City Council President Bruce Harrell was caught off-guard last week when he was reading out names for the meeting's public commenters to come up to the mic.
"Jesus H. Christ?" He laughed. Then, he wisecracked, "Actually what I'm going to do is call the next 12 people out, the next 12 to follow Jesus... That was a little inside joke."
Jesus H. Christ, in full robes and a staff, strode up in flip flops and urged the city council to pass legislation establishing an oversight board for the Green New Deal, a resolution to implement greener policies in Seattle. He did so by reading a letter from his dad. Or, God.
Once Jesus was at the mic, the mood of the meeting changed. He was confident and funny. It broke up the monotony of the meeting and allowed his message—hey, climate action is actually really important!—to get across. And that's what Jamil Suleman, the rapper, educator, and community organizer behind the beard, is trying to do.
"I use it as a way to get people’s attention," Suleman told me. "This kind of satire is so very powerful because it allows people to laugh, to relax, and then think about what I'm talking about."
I met up with Suleman at the Global Climate Strike at Cal Anderson Park on Friday. He'd told me where to find him so we could do our interview. Except by the time I got there, he was on a hill surrounded by a group of kids and speaking in front of one of those angry preachers who just show up at events and protests to yell.
The teenagers at the rally had already flocked to the preacher, shouting "pizza" whenever he said "Jesus." And then Suleman, dressed as Jesus, waded into the crowd. The preacher handed him a mic and Suleman started talking about love and climate justice.
As he strode away, the kids followed. It felt like an exodus or some other Biblical reference (forgive me, I only went to two Sunday school classes when I was four) or like that moment in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when Indy frees all the kids from Pankot Palace's mines.
As we talked, kids peppered Jesus with all their questions. (What's your favorite animal? "Fish, I tend to multiply them to feed the masses." Where's God? "Inside all of us. Isn't that deep? I think they said that in Dragonball.")
"If Jesus was here today what would he do today?" He asked the crowd of kids
"He’d march!” said Benjamin, a red-headed 12-year-old in the crowd.
"He'd march!" Suleman echoed.
Suleman, who is 35 ("I wanted to say I was 33," he joked when I asked his age) has been Jesus for about four years now. He uses it as a kind of activist art designed to promote the movement he's dubbed "Jesus in Seattle" (there's even a hashtag).
"If Jesus was actually here, what would he be doing?" Suleman asked. "What would he be talking about? What would he be supporting? We’re facing the biggest challenge in human history (climate change) and who better to come down and save the day than your boy, Josh?" (He calls his Jesus either Jesus or Joshua—or, sometimes, Josh—because both English names, Jesus and Joshua, share a common Hebrew ancestor, Yeshua.)
Suleman is Muslim. He knew a little about Jesus from what there is in Islam, but as he started taking his Jesus persona more seriously, people starting coming up and spouting facts about Jesus to his Jesus. He needed to learn more. So, he did some reading (Zealot by Reza Aslan, Lamb by Christopher Moore).
"I learned his real name (Yeshua, or Joshua) and that he was a Jewish priest," Suleman told me. "The Romans had occupied that land and he was fighting for social justice. To me, this was way more than what I thought Jesus was before, which was a little skinny white dude who just floats on water and BRBs and then here’s some wine."
(A teenager interrupted Suleman mid-sentence to ask why he was protecting earth if he had heaven. "I came down from heaven for this," he said. That's quite the commute, the teenager answered. "Well, luckily I have the Orca card so it’s easy for me to get here.")
Suleman continued explaining what he'd learned about Jesus: "This was an inspirational individual who was pushed by the times he lived in to become highly politicized. He was a community organizer. Jesus Christ was a community organizer, that’s the headline."
At this point some kids walked by shouting "Ay, Jesus!"
He called back, "Dad bless you!" and then dabbed.
If we all want to be like Jesus we all have to be community organizers, he said. "That's why he said love your neighbor, because we all have to work with our communities, with our neighbors." The way we'll beat the climate battle, Suleman believes, is through organizing local communities.
He's been at his fair share of political events, especially causes supported by indigenous people. At the Pride Parade this past June, Suleman as Jesus was pushed to the front and ended up leading the parade. He's been at council meetings and appears at the right time to give a cause the right push, the "cherry on top." He doesn't kid himself into thinking his Jesus cosplay is causing legislation to pass.
"Definitely not, but it helps in its own little way," he said. "It spotlights the work others are doing."
We took a quick break so a girl could feature Jesus in her Instagram live video. The break continued when a boy asked for a selfie with the Savior. Behind me, Suleman spotted a man in black walking by. "Hey!" He yelled and gestured to the man's clerical collar. "I like that!" The priest, startled at being compliment by Jesus in the flesh, waved a tentative "thanks."
Suleman doesn't know what's going to happen with this whole thing. It's been picking up steam and he appreciates the attention (a reprieve from his day-to-day life, in which he's "just a Muslim kid trying to make it" and the "cops treat him like shit again"), he's not in it for the celebrity.
"The reason and cause behind it is so much more than an artist being famous or whatever," Suleman said. "I'm almost like a mascot for these really progressive, positive things that are changing the world."