Jesus Christ was the vine, a celibate carpenter from Bethlehem, the sinless savior of the world. Dean Padgett is a fallen man from Stem, N.C., a married minister, a health care administrator and, to many, a messenger of hope.
Dean dons a cheap brown wig and rubber crown of thorns purchased from a costume shop in Raleigh. His tall, sinewy frame is shrouded in a white robe, creased by sweat and humidity. Crow's-feet fan from the corners of his hazel eyes and fade into his sun-weathered face. He bears a 40-pound cross built of lumber from Home Depot.
His message is simple: God surrendered his son Jesus Christ to die so the world could be free from sin. He believes that God can change anyone, anywhere. He even saved a wretch like Dean.
Along Alston Avenue between Holloway Street and the Durham Freeway, Dean is greeted with honks, "hallelujah"s and "holy shit"s from the hurried traffic.
Some cars creep by. Young men in do-rags hang out the windows, firing away with their cellphone cameras. They give Dean a thumbs-up before peeling off. Some cars nearly wreck when drivers pull over quickly to talk to him or get a picture.
Dean shares scripture and faith only with those who approach him. He holds hands with a woman who pulls over. She prays with him from the driver's seat.
Children leap from front porches to meet him. They land at his feet, on a sidewalk pulverized into gravel mingled with shattered glass. They greet him with high-fives.
Sometimes his walks last six to eight hours. He hopes that people are inspired when they see him. The marathon treks leave him physically and emotionally exhausted.
"People tell me, 'When I saw you walking with a cross, it put everything in perspective. Maybe I'm not having as bad a day as Christ had.'"
Dean says that he was once addicted to pornography and that he destroyed his first marriage by committing adultery.
"I felt tremendous guilt and anguish because I felt like a failure as a father. I was almost suicidal.... But God was always there," he says of his divorce. He sees his kids often but laments that it isn't the same.
That's when his relationship with God became personal. In scripture Dean found Jesus' compassion for everyone, which revealed his own self-righteousness. He says he's becoming a better listener.
"Jesus accepted everybody. He didn't accept sin, but He knew how to separate that from the person. He didn't come out with signs and say, 'You are going to hell.' He just expressed who He was so they could see that He was the answer to their problems. He expressed that through His love."
Dean is driven by the Bible verse James 2:20: "Faith without works is dead."
"You can believe all you want, say you love people all you want, but are you doing anything? Where is your work?" he says.
So he drags a cross on wobbly wheels in the unforgiving heat through neglected Durham neighborhoods. He stops for a restroom break at Los Primos, a Hispanic grocery across from the Durham Rescue Mission. His cross is too big to fit through the door, so he parks it against the brick wall outside. Everyone stares. A speechless woman makes the sign of the cross. The checkout line parts to let him through, down the bread aisle, past the milk and into the back room.
As he emerges from the store, believers and gentiles wait for him. Radiating heat bends the horizon like a mirage, and the asphalt shimmers like a lake. As Dean glides across the parking lot, Roderick Smith pulls over and whips out his cellphone.
"Hold on, let me get my camera right," Roderick says. "Jesus! Of all the times that it doesn't want to work!"
Further down Alston Avenue, Kia Revels rolls her eyes at Levinne McNeill, who throws peace signs as he poses with Dean. Everyone wants a selfie with the Savior.
"Why you gonna try to take a 'hood picture with Jesus? Why do you gotta throw deuces?" she hollers. She smirks and Instagrams the graven image.
"Some people have thrown gang signs in pictures with me," Dean says. "But when they show that picture to their friends, they are sharing Jesus. Slam dunk."
Near the freeway, he gets a knuckle pound of solidarity from a tattoo-covered man under a rusty rail bridge, where a spray-painted mural of Jesus bursts through the retaining wall and weeps. Painted on the wall is prophecy from 2 Timothy 3:2 that predicts the end times and a generation of disobedient young people with a hatred of the truth. But few people are disrespectful to Dean.
"Some people have cussed me out—they say I'm blaspheming. But if they got to know me they wouldn't say that," he says. "If we judged all people outwardly, we wouldn't talk to anyone."
Sheryl Bostic stops at the intersection of Taylor Street and Alston Avenue. She has been staying with and caring for her 83-year-old grandmother and is headed home to get some clothes.
"When men start acting like God, we are at the end of days," she fumes out the window of her van at the sight of the sidewalk savior.
"Aren't they here?"
Sheryl repeats her accusations of blasphemy.
"I wish you would get out of that car and talk to me. Please talk to me. I want to pray with you."
She jumps out of the vehicle and nearly crumples in grief. Her passengers look on.
"I don't understand why! My mama, my mama! She died this morning, I don't understand why!" she wails.
Doris Jean Bostic, 56, passed away from organ failure around 2:30 a.m. Her body had just been delivered to Holloway Memorial Funeral Home. Sheryl's father, Michael W. Green, 58, died in March.
"I'm so angry at God right now," Sheryl whimpers.
"God didn't take your mama—Satan did. But He knows where you are."
Tears well up and streak down her cheeks. "I gave my life to Christ three years ago ... I do everything right! I take care of my grandma, my kids. He took my father ... my mama this morning—and then I see you!" she sobs.
"Let me tell you why you saw this today—because God wants you to know He is near you. He wants you to reach out to Him. He is your all and all."
Kwame Smith, 22, guards the cross as the shepherd cradles Sheryl. He holds her hand and whispers Scripture into her ear, and she drinks deeply from his word.
Sheryl calms as he wraps his arms around her and leads the onlookers in prayer.
"Father, I pray that You give her peace, that You overwhelm her with Your presence and the strength to go on. Let her know that You will never leave her or forsake her, that You will be her father, You will be her mother, if she puts all her trust in You."
The crowd responds, "Amen."
"I thought he was pretending to be God. But he made me feel so much better. I'm so glad I stopped," Sheryl says.
"I'm so glad I met you today. God bless you."
"Thank you!" Sheryl yells as she and the samaritans pack into the van and continue into town, where she proclaims what she has seen. The proof is on her cellphone.
Kwame looks back in awe. He wants to walk with Dean one day and even dress like Jesus.
"This is a sign! This is a sign! This is a sign!" he exclaims.
Dean gives Kwame his card, with a phone number for his ministry, and invites him to accompany him on another day.
"That was very unusual. God was all over that," Dean says. "I feel just as blessed as her. Amazing day. An amazing day."
He was a stranger and they welcomed him. The messenger returns home to Stem, where he feels the weight of the day.
Dean Padgett wept.
Dean Padgett is from Savannah, Ga., and now lives in Stem, near Creedmoor, where he runs Radical Life Outreach Ministries, radicallifeoutreach.blogspot.com, with his wife. He carries the cross to dramatize his ministry, much like a Passion Play.