The Man Who Would Be Jesus


It'd be easy to have a crush on Jesus. He says he'll never leave you ever. He's very smart, and doesn't mind stopping to ask for directions. His voice, so comforting and smooth, delivers love on a scale immeasurable.

And, if you ever lose an earring, he's got a spare.

What? The Jesus you know doesn't wear jewelry? Maybe you're just listening to the wrong radio station.

By Cheryl S. Cohen
 

Neil Saavedra, a thirty-three year-old, artfully-tattooed ex-punk rocker from Encino Calif., performs what he calls "radio theatre" as the Holy Host of the Jesus Christ Radio Show, every Sunday morning from 6 to 8 a.m. on KFI 640 AM radio in Los Angeles. There, in a totally dark studio high atop Korea Town, Saavedra talks to an ever-growing audience in one of the largest radio markets on the West Coast. He likes to refer to his radio persona as "KFI Jesus." 
Unlike other religious radio shows, Saavedra doesn't talk about Jesus; he doesn't think he is Jesus. But for two hours every Sunday morning, he speaks as Jesus, answering questions from troubled Christians and skeptical heathens alike, in the first person. He listens carefully to his callers, and then, with an impressive grasp of the Bible, extemporaneously combines its passages with some very earthly advice.

In The Beginning ...

To many, the show is like going to church. That's exactly what Saavedra wanted to avoid when he started, but he admits it's all worked out very well.

The Jesus Christ show was the brainchild of (then) Program Director, David G. Hall. He asked Saavedra, who once had an "Hour of God" show, to do a guest spot to answer questions as Jesus on Bill Handel's morning show for Easter, four or five years ago.

"I said no, because it seemed so blasphemous," said Saavedra. But then I thought more about it, talked to some theologian friends, and decided that under certain conditions, I would go ahead.

He asked to choose all the calls taken, and also wanted to play the role in character as Jesus. Handel honored his requests, and gave a great deal of promo support to the shtick. Still, Saavedra says, he could just imagine "sphincters tightening up across America," when the show aired.

Maybe, but it was outweighed by the great deal of comfort that listeners obviously got from him. Reaction was hugely positive.

"I'd walk in with great trembling and pray a lot before I went on," Saavedra said. Back then, he chose his words very carefully. Now, he is more comfortable in Jesus' sandals, but never takes the role lightly. Everybody is part of something larger, he says. "I may just be the mouth."

Who Does He Think He Is? 

"I think I'm a freak," said Saavedra, when asked about his vast knowledge of the Bible. He says he has an inherent ability to see the truth, and avoids minutia because it's too tiring. Really big, fat theological concepts such as God, love and the Devil are his forte. His nightmare? "Living with my Christian family on a Christian cul-de-sac, barbequing on weekends with a bunch of Christian friends drinking O'Doul's," he says. 

"I don't need to surround myself with like-minded people."

So, he's not the poster child for Christianity, but he does believe in absolutes, and says that mainstream churches probably wouldn't find what he does palatable, anyway. "Still, there are many people who would not shadow the doorway of the church, who can listen to my show," Saavedra said.

"If I was any more Christian, this show would suck. If I was any more worldly, it would suck."

Accept No Substitutes

This particular weekend, his voice suffers from a cold that's getting worse by the minute. But, What Would Jesus Do, call in sick?

"The last time I took a personal day, was about a year ago when my wife and I separated. I told my boss that if I did the show, I was likely to sound more like Judas than Jesus," said Saavedra.

During a commercial break after taking a call from a woman who was concerned for her dying mom's lack of interest in God, Saavedra recalled some of his own struggles. Within a couple of weeks' time, he lost his dad, quit the socially-satirical "Tim and Neil Show" on KFI, and suffered the separation at home.

"So, when I talk about loss of faith, it's from experience it's personal." He says the show is therapy for him, too, during difficult times. "I was seeking joy, and I had to decide if I really believed this stuff."

Since then, he decided to change a few of his habits, including becoming celibate. That doesn't mean that it's an easy road for him, he said, but figured it was the least he could do, given the fact that he had so much to work on.

"God probably thinks it's a negligible offering, but it really is difficult a real pain in the ass," said Saavedra. If you pay attention to KFI Jesus' subject matter, you'll likely get an indication of what's going on in his personal life. "If I start talking about sex during the first few minutes of the show, they'll say, "Oh, man, he's gone off celibacy!"

On the desk at his side, is the Holy Bible and a 12 inch-thick stack of papers, containing notes he's made to himself from past shows. Across a small partition in the studio shared by several radio talk show hosts, lies a copy of Maxim Magazine's "Atomic Sex" issue, but Jesus' attention remains fixed on the Bible and whatever he's scribbling during breaks while an announcer blasts his email address out over the airwaves.

The Way It Goes 

Saavedra likes a challenge, and gets plenty of them from callers. He says he's never met a stupid Atheist, but does have one major beef with them: "They think their lack of faith is because of their intellect," he said, "but it's really because of emotional reasons."

This week, calls are slow to come in, but sometimes, it just goes that way for the first 45 minutes or so. Sometimes, he says, the subject matter is just so heavy, it takes awhile for listeners to digest.
 

 

Meanwhile, amid occasional pleas for callers to be brave and pick up their phones, Jesus checks with his engineer, Jason. Are the phones broken? No, try giving something away, Jason suggests. A free dinner at a steak house, or how about some salvation?

Criteria for the calls is firm: it has to be different, something that moves the show forward, nothing divisive. "If someone wants to bash Mormons, or Jews, or Catholics," he explains, "Well, I'm sure there's much to say but this (show) isn't necessarily the place for it."

Charity Begins at Home 

"I love my little show on Sundays, and that it makes tiny little wakes and touches," KFI Jesus says. "There's nothing in it for those who do share their faith; they don't get a free toaster or a notch in their spiritual belt."

Well, maybe not a toaster. Saavedra makes just above union scale, and he doesn't see anything wrong with making a living as Jesus. He does personal appearances, where often, he gives the honorarium to youth groups. But if the church has it in their budget to pay him, he's not above taking a few sheckels. He hasn't seen a good idea for a Jesus television show yet, but sees syndication of his existing show as a natural progression.

"Nowhere in scripture does it say I have to live like a pauper," says Saavedra, who works in marketing consulting and graphic design on the side. "It says it's the love of money that is the root of all evil. If I hit it big, that would be just fine."
 
 

(c) 2002 Cheryl S. Cohen - all rights reserved.
 
 

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