By Kenneth J. Souza
FAIRHAVEN, Mass. — The young man stared at him intently, tears welling up in his eyes.
Sporting the attire of someone about to attend a hip-hop concert — the slightly askew baseball cap, black T-shirt and sagging stone-washed jeans — you’d expect this mid-day encounter on the corner of a busy Fairhaven intersection to be a clandestine transaction between addict and dealer.
But the only thing in the hands of the towering, six-foot-tall figure was a crude wooden walking stick and the only thing being sold was a message of peace.
The young man, who wished to remain anonymous, was fixated on Malvin “Mel” Larsen, who for the past two summers has been walking the streets of Fairhaven dressed as Jesus Christ.
“His girlfriend just OD’d last night,” Larsen explained. “We met last year, spoke a little bit, and now he’s going through some trials with his girlfriend.”
The 58-year-old Larsen strikes an indelible image with full, unkempt beard and dark, shoulder-length hair, capped by a woven crown of thorns. Tiny rivulets of “blood” are painted on his face, presumably mimicking the marks of Christ’s Passion. He wears a white sheet like a robe and the only adornment is a single brown belt tied at the waist.
“I am connected to God — it’s not a costume,” Larsen said, pointing to the young man. “He understands, as crazy as this may seem. I am Spiritually connected.”
According to Larsen, the story of the man who has become known as “Fairhaven Jesus” began four years ago when he found himself in jail, wanting to end his own life.
The Fairhaven native admitted he was once a “womanizer” who used to hang around with an unsavory crowd. Drinking and bad behavior led to problems with his Marriage and a domestic disturbance accusation that led to incarceration.
“I went to jail and God took everything from me,” Larsen said. “I strangled myself in jail and I wasn’t afraid to die because I had already died so many times in my life. I literally gave my life to God that day.”
Claiming that he did “pass over” at some point and that marked the death of the old Mel Larsen and the rebirth of this new “man of God,” he described the experience as something like being possessed.
“I am possessed by the Holy Spirit, and it is real,” he said. “People want to understand the supernatural and it’s not natural. That’s the problem. You want to understand something logically that defies logic, because the supernatural is nothing of this world. That’s where people lose their way. They want to find God in a logical way.”
Larsen appreciates the fact many people just won’t believe or understand what happened to him and he’s fine with the doubting Thomases.
“I honestly — prior to four years ago — I would have said I don’t believe that, either,” he said. “But four years ago when it happened, I found out how real it is. I know it happened and you can’t convince me that it’s not real.”
However transformed, Larsen soon began walking the streets of Fort Myers, Fla. — where he resides eight months of the year — dressed as Jesus. Two years ago, he began doing the same in his hometown during the summer months.
He’d pop up walking down Route 6 in front of Fairhaven High School. Next he’d be spotted chatting with people at Fort Phoenix. Some would even seen him at the local McDonald’s, although the story about his multiplying the Filet o’ Fish seems a bit far-fetched.
“I grew up in this town and there are a lot of people who knew me,” Larsen said. “Ask any one of them if I’m the same person: I’m not. I’m totally different. It’s not that I woke up one morning and decided to change my life. You can change your life, but you don’t give up everything.”
While in Fairhaven, Larsen said he sleeps in a storage unit. He doesn’t have a car and considers himself homeless. When he’s not walking and talking around town, he relies on the kindness of strangers — and Divine providence — for food and shelter.
“I think God takes things away to make you appreciate them more,” he said. “I had a beautiful home, I had Corvettes in the driveway, a house full of collectibles, and it was still not enough. I was empty inside.
“Now, I’ve never been happier in my life. I love God and Jesus more than anything else. He’s blessed me with so much, and that’s my message: it’s about falling in love with Jesus. He’s everything to me. He’s our Father, He created us; and all He wants is for His sons and daughters to get to know Him.”
And just as Jesus noted that no prophet would be welcomed in his hometown, Larsen has had his share of detractors.
Some have dismissed him as a publicity hound. Others claim he is mentally ill. And some have even attributed darker motives to his arrest record.
As if on cue, a small pickup truck with two young men dressed like the young man whom Larsen had been comforting applied the brakes to laugh and jeer at Larsen like the Roman centurions who tormented Christ.
“A lot of people are going around calling me a child molester,” Larsen said. “There was no child involved in this; this was an episode between me and my wife. I was going to kill myself, because my life was total chaos. The only way my wife could save me was to put me in jail to protect me from myself. If they put you in jail for a minor offense, you’d be out in 12 hours. But if you say someone is going to hurt you or someone else, they keep you locked up for a long time. But before this even went to trial, my wife dropped all the charges.”
The Anchor was able to confirm the details surrounding Larsen’s domestic disturbance arrest and a spokesman for the police department in Fort Myers, Fla. said there were no outstanding charges against him. Officials at the Fairhaven Police Department likewise confirmed that no civil or criminal complaints have ever been filed against Larsen during his two-year stint as “Fairhaven Jesus.”
Larsen doesn’t harbor any resentment towards his ex-wife and now realizes what happened was all part of God’s plan.
“The truth of the matter is this had nothing to do with her, this was all about God and His stripping me of everything,” Larsen said. “God has a way of making things happen that we don’t understand. But I thank Him every day for it.”
“I spoke with him one time several months back, and he certainly wasn’t hostile and never claimed he was Jesus,” said Father Martin Gomes, SS.CC., pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Fairhaven. “I’ve even referenced him in a couple of homilies. I think his message, for the most part, is positive. He seemed very willing to talk and told me he simply wanted to pass along a message of peace. What’s wrong with that?”
Father Robert Charlton, SS.CC., pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in Fairhaven, was away on retreat and couldn’t be reached for comment, but a parish secretary said that several parishioners who have encountered Larsen found him to be equally pleasant and essentially “harmless.”
Noting that he wasn’t raised in any particular faith, Larsen said he doesn’t identify with any one denomination. He prefers to consider himself simply a “man of God.”
“Jesus wasn’t Protestant or Catholic or Baptist,” he said. “He was God and He was explaining how we should live and that’s what it was supposed to be about. He called disciples who then went out and made more disciples. It wasn’t about creating sects — that’s what happened through time and that’s what started separating people.”
Larsen is always willing to stop and chat with those who are open to his message. He’ll often pose for people who fumble to take out their cell phones to snap a pic of “Jesus” for their Facebook page, and he’ll oblige others with the ubiquitous “selfie.”
“I wish every person on this planet could see a picture of me, because it puts an image in your mind,” he said. “It makes you think: well, what is this guy doing? What is this about? Because people are showing others pictures of me on their cell phone: ‘Hey, I got a picture with Jesus.’ Well, who’s Jesus? And it starts this conversation and wherever I go, it gets people talking about Jesus.”
When pressed why someone would choose to give up any semblance of normalcy to walk around dressed as Jesus day-in and day-out, Larsen becomes surprisingly calm and lucid.
“This was never my plan,” he said. “This was God’s plan. I truly am connected to God and He wants me to try and convince others that it’s real.”
“If you told me four or five years ago that I’d be walking around dressed as Jesus, I’d say you were crazy,” he added. “This is illogical, and yet I’m doing it.”
Whatever the motivation behind Larsen’s leap of faith, one thing is clear: he’s providing a not-too-subtle reminder of the presence of God in a time when public expressions of faith are either frowned upon or blatantly discouraged.
“I know that through the Holy Spirit, I’ve touched so many people,” Larsen said. “People have come up to me and told me I’ve changed their lives. These are people I don’t know, but just seeing me changed them somehow. So when people ask why I dress like this, that’s one of the reasons right there.”