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Wednesday, 16 February, 2000, 16:02 GMT
Itinerant preacher woos Americans

The Shepherd and his attentive flock The preacher and his attentive flock

By the BBC's Stephen Sackur

Hazleton, Pennsylvania, is hidden away in the Appalachian Mountains.

It is a place not accustomed to the spotlight.

But in the last couple of months, something extraordinary has been happening here.

Carl Joseph: Don't follow me follow the Lord Carl Joseph: Don't follow me follow the Lord
A wandering preacher dressed only in a white robe and often barefoot in the ice and snow is attracting huge crowds.

Many people in this small, largely Catholic town say they see in him Jesus-like qualities.

It is a claim that is now attracting attention across America.

'What's Your Name'

Some 600 people recently packed a Catholic church hall in Hazleton, many with eyes closed as they joined the wandering preacher in reciting the Lord's prayer.

Except they do not know this bearded, robed preacher by his real name, Carl Joseph.

I was in his presence for an hour, and you just felt his presence. Unbelievable
A woman believer in Hazleton
Instead they call him 'What's Your Name', because that's what he says whenever anyone asks him for his name.

"The mystery of God is so great. It is beyond what we could imagine, and so is this mystery of heaven," he told the crowd.

'What's Your Name's' message is a homespun mix of conservative Christianity.

Audiences awed

It is his aura, rather than his words that draws the crowds, which sometimes number in the thousands.

With his white robe, bare feet, long hair and beard he looks unnervingly like the Jesus of childhood textbooks.

He owns nothing, and he refuses to talk about his past, except to say he's been wandering for nine years.

A direct audience with the preacher A direct audience with the preacher
He relies upon the goodwill of strangers for food and shelter.

After two hours of preaching in the church hall many in the audience want to touch 'What's Your Name'.

There is reverence in their eyes.

"I was in his presence for an hour, and you just felt his presence. Unbelievable," one woman said after hearing him.

Another man in the audience said: "He is truly a man of God. We all have doubts, but listening to him and seeing what he is, he is genuine."

As seen on TV

'What's Your Name' describes his success in Hazleton as divine providence, but it was the earthly power of local TV entrepreneur Sammy Lesant, which really transformed his ministry.

Mr Lesant runs a tiny cable news station from the back of his jewellers shop, and he put 'What's Your Name' on air.

I'm not asking anybody to follow me
The preacher
Hundreds of viewers called in seeking spiritual guidance.

Mr Lesant is now the preacher's unpaid agent, and when I met 'What's Your Name', it was in Mr Lesant's makeshift studio.

Despite his growing fame, "What's Your Name" said that he has no desire to form a cult or any particular organisation.

He does not want to be considered a guru. "I'm not asking anybody to follow me. In fact, anybody who would listen to what I am saying, it's to follow our Lord," he said.

Novelty will fade

As the crowds have grown and word of 'What's Your Name', and his Jesus-like qualities have spread across America, Hazleton's Catholic priest Father Girard Angelo has been put in an awkward position.

His flock has been energised by this mysterious preacher, but Father Angelo says he won't let the enthusiasm turn into a circus.

"At Christmas time, if you have children, they have new toys. They don't look at the old ones. I'm the old toy thrown out. He's the new one," Father Angelo said.

He believes that 'What's Your Name' novelty will wear fade. "He will be moving on. I don't know how soon, but he has to move on," he said.

But scepticism is a commodity in short supply in Hazleton. The town has taken 'What's Your Name' to its heart.

Jeff Cox is editor of the local paper, the Hazleton Standard Speaker.

"The question that comes into my mind is what would happen if Jesus Christ came back today. Would he have met any better of a fate than he did 2000 years ago?" he asks.

"The optimist in me likes to see a little positive side to this. Maybe people would treat Jesus a little better if he did come back," he said.

National curiosity

He has no formal religious training, but 'What's Your Name' can still transfix an audience with his rendition of Ave Maria.

The success of his ministry is based on simplicity, but that simplicity is now under threat.

Rival US TV networks are fighting to tell his story, but he is fast becoming a national curiosity.

Hazleton embraced his message, but this little town could yet be his undoing.

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