Two locals whistle at a street preacher in Pritchard Park Saturday during Bele Chere. Photo by Bill Rhodes
It’s Bele Chere, so no one bats an eye at the crowd gathered in Pritchard Park early Friday evening, throwing metal horns with scattered shouts of “Slayer!” every time the street preacher mentions “hellfire” as he lambasts “this debauchery called Bele Chere.”
But during this spectacle an odd, uncomfortable moment happens: the preacher mentions how he started doing this after he lost his child. The way he set it up, it seemed like it was meant to be a single note in the sermon before he rolled into another condemnation. But overwhelmed by emotion, his voice cracking, he instead pauses, momentarily unable to continue. The crowd is nearly silent. For one moment, the narrative both sides expected is broken. But then everyone’s back in their places, and fighting resumes.
Bele Chere means street preachers, and it means Ashevilleans confronting them (and buskers making bank by playing over their remarks). In a much more in-depth look at both the preachers and their opponents back in 2010, I observed that “Bele Chere provides an opportunity for locals to cut loose against their ideological opponents in relative safety, with a built-in audience nearby. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what the preachers get too.”
That’s pretty much still the case (I even recognized some of the same preachers making the rounds). What’s changed this year is that some of the preachers have discovered the bele chere hashtag, leading to sights like this:
Yes, that’s Council member Gordon Smith (cut off at the bottom) and local beer maven Julie Atallah alongside a street preacher calling for Asheville to repent.
What’s also notable is what hasn’t changed: many of the preachers still tote personal megaphones. Last August, the city contemplated stricter rules (or a ban) on amplification, but reconciling such restrictions with the First Amendment is tricky, and the head of the state ACLU cautioned the city to be careful about such a move.
At the July 24 Council meeting, Smith noted that the city had backed off such a move due to legal worries, but hoped Ashevilleans would enjoy the festival anyway. But while plenty of locals can’t stand the bellowing tirades, others seem to relish the confrontation as part of their Bele Chere experience. I doubt that will change any time soon.