a GoFundMe page, but it’s down. What’s the status of your crowdfunding efforts? (Note: His crowdfunding goal last fall was $70 million.)
I’m going in an another avenue to generate funding for the ministry.
Do you have any leads to how you want to go about it?
Yeah, I have so many different leads, different options for how to generate funds to support the ministry. I just have to lock in on one of them and go full throttle with that. I’m just in the process of figuring it all out, just trusting in the Lord to guide my path.
What motivated you to close the crowdfunding page?
It wasn’t going quite as I planned. But when things fall apart, it’s God putting things back together the way they should be.
When you say it wasn’t going as planned, how do you mean?
It takes money to do things, to travel the world and spread the gospel. I had a big goal set of how much I wanted to raise. I’m still holding on to that goal. I’m still going to generate that kind of income coming into the ministry and financing the ministry and helping people, it’s just that I have to go about it a different way than crowdfunding.
Do you think your Christian walk will take you anywhere else beyond Philly? Would you be Philly Jesus in Baltimore?
Worldwide, international, yeah. I definitely would want to take what I do— to bring awareness about the name of Jesus and to get people reminded about Christ and to spread his gospel— it would be a honor to take it everywhere.
This is what I’m called to do. If I don’t preach the gospel, my body feels like it’s decaying. No matter what, I’ll always preach the gospel.