Arthur Blessitt, 37, has, as the expression goes, a cross to bear. In his case it’s the real thing. For the past decade the Southern Baptist evangelist has been shouldering a 12-foot, 90-pound wooden cross around the world.
Setting out on Christmas Day 1969, Blessitt (his real name) trekked from Los Angeles to D.C., and has since logged 14,000 miles through 40 countries on five continents. “When God first told me to carry the cross,” drawls the Mississippi-born preacher, “He said to go out into the streets and markets of the world and share Christ with the people. Millions don’t have television yet, and some in the villages where I’ve been don’t even have a radio.” Expanding on the Lord’s instruction, Blessitt has even carried his crusade into topless joints and brothels.
“You’d be amazed,” he says, “how much attention a man carrying a big wooden cross gets.” Indeed. He was jailed in Spain and stoned in Morocco. In May he was threatened by armed guerrillas in Nicaragua. Blessitt calmly showed them Bibles and “blew their minds. I’ve been more scared,” he says, “when some truck whipped by, nearly knocking me off a narrow mountain road.” His odyssey reached its spiritual high last year when he rolled his cross (a small tricycle wheel attached to the base is Blessitt’s only major modification on the original) through Jerusalem to Calvary on Easter Sunday. “I wondered how I’d feel,” recalls Arthur. “Would I be sad, walking in the footsteps of Jesus? No—I was filled with joy! Christ had suffered all the agony for me 2,000 years ago.”
Blessitt has just arrived back at his Santa Monica, Calif. base to recuperate from a nine-month journey from Mexico to Panama. It won’t be long before he gets restless, though. “My church and congregation are out there on the road,” declares Blessitt. “That’s where my home is.” On the trail he rises at 5:30 a.m. and progresses at four miles an hour. But he spends so much time preaching that he averages only 10 miles a day. He is sometimes accompanied by an interpreter and often by his wife, Sherry, a registered nurse who doubles as schoolmarm when their five children (ages 3 to 13) are along.
Blessitt’s apostolate has always tended toward the dramatic. In the ’60s he was known as the “Minister of Sunset Strip” because of a Hollywood gospel nightclub he ran called His Place. He ministered to runaways, hippies and drug addicts and was a forerunner of the Jesus movement. “You don’t need no pills,” he would tell them. “Jes’ drop a little Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Christ is the ultimate, eternal trip.” In 1976 Blessitt stumped the snowy roads of New Hampshire with his cross during the Democratic primary and got 800 votes. (The other Southern Baptist in the field pulled 23,000.)
Arthur “accepted Christ” at a revival meeting at age 7. While still a 21-year-old student at Mississippi Bible College he was ordained and given his first pastorate. Missionary work took Blessitt west to Nevada, where he waged a futile one-man campaign against prostitution. (Arthur claims nine madams and three Syndicate chieftains voted by a narrow margin not to “hit” him.) Along the way he met nursing school senior Sherry Simmons, who had “the most electric brown eyes” he’d ever seen. They were married within three weeks of their first date.
When Blessitt set out on his mission, it was in defiance of doctors-he had, after all, already suffered four minor strokes. Now, 17,000 miles and untold blisters down the road, the question most often asked is, how much farther? “I intend to keep going,” he smiles, “till God tells me to stop.”