Circa Now: These Booths Are Made For Talking: Soothers Hit the Streets
Indeed, some of today’s pop-up spiritualists are overtly political. Amichai Lau-Lavie, a Conservative rabbi who is the founder of both Lab/Shul NYC and Storahtelling Inc., helped organize an interfaith vigil in Washington Square Park on the night of the election. “We sang, we shared words of comfort, I made everyone do a primal scream,” he said. “A couple hundred people, 30 seconds of screaming. So powerful.”
Ten days later, Mr. Lau-Lavie stood with other protesters in front of a mosque on 55th Street, holding signs bearing words of solidarity with Muslims. “A lot of passers-by did a double take,” Mr. Lau-Lavie said. “But interrupting business as usual and defying the normal, it’s very profound.”
Justin Normand, a manager of a Dallas sign shop, had a similar idea in November: He stood in front of the Islamic Center of Irving in Irving, Tex., holding a sign reading, “You belong.” Though Mr. Normand does not typically wear a cowboy hat, he did during his vigil, hoping to symbolize a part of Texas that he felt Muslims needed to hear from.
In a subsequent Facebook post, Mr. Normand explained his efforts: “This was about binding up the wounded. About showing compassion and empathy for the hurting and fearful among us. Or, in some Christian traditions, this was about washing my brother’s feet. This was about my religion, not theirs.”
But other pop-up spiritualists say their aim is not political. The Rev. Gregory Fryer, the pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Manhattan, said his “Peanuts”-style booth had nothing to do with the election.
“I simply believe that there are hungry hearts in this city,” he said. Asked if publicity was a motivator, he confessed: “Well, that is true. The first times I set up the booth, in October, I hoped people would begin to recognize me and the church. This church is a little intimidating-looking; people may think it’s an armory. But, as time has gone by, things have reversed. Now I think of myself as Jason Bourne: I’m memorizing the face of everyone who goes by. I want to recognize that these are my neighbors.”
The jurisdiction of today’s pop-up spiritualists is not confined to the tactile and the spiritual. Ciro Ortiz, 11, has been offering “emotional advice” for $2 a session at the Bedford Avenue subway stop on the L line in Brooklyn since October. Two springs ago, Jedediah Purses started offering free psychological counseling on the streets of San Francisco. “I’d done a lot of informal trainings in this kind of work and wanted to see what my skill set was,” he said. “And I’m endlessly fascinated with what it’s like to offer yourself up and to let the world come at you.”
Mr. Purses has had clients confess “all sorts of crazy crimes” to him. He has befriended homeless people. He’s fended off numerous offers from passers-by selling drugs. He’s had extended conversations with police officers about the moral and ethical struggles of their job.
“I’ve dealt with anger from people of color who were annoyed to see white people shedding tears over the election — ‘You didn’t know that it’s like this all the time for us?’” he said.
The demands of the street are not insignificant. Pastor Fryer stocks his booth with Kleenex; Mr. Normand has his husband fielding media requests.
“This sounds like a New Yorker cartoon come to life,” said Andrew Walsh, the associate director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford. “The forces of orderly commerce do seem, however, to have excluded these folk from the shopping malls.”
On a blustery December day, I talked to Bugun Choi, who had already spent four hours holding a placard in Union Square to bring attention to his self-help nonprofit organization, the Society of Natural Science. I suggested to Mr. Choi that it was a cold day to be standing on a street corner. “I am armed perfectly,” he said. “I bought these earmuffs for this.”
Then, when our conversation stretched 12 or 15 minutes longer than I hoped, I confessed: “I need to go inside. I’m starting to feel frostbit on my delicate parts.” Mr. Choi smiled wanly.
Many people ascribe to street preachers and freelance huggers a touch of craziness. “Most of us give them a wide berth,” said Ms. Florence, the priest and professor. “I see them in Times Square and think, wow, but for a health plan and a set of meds, there go I.”
Accordingly, some pop-up spiritualists will take pains to be noninvasive and approachable. “I let people come to me,” said Mr. Purses, the counselor in San Francisco. “I occupy myself by reading a book or taking notes, which gives people the chance to shamelessly check me out without the possibility of me looking back at them.”
Mr. Lau-Lavie, the rabbi, said he labored to “be cautious, be alert, be polite” when conducting services alfresco.
“I’ll be perfectly honest, there’s an element of fear,” he said. “At our vigil on election night, there were some people at the edge of our circle who started yelling, ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’ It was never violent, but it was hard.”
If there is an element of gonzo to this new crop of pop-up spiritualist, such assiduousness is in perfect keeping with the history of street preaching. Ms. Florence cited research done by her colleague Charles Campbell, a professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School, to point out that there is a long tradition of street preachers who preach naked.
“St. Basil spent 70 years wandering the streets, completely naked in the Russian winter, preaching,” she said. “The nakedness was intentional, and meant to unmask social hierarchy. Ivan the Terrible was so troubled by Basil, and so terrified of him, that he never had him arrested or killed. Basil used to throw meat at him!”
If the measures that pop-up spiritualists take sometimes seem over the top — the primal screaming, the cartoon-derived booth, the cowboy hat — they are part of the package. Ms. Florence said, “Holy fools speak in big language, trying to say something like what Flannery O’Connor said: When you’re preaching to those whose imaginations have grown numb, you have to preach big.”
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