A conversation with the East Bay 'street preacher'

By Richard W. Dionne Jr.
Posted 11/21/23

You've likely seen Nathaniel Dempsey walking miles many days to spread his message; but what exactly is it?

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A conversation with the East Bay 'street preacher'


Odds are that you’ve seen him before. A tall, lanky man walking down your road, holding up a sign that simply states “JESUS” on it.

Nathaniel Dempsey, 41, of Warren, grew up in Providence, graduated from Classical and attended URI. While playing his guitar and toting his signs on the sidewalk in front of the Baptist Church in Warren on Oct. 30, he said he had been conducting that curious routine since “the Obama administration.”

“I used to go to Kennedy Plaza and I would vent,” he said. “I used to listen to Sean Hannity on talk radio. Then I’d go to Providence myself and I would talk about things. Or I would try to.”

So what exactly is he trying to say?

“I’m a Christian. When I say that, I’m not trying to offend anybody,” he said. “I’m not Catholic, but I believe that Jesus is the head of the church. I read the Bible. I pray. I have been to so many different places. I’ve been around Jehovah’s witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists and Mormons. My grandparents were Catholic. I know about Protestantism and et cetera. I believe that we all have a destiny…I can tell you that I believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and that no man comes to the Father except through him. I can quote all of the versus, but I don’t believe that me doing that is going to change anyone’s destiny.”

In the summer of 2022, he was “street preaching” at motorists from in front of a gas station on Metacom Avenue in Bristol. Last Thursday, he could be seen walking down New Meadow Road in Barrington holding up his Jesus sign. As he walks miles up and down streets in Warren, Bristol, Barrington, Seekonk and Swansea, Dempsey feels that he is bringing forth a message, even though there are instances when he interjects his own personal memorandum.

“I would say that everybody has self interest at mind,” he said. “I didn’t come out here selfless, I have my wants and I have my desires. And I also have my needs, which have always been met.”

“I acknowledge that we do live in a dangerous world. The Israel-Hamas thing has started recently and there is also the Ukraine-Russian thing going on. It would be great, if people could come together and try to make things better. I think that they already are. I think that this is the best at the moment that we can have.”

Dempsey said he longs for a Speaker’s Corner in the East Bay, like the one in Hyde Park in London.

“Wouldn’t it be great if there was some park, maybe Independence Park in Bristol or someplace where anybody who has a belief or a political opinion can go and peacefully talk with others. And hey, if we don’t agree, so be it.”

Arrested in Maryland
The idea to walk with the Jesus sign came to Dempsey while he was living in Columbia, Md. He was living off food stamps when they were suddenly taken away.

“There was a reason why I was on food stamps. They told me in a letter. They said basically, no more food stamps for you unless you get a job,” he said. “So I was angry, because the reason why I had gone on food stamps to begin with was because, not only did I not have a job, but the jobs that I tried to have were not allowed.”

Dempsey collected cans to make ends meet. But he was stopped by a policeman.

“The officer didn’t cite any law. He just said stop what you are doing and put that bag over near the garbage bin or whatever. It’s things like that, where anybody who wants to be self employed or has ideas to be successful, in an outside-the-box type of way, it’s seemingly impossible,” he said. “When I got that letter in Maryland, that was it. The idea came to me to just write the name Jesus on a cardboard sign and go for a walk.”

He said that he quickly received positive reinforcement from the act.

“People were giving me thumbs up. They would come over and talk to me,” he said. “And once in a while, somebody would even give me money.”

He said he realized that there was no good reason to not do it, since he was a Christian that valued freedom and liberty.

On Nov. 23, 2020, Mr. Dempsey was arrested during a demonstrative street performance in Maryland. Prior to his arrest he was shopping at a market with a mask covering his mouth, but not his nose, and a market worker took offense.

“I did it on purpose, because I wanted to breath through my nose,” he said. “An employee came over to me and said, cover your nose. At that point it triggered me. I got really upset. Later on that day, I was doing some public venting near an intersection. I was using very strong sign language. I wasn’t throwing up my middle finger, but it was something very controversial. The police showed up and he told me to leave…I was so angry that I said that I would not leave. That’s when he arrested me,” Dempsey said. “That day, I was done…I felt like my freedom as an American was completely ignored and trampled all over. In my head, the next day didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I was angry and I wanted to do something about it.”

Street preaching in Warren
Once he was released from jail, Dempsey came back to live with his mother in Warren on Dec. 31, 2020.

“It took me about three or four weeks to really feel okay,” he said. “I had to make my mom feel safe. Me and my mom have a long history of me doing things and her saying, ‘What did you do that for?’ or ‘Don’t do that anymore.’”

But soon after he began to walk the streets again with his Jesus sign. He also began to play his guitar on the sidewalks and “street preach.” Overall, he said the response from the public has been positive.

“It’s actually been great,” he said. “When I first started doing it in 2021, It was interesting. People honked their horns. But it has snowballed. It’s gotten bigger now. I definitely feel the love from the people who like my sign.”

It’s his street preaching that has mainly been causing problems for Dempsey.

“They don’t like it,” he said. “Usually when I get in trouble, it’s not for playing guitar or holding a Jesus sign. It’s when I start to street preach. That’s when people will say things like, ‘Nobody wants to hear that.’”

Dempsey admits that he sounds angry sometimes and his messages aren’t always for the faint-hearted.

During one instance in 2021, he was ranting to a line of people wearing face coverings, waiting in line to enter a store in Warren.

“I told them that they looked like a bunch of slaves and cowards,” he said, irritated that the market was forcing them to wear masks. “We all have to eat food…You can’t tell me that I can’t go into a market. It’s a necessity.”

When the police do come to move Dempsey along, he said he had no problem with the officers.

“They are just doing their job. It’s their duty. The problem is, that we have people in this country that reject the idea of free speech,” he said.

Another time he was told to move along for shouting the name of Martin Luther, who sparked the Protestant Reformation. “I just started shouting the name over and over. It wasn’t long after, that the cops showed up. I can tell you that,” he said.

Dempsey’s messages often reflect his personal hardships.

“You know, I have my struggles. Sometimes I get very lonely,” he said. “As a 41-year-old who never married, hell, I’ve got tons of regrets. Some people say that they don’t regret anything. Not me, I’ve got regrets. If I could relive my past knowing what I know now, it could be different.”

When he’s not street preaching, Dempsey listens to and plays music. He has also tried small jobs here and there.

“I tried some landscaping with a guy named Tony,” he said.

But mostly you will see him out on the streets preaching his message of the day. He said that he is not wanting to be fearful or have people feel he is a threat. He just wants the opportunity to practice free speech and flourish as a public speaker.

“I don’t think that I am a threat,” he said. I’m just different. If I had power, I feel that I would be a good leader, even though Jesus is the leader. I think of myself as a radio station and if you don’t like what I am saying, you can change the station. I do that too.”

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.