If there were a soundtrack for the uptown Charlotte protesting in the days following the fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, Sam Bethea’s raspy two-word chant could be the melody in the feature track.
“Jeeeee-sus saves! Jeeeee-sus saves!” It’s been a ubiquitous sound uptown paired against chants of “Release the tapes!” and “Black lives matter!”
But Bethea, 44, a sturdily built African-American man with kind eyes and a voice that booms, isn’t an evangelist. His message is one of non-aggression, and he isn’t preachy in its delivery. And he said he understands the protesters who turned violent this week.
“I get it. I was once one of these misdirected young men,” Bethea told me Thursday evening around 9, when the last of the protesters marching down Trade toward the EpiCentre had passed. He wouldn’t pause his chants while the protesters were within ears’ reach.
Between the ages of 16 and 26, Bethea says he was arrested 29 times. He describes himself then as a “young, misguided, black wannabe thug” before turning to a life of faith.
“I look at these people as my sons and my daughters,” Bethea said.
On Wednesday night, the demonstrations that started as family-friendly and peaceful in Marshall Park quickly got heated, and police in riot gear used tear gas to disperse angry crowds before blocking off portions of Trade and College. Forty-four people were arrested, and one young man, Justin Carr, was fatally shot in front of the Omni Hotel.
Bethea told Esquire in a recent story that he was steps from the shooting. Later that night, I spotted him down next to a line of police blocking off Trade at College Street, booming his usual “Jesus saves!” mantra as one angry young woman replied with “F--- that s---!”
Besides her, though, others around him were peaceful and calm, one of the few groups still uptown that night that could be described as such. When I asked how he seemed to keep people calm, Bethea replied, “It wasn’t me. It was the Holy Spirit through me.”
“We gotta love on these folks,” he said of the violent demonstrators. “They have a voice, they want to be heard. They’re good people wanting to do a good thing, but doing it the wrong way.”
Bethea, who retired from a job at Wal-Mart last year, was born in Washington, D.C., but has lived in Charlotte for about 30 years. He goes to Church of the Open Door, an independent Baptist church in Charlotte. That’s where he met Pastor Fleet Kirkpatrick, who Bethea describes as his mentor and father, when he was 26.
“I’m just trying to show (the demonstrators) love,” Bethea said. “(Pastor Kirkpatrick) said, ‘Sam, where love is felt, the message is heard.’”
If you’ve ever been on Trade and Tryon on any given Monday, Thursday or Friday at noon or 5 p.m. you’ve probably seen Bethea. He’s been showing up to what’s become his usual spot there for about two years.
On Friday, Bethea told me he left his spot at 3 that morning, but was back out by 9. His voice was hoarse, and he’d only sat down for about 30 minutes all day.
When I pressed him about how he hasn’t lost his voice after 12 straight hours of nearly nonstop chanting (lozenges? Honey?), Bethea replied without hesitation: “It’s the Holy Spirit.”