Eight men who in late January hurled a fiery message outside St. Peter Church in Southeast Portland do not represent a new phenomenon of the Trump era. Instead, they are part of a long tradition of Christian splinter groups that react virulently to change and see themselves as prophets.
The group known as Bible Preachers is led by 42-year-old Grant Chisolm. The trendy-dressing vintage shop owner says he doesn’t have an anti-immigrant agenda. He claims instead that he preaches against a culture that has veered from biblical truth.
“Most churches are not teaching a repentant gospel,” Chisolm says. “They are speaking a loosey-goosey, sloppy-jalopy gospel where everybody gets to heaven,” adds Chisolm, who often wears a fedora. “I do have a vendetta against Catholics.”
For years Chisolm has preached and worn sandwich boards outside strip clubs and churches in the Lents area, where he grew up. He also travels to speak on the periphery of large events like rock concerts, the New Orleans Mardi Gras and the Superbowl. He has shown up as an antagonist at anti-Trump rallies and was knocked unconscious by a protester at the Portland airport.
Asked why he would include Catholicism and its many helpful ministries on his black list, Chisolm reverts to archaic Protestant ideas, namely that there is no need for a church or saints, but that individuals should “speak directly to God.”
Chisolm, whose father also was a street preacher, says he saw women at St. Peter dressed “immodestly” and so the group hollered about harlots and prostitutes.
“Yes, we are provocative,” he says.
Pressed about reported anti-immigrant rhetoric, Chisolm says he and his group speak about what is relevant at a given time and location. He claims he did not know that he had come upon a Spanish Mass and that he did not speak against migrants, though he admits some of his companions did.
Others in his group are Hispanic, he says, adding that he has done design work for Portland’s Mercado, a business venture led by Latinos.
“We are not pro-Trump or fascist. We preach the gospel,” says Chisolm, who often speaks out against homosexuality.
He says he and his team will probably avoid St. Peter Church. It was one of five houses of worship they visited that morning, including Baptist and Pentecostal congregations. Chisolm does not have much use for churches and carries out his spiritual life solo.
“These are people who have resisted modernity,” says Will Deming, a professor of theology at the University of Portland who pays attention to U.S. religious movements. “They feel helpless because they don’t have a real voice in the larger society.”
Deming says that such groups cling to a pre-critical view of Scripture and tend to use Bible passages to support whatever agenda they have at a given time.
“Maybe he thinks of himself as a sort of a prophet,” Deming says of Chisolm.
Bill Dinges, a professor of religion at Catholic University of America, says there is nothing innovative about Chisolm and his followers.
“These are motifs that have been around for a long time,” Dinges says. “He sees a gap between what he thinks the followers of God should be and how he sees the world.”
Dinges concludes that Chisolm is not self-aware enough to realize that his interpretation of the Bible is just that — one man’s interpretation.