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God’s showman

Facing lung cancer, street preacher and gadfly John 3:16 can still tell a story. Or two.

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Photo: Jacob Kepler

So there’s this story about a showbiz guy who finds the Lord and renames himself John 3:16 Cook and starts preaching the Word, not just to quietly aching suburbanites with dependable tithes, but also to drunks and homeless guys and drug addicts and prostitutes. He converts a porn theater in Florida into a shelter for street people. A few years later he does the same kind of thing in Vegas. Drives around in an old mail truck painted red, with the slogan “Soup, Soap and Hope” on the side, and gives sandwiches and the occasional shot of whiskey with salvation. Once in a while, he’ll take a street guy who’s got a bad toothache into the truck and do a little lay dentistry, because somebody’s gotta do it, right? Takes pliers and wrestles those bad teeth right out. Keeps them in a jar. “All I’ve ever done is love people, is that so bad?” John 3:16 will say, an old man, years later, sitting on the front porch of a rotting trailer in North Las Vegas, where he’s going to die of lung cancer soon. Inside he’s got that jar of teeth. Next to him on one of three dirt-caked chairs is a witch with long, brushed black hair and a full face of makeup. She’s radiant for her age, which she doesn’t disclose. John 3:16 looks like a trailer-park Larry King now, his gray hair combed back and yellowing, big eyeglasses staring. He’s wearing a clergy collar in a black shirt that’s covered in cat hair. He takes my hand and makes me touch his sternum, right in the middle of his dying body, and says, “I’m dying, honey. Feel that. I’m all bones now.” He is. His protruding rib cage is taking over, and it feels hollow.

Around them are a dozen stray cats and countless pigeons, all of whom come here daily to be fed, and they’re never disappointed. The place reeks of cat pee. But he’s got a cigarette hanging on his dirty fingers, thankfully, and the smoke cuts through the stench. You never know what the bright side might be. He sucks on it. “Nobody ever got lung cancer from cigarettes,” he says, a twinkle in his eye. “Maybe a few rats.”

The pigeons are perched on the roof in a spooky line, like a scene from The Birds. Their numbers are growing, so we stand up for the daily feeding. Marissa steadies John 3:16 on his slow walk to the street with a bag of seed. The birds circle in over the rows of trailers—trailers with dirt yards and Mary and Jesus figurines and hubcap art—and swoop down, landing in neat lines for the food service. It’s like the feedings at homeless shelters or prisons or casino buffets. Marissa makes a Tippi Hedren joke. John 3:16 looks to see if I’m watching; even though this is routine, it’s important that the reporter see it, see him standing in his priest collar feeding all of God’s creatures. He’s known dozens and dozens of reporters; like stray cats and rats with wings, they come to be fed and give little in return. They watch, and listen, and he feeds them stories. And he is fed.

So there’s a story about a street preacher and a witch. They are really in it—looking right at death—he’s had lung cancer for seven years, he’s down to 80 pounds. They’ve been together 21 years. All his life he’s given and given and given, and he can’t understand why all anyone ever did for him was screw him over. They’ve shut down his shelters for violating fire codes, written articles about him driving drunk and plowing through gas stations, fired buckshot at his truck and Wiccan wife, questioned his sincerity—can you believe that? And now it’s about over. His body hurts. He’s got no money. The rent on the trailer is more than the Social Security check. There’s a roach crawling across the table. But there’s one thing. Before he dies, he must run for mayor of North Las Vegas.

Of course. You should’ve seen that coming, if you’re any kind of story reader. You must know that there’s a common cloth that evangelists and politicians are cut from. There’s a common cloth that evangelists, politicians, gadflies, showmen, con men, Larry King, stray cats, reporters, psychic witches and demanding pigeons are all cut from. It’s possibly the cloth tenderized by gamblers’ hands on card tables in Las Vegas. Vegas—a place where big stories come and go a million times a night, a place full of bullshit and bravado, a place where anyone with a heart constitutes a do-good story. But this one’s a good one. Where else would this preacher end up, if not simultaneously on the ballot and in a trailer in Vegas?

Magickal Marissa and John 3:16 Cook distribute toys to children (2000).

Magickal Marissa and John 3:16 Cook distribute toys to children (2000).

He ran on the platform of mocking the entire system. He spoke out against Mormons, Mexicans, rich people, Catholics and blondes, among others. “It was my last hurrah,” he says. They—he and Marissa, a fourth-generation psychic and daughter of vaudeville performers—figured it would give him something to live for for a little while longer. Razzing The Man. But when I called and asked about meeting them to do a longer story on them, they grew suspicious. Was I planning to give him a hard time? They looked up the laws about feeding pigeons. Was there a problem with their pigeon-feeding? I was reminded that Marissa’s put a curse on many a reporter, many a politician, by delivering voodoo dolls to their offices, wearing full witch regalia. The last thing I needed was a curse. I just wanted to hear a story. Their story. Stories galore. “You seem like good people,” he says to me while I smash red ants on his porch with my heel. “But you never really know.” It’s true. You never really know.

So the broken, dying street preacher never expected to win the mayoral race. And he didn’t. Still, he got to fire off multiple tirades about the decrepit state of North Las Vegas: “I’m angry. I’m disappointed. People don’t have brains enough to run this city. They’re not doing anything for this city. It’s bad. It’s dangerous. Poor people are suffering. I’m going to clean up this town!” he barks, like a carny. He appeared on TV, he spoke on a radio show. He fired off rants. I listened to several. He can preach up damnation. When he gets going, he talks so loud and fast and uninterruptable you can’t actually hear the details; it’s more of a general tone that’s conveyed than any specific content: This place sucks. The Haves don’t give a shit about the Have Nots. It’s an old but undying message. When he’s sitting on his porch, with the aged, faded Soup, Soap and Hope truck on flats in the corner of the yard sporting bullet holes; and he’s dying in the middle of a recession in the north end of a town that’s also sitting on flats and fading; his message develops an evangelical echo: This does suck. Amen. The Haves really have abandoned the Have Nots. Amen! “Can you believe this?!” he says, referring to the general awfulness that surrounds him—every market is Mexican, every politician is Mormon, every reporter is out to get him. “How did I end up here? All I ever did was love people.” He looks hard at me to see whether I buy it. It’s something he’s been doing his entire life: Here’s my story. What’s your reaction? Do you buy it? Can I go forward with this? It’s like betting in poker. Believe me? Or am I bluffing? You wanna play, or not?

He got his first gig as an evangelist many wives ago. People magazine, which in 1987 featured John 3:16 Cook as the crusader for the poor in Las Vegas—complete with a photo of him and his truck on the Strip—reported that he’d had 12 wives. And that was before Marissa. “Oh yeah,” he says to me on the porch, “at least.” He laughs, but you sense he’s several steps ahead of you, laughing at something he’s about to tell you, not what he just told you.

He was born in a taxi in Denver, the son of a hypnotist. I’m buying it, go with me here. He started getting drunk as a kid, ran away, joined the Army and went to Korea. “I got a bronze star in Korea. I’m real proud of that. That’s a good medal. It’s an honor ...” He takes a drag on the cigarette. “It was a fluke. My buddy and I were just messing around. We had a bazooka. We killed a bunch of people, that’s how I became a hero.”

We all laugh. A pregnant tabby runs by my legs. Marissa says they need to get her fixed. Their preferred charity these days is Heaven Can Wait animal sanctuary, the name of which is not lost on me in this setting. The old man sucks on his cigarette. Next, he says, he went to work as a stuntman, doubling for Clark Gable. He flips through his scrapbook to show me a newspaper clipping—Sonny Liston, showman—and a picture from the Gable movie The Misfits. “‘Sonny Liston’ was just a show name,” John 3:16 Cook tells me.

More

Beyond the Weekly
Faith waning for savior of homeless (Las Vegas Sun, 4/15/98)
John 3:16 Cook talks about mission checks (The Evening Independent, 12/7/76)

After he was a stuntman, the path to further celebrity came from Jesus, who found him in Oklahoma. Sonny went to church, saw many happy people and noted that well-manicured women in Oklahoma went nuts for smooth-talking evangelists. He got saved.

He landed a job preaching. As he tells it, he talked about Jesus for 40 minutes and made $80. “Eighty bucks for standing there talking? I said, ‘Hmm, maybe there’s something in this.’” It was the ’70s. Soon he was dressing like a rock star and saving souls hand over fist. He recorded and sold his sermons. He married a woman who knew the Bible inside and out, and he began memorizing it.

“I always said, ‘God is my producer, Jesus Christ is my personal manager, The Holy Spirit is my director, and I have an Academy Award waiting for me up on Calvary.’” He laughs.

Stop for a second and think about this as a story: If you were telling a tale about a slick evangelist (“I was a Fancy Dan!”), wouldn’t it be a nice storyline to have him suddenly realize it was all a show, and really find the Lord, and become a real preacher, and work with the downtrodden, and be persecuted by authorities?

So Sonny Liston moved to Florida and opened a mission for homeless people, and got crossways with the law for this and that. City codes, that kind of thing. Possibly he took money—or received donations—from the homeless men’s Social Security checks. But he fed the hungry. Sheltered the weary. Pulled teeth and stitched wounds. Praised God. Worked it. Cashed a few checks here and there, did all right. Teamed up with some people who had drug problems. (“He liked mushrooms,” he says of one of his business partners. “I couldn’t control him.”) And he changed his name to John 3:16 Cook: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, so that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Everlasting life—reinvention—how did he ever imagine he wouldn’t end up in Vegas? He carried that persona—street preacher, Robin Hood, media magnet—to Vegas in the ’80s, and started the whole thing over again.

Everlasting life. On the porch, about three cigarettes in, when Marissa goes into the house for some water, John 3:16 tells me he’s ready to die. Any time now. “I’m in a lot of pain, honey.” But he wishes he weren’t dying in Vegas. “I hate this city,” he says. “Crooks.” Why’d you stay, then? I ask. “For her. She likes it. I just wish I had something to leave her. I’ve got nothing.”

So there’s this story about this gadfly preacher in Vegas who started needling politicians and community leaders and made his own life a living hell, because you never really know who you’re dealing with. The first one he probably shouldn’t have crossed was Bob Stupak, he says. On the other hand, if he’d never started publicly accusing Stupak, then-owner of Vegas World (later the Stratosphere) and a candidate for mayor, of using cocaine, he might never have met his wife, who had done a psychic reading for Stupak at 3 a.m. in the casino and told him he wasn’t going to become mayor. The Lord works in mysterious ways. Later, in the parking lot after a mayoral debate, Magickal Marissa saw John 3:16 and said, “Where’s your church?” and he said, “I’m driving it,” and nodded toward the homeless-helper mobile. Love ensued. Stupak lost. Pretty soon the Christians and Mormons, who had loved him, were shunning him because he’d married a Wiccan—on TV, to boot, because by then he’d become a pretty well-known street preacher and gadfly—and his enemies multiplied. Hers, too—what kind of self-respecting practitioner of the dark arts marries a Christian? The psychics ran her off; and the civic leaders who secretly sought her guidance stopped visiting because they didn’t want anyone to know they saw a psychic. Love hurts.

Marissa grew up amongst show people; Bozo the Clown was a friend of the family. She was the first woman to bartend at the Copa Cabana when it reopened; she shows me a picture. She was leggy and fearless. They were, she says, “star mates.” Her eyes sparkle in the afternoon sun.

So here he was giving day-old doughnuts and shots of liquor to homeless people and razzing politicians and doing media interviews. He and Marissa were whooping it up—they had a radio show on KLAV in which he blasted sacred institutions, from Stupak to Bishop Gorman High School’s priests. But karma started creeping in. His story became one of persecution quick-like; a witch-hunt, if you will. By the end of the 1990s, John 3:16 couldn’t get anyone to return his calls. Nobody was donating to his cause, a nonprofit food and shelter service called Pride Village. He was in his late 60s, and people had deemed him a con man.

“I’m not a con man,” he says to me, loosening his priest collar. I nod and shoo a fly.

“All I ever did is love people. What’s wrong with that? I should be honored and revered for what I did here!”

I met him and Marissa for the first time at about that point in the story, as their luck drained away, as it always does in Vegas. Things are cyclical. The trick is stopping while you’re ahead. But you just keep on pressing your luck, and starting over, because who wants the game to end?

It was 2001. I was a newish-to-Vegas reporter then, and was enamored of their eccentricity. Marissa says now, while flipping through the scrapbook of articles, “I didn’t know we were eccentric, I read it in the papers.” I was one in a long line of reporters who went to them for copy. Like pigeons. I remember it in sketchy patches; we met at the Bighorn Casino on Lake Mead Boulevard, they drove up in the Soup, Soap and Hope truck. They had decided to call it quits on caring for the human race; they were totally disenchanted with the community, which they felt had abandoned them. Plus, someone had shot up their truck in a drive-by and left buckshot in Marissa’s forehead. I wrote a story in which he proclaimed he was killing the “John 3:16” persona and changing his charitable focus exclusively to animals, because, he said over crocodile tears in the coffee shop at the Bighorn while drinking tomato juice, “I’m sick of people.” It went to press with little fanfare, and I never heard from them again until he filed for mayor this year.

So there’s a story about a fast-talker looking back on his life, who leaves this part out of his story when he tells it:

In St. Petersburg, Florida, John 3:16 Cook became well-known for a variety of reasons. First, he helped people—preaching the Risen Son of God, sheltering thousands from the streets in the early 1970s, advocating for the poor. Then, he got loaded and plowed through two gas stations in a sedan, lighting half a city block up with explosions, and fled the scene. By the end of the decade, he was making news again, accused of misappropriating funds from his own son, being charged with burglary, and getting five years probation. Officials in Florida ordered him to leave the state, according to news reports there.

“All I ever wanted to do was love—”

So there’s this story. It’s about a salesman. And a psychic. And a foolhardy writer sitting in front of a trailer in North Las Vegas. There’s a recession. None of them has much money. Casinos are in dire trouble. Vegas is struggling to pull visitors. Wondering if it can start over. Nobody’s feeling great. Cats have peed everywhere. Ants. The reporter is doing the same damn story again and again. The man is dying. The psychic woman is losing her partner. It should be a drag of a Monday afternoon.

John 3:16 lights another filtered Austin and says, “This is fun. I’m feeling better just thinking of all the fun we had.”

The psychic says, “Remember the songs?” And the two of them, preacher and wife, start singing a little ditty making fun of Bob Stupak. And another about Vegas politicians generally. And a third about the media, especially for me. They harmonize in trashing the establishment to a sweet tune. It’s delightful. I feel like I’m being treated to quite a show. They laugh—we all laugh—and he sighs, saying to her through a smile, “We asked for it, didn’t we, honey? I love you.”

She holds his hand, and they look at each other like heartsick teenagers.

“She shaved my face this morning,” he says, leaning in to show me the wrinkles on his face up close. “It’s not easy to shave someone. See that? She’s good to me.”

“I’ll tell you something,” he says, glancing at her. “I’m a rich man.”

They tell me how they still make trips to the Purple Sage, a trailer park a couple of miles away, which is way more downtrodden than this neighborhood, and give food when they can afford it. They have to go in their van, an old Voyager, because the Soup, Soap and Hope truck “got cancer,” he says, gesturing toward its beaten, hollow shell. His eyesight is pretty poor for distances, even with those Larry King glasses, and her frame is too small to reach the gas pedals. So when they drive, he says, she navigates while he steers. It’s a game of trust.

Later I’ll drive over to the Purple Sage and see windows covered with cardboard, foil over holes in walls, a woman digging through a trash can. A place in need of a Robin Hood. A place that certainly doesn’t need to lose a friend. Last Christmas, John and Marissa brought toys. He tells me he’s going to give $10 to Heaven Can Wait on Friday.

So, a story: Two people. Show people, definitely. People who know how to create a reality with stage and song. Hustlers? Perhaps. Depends on your definition. They’re people who know how to sell a story. Spiritual professors? Of course. People who know how to frame existence with a set of beliefs; people who understand hurting and the need to see a way out of it.

Two people. And they’re sitting outside this perfectly sufficient mobile home with dozens of the Goddess’ beautiful creatures: cats, pigeons, ants, a reporter. And they’re facing death squarely, holding onto one another, singing a little ditty.

He gets up to call it an afternoon, head inside, take off those ridiculous clothes and go back to bed. I shake his hand. He says, “Life’s been an adventure, and I wouldn’t trade if for anything.” I think he’s telling me the truth.

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