Essay: An evangelist comes to Camden, offering preaching and prizes

It should surprise no one that in a troubled city where activists find it nearly impossible to bring residents into the streets to condemn violence or save beloved schools, hundreds would show up at Camden’s Von Nieda Park this week for six nights of preaching and prizes at an event called “The Festival of Light.”

That the predominantly Hispanic and African-American crowd would stand in the summer heat to listen to a white, right-wing evangelist from Pennsylvania named Jonathan Shuttlesworth as he interspersed the laying on of hands with tossing gift cards into the crowd is a testament to the power of money and hope in a place this poor.

Less understandable was that Shuttlesworth, a staunch Donald Trump supporter who called homosexuality, Islam, and both Democratic and Republican parties “wicked” in a January sermon that appears on his organization’s Facebook page, had been warmly welcomed by Camden politicians. In the same video, Shuttlesworth opposed taxation; called Planned Parenthood an “enemy;” argued that churches and not government should help the poor; and contended that colleges are training grounds “to hate private wealth, to hate individual freedom and to just be a tool of the state.”

In spite of his extremist views, the visiting preacher was given a commendation by City Council. It read in part: “Johnathan (sic) Shuttlesworth and his team consistently bring hope to each community that they visit.”

Perhaps Camden Democrats wanted to avoid an attack like the one Shuttlesworth aimed at Philadelphia lawmakers during a 2015 festival there. “I told people in Philadelphia from the stage that the Dems had been in charge of that city for 52 unbroken years,” the evangelist said in the January sermon, adding: “There has to be an overthrow of that system for people to prosper.”

The flyers that appeared in bodega windows and on telephone poles to advertise the festival were a siren song in a poverty-stricken town. They read: FREE BILL PAY, FREE GROCERIES, or FREE EAGLES TICKETS, with only a phone number.

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What these signs don’t say is that you need to attend an evangelical revival for a chance to win. (April Saul/for WHYY)

Resident Wazira Inman was so convinced they were attempts to lure girls into human trafficking that she ripped them down in disgust.

Shuttlesworth, however, was trafficking in faith, with the freebies as bait. In a radio interview to promote the festival, Councilman Angel Fuentes mused, “I think with the word of God, plus the $20,000 of giveaways — some great stuff, too! — but really, that message of healing.”

The festival runs from August 20 to 25; each night has a different theme relating to the giveaways, from groceries to electronics to back-to-school supplies. On Sunday, Shuttlesworth told the crowd that “you don’t have to be a Christian” to win something and assured them that Camden, New Jersey was the last place he’d come to try to scam people.

Lines for the event form at 6 p.m.; and the crowd—which seemed to peak at about 700 people the first night—screamed with joy on Monday night as staffers tossed merchandise into outstretched arms. A team member urged people to tell themselves: Tonight I’m not leaving here without getting something! Tonight’s my night for a miracle! I might get a TV, I might get a laptop, but I’m gonna get a miracle!

Shuttlesworth urged the assembled to allow God to help them overcome their struggles. “I pray,” he said, “that every family that’s been affected by drugs and violence, God will visit your family this week.” On Sunday, Racheal Petty, who said she has been living in an abandoned building with her boyfriend for 17 months, tearfully explained she was here to “get stronger.” When Shuttlesworth called attendees to the stage to pray, the 31-year old, who had been diagnosed with a dysfunctional uterus, asked for help in getting pregnant. “Now we’re saved,” she said after the evangelist put his hand on her head. “I feel touched, I feel like I’m gonna have a baby now.”

On Monday, after a power outage that briefly deactivated microphones and that Shuttlesworth called the devil’s work, he said he would lay hands on every person at the event once they had divulged their contact information. He also told them how to donate money to his nonprofit, Revival Today– which took in roughly $1.8 million in 2015 according to the Guidestar database — should they so desire.

“I had somebody tell me,” Shuttlesworth said to the crowd, “Do you know where you’re going? You’re going to Camden. What if someone shoots you? I said, I’ll turn sideways, when you’re this skinny, nobody can hurt you. And I’ve got an angel at my right side and one at my left!” He spoke of a woman who said spending the previous night at the Festival had kept her from committing suicide.

Then he touched Jacob Rodriguez, 8, whose wish was for his Uncle Willie, murdered last year in Camden, to make it to heaven. Shuttlesworth put his hands on Angela Martinez, who has eight screws in her spine; she fell backwards, then stood up and swore the pain was gone. He hugged Wilbur Hardy, who had recently fallen 20 feet onto concrete and has difficulty walking; moments later, he still needed his crutches.

“I’m not disappointed,” Hardy said, as the event wound down around 9 p.m. “It wasn’t the time tonight.”

Attendees said they were there as much for spiritual guidance as the prizes—and seemed willing to overlook Shuttleworth’s politics.

Public education advocate Dava Salas acknowledged that Shuttleworth’s recent characterization of inner city schools as “hellholes” was upsetting. But she liked Shuttlesworth’s message, and appreciated the free box of groceries, with a $50 ShopRite gift card taped to the bottom of a package of grits.

“Not everybody’s perfect,” she said.

Latonia Reddick, who caught a Walmart giftcard on Monday, was not happy to hear of Shuttleworth’s support for President Trump. “That’s no good,” she said. What’s he doing here?” Moments later, she reconsidered.

“I can let that slide,” she said, “as long as I feel that was coming from the heart. I just felt what he was saying. I think,” she added, “that trumps Trump.”

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April Saul is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who lives in Camden, New Jersey. She writes about the challenges and joys of the residents in Camden on her Facebook page CAMDEN, NJ: A Spirit Invincible. Several times a month she writes essays on Camden for NewsWorks.

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