In case you haven’t heard, the latest issue of The Blue and White is on campus now. Check out this feature on EC security guard and subway preacher Pericles Almanzar by Staff Writer Michelle Cheripka, CC ’16.
If you’ve stumbled into and out of EC late on a Saturday night, chances are that you’ve met Pericles Almanzar, one of the security guards. Perhaps he’s told you you should be a doctor when you graduate and proceeded to refer to you as “The Doctor” during every encounter thereafter. Five days of every week, he wakes up at 8 AM, prays for two hours, and then rests again before taking the subway to Columbia. On one of the other two days, he gets off at Times Square to preach to commuters.
His two professions seem unrelated at first, but as we talk a bit about his past, their affinities become apparent. When he was young, Pericles had difficulties with his parents, which made him shy and insecure. He felt unimportant, but he remained adamant that God would heal his soul. In retrospect, he is sure that God had put certain people in his path, his wife, for instance, to develop the love that had been missing during his childhood, a type of love that made him bold enough to begin preaching in the first place.
“You can’t give what you don’t have,” he says. Without love and without a healthy relationship with his family and with God, he would be unable to promote those things in his preaching. He goes on to talk about how important it is for him to spend time with his wife in the hours that he doesn’t work. “You want to do what you can with the time you have. Balance is the key.”
Despite his old doubts about himself and the people closest to him, Pericles has never once had any doubts about his faith. He says that he used to be a rude and angry person, but God helped him mature through preaching and through giving him the opportunity to work at Columbia. This self-characterization is a bit surprising, because it’s difficult to imagine Pericles being mean to anyone; on the job, he tells couples how happy he is that they’re together and talks with ease to residents and administrators alike. But he reminds me, more than once: “I’m always improving.”
He wants others to do the same too. At one point during our conversation, Pericles stops a resident as he swipes into the building. “Listen, whenever you want to quit smoking, just ask the Holy Spirit to help you. Believe me.”
“The Holy Spirit of God… this body was created for God to breathe into it, not smoke. That’s man’s idea and Satan’s idea to destroy the temple of the Holy Spirit.” The student listens politely, if impatiently, to the unwanted moral judgment, thanking Pericles before walking away the first chance he gets. Whether or not this is overbearing or preachy, Pericles means well. He only aims to help the people around him.
“The reason why I love to do this job is because of the students and the people. I love interacting with people and I love to make their life easier and to give them good service and to make it simple for them without breaking the rules,” he says. “I try not to preach here because that’s not the goal. I give words of encouragement to people.”
The impact of his words is instantaneous: the smile that comes to one person’s face as he calls her dynamite; the gratitude a somewhat dishevelled student shows when he stops her to ask how she’s doing.
Another security guard tells me, “He thinks I’m a special guy and I don’t understand-”
Pericles cuts him off. “No he’s special,” he says, before launching into a list of the different characteristics that made this man different from any other man he’s met.
On a Monday, I find him on the ramp connecting the 1/2/3 to the A/C/E. Pericles has been preaching in subways for fourteen years now. He had his start in Jackson Heights, near his church, where he would preach two days a week with a couple from his church. Now, he preaches at Times Square. There are eleven train connections here, multitudes of people to whom it would be possible to relay God’s message.
He greets me with a broad smile, sweating profusely. “Five people have come to Jesus today.”
If this is true, it’s easy to see why: trading his security badge for a stack of pamphlets titled “Life’s Greatest Decision,” and his navy blue suit for a black polo and slacks, the man behind the desk becomes magnified in the tunnel. His words, rapidly undulating between Spanish and English, seem to cascade from his mouth to the end of every limb, animating his whole figure. Pericles tells me, “I feel like a giant when I preach. I get full of the presence of God.”
After a few moments watching him, I realize that I’ve passed by Pericles before. On a different Monday, during a different rush hour, I was one of the people who give him a wide berth, refusing the pamphlets he hands out. I can see myself brushing past him, doing anything I could to get out of Port Authority (a place I consider to be Hell on earth), drowning out his words with the endless to-do list I was probably reviewing in my mind.
The thought embarrasses me. As crowds of people shuffle with their heads down towards their next connection, Pericles tries to actually speak with them, to get them to listen. They glance at their watches and the signs counting down the minutes until they miss the next uptown train, perhaps not even fully noticing the preacher. But Pericles stands here every Monday for four hours because he truly believes that people will listen to his message.
As if on cue, it’s at this moment that Pericles singles a man out and asks, “What is your excuse?”
It’s an exchange that could have been overheard at the EC security desk. Pericles follows the man down the ramp a ways, speaking to him about the path of life that will wake him up. If I hadn’t met Pericles, I might have thought that this approach was aggressive, but, knowing him, you can tell these are words of encouragement.
Pericles is realistic about his jobs. He probably won’t meet every resident who passes through the EC gates. He will not convert every person who passes through Times Square. But he believes in the value of trying to do so. He says it’s easy. “You fall in love with people. There are a lot of beautiful people.”