25 July 2013, 15:46
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Joe The Turk

The name Joseph Karapetian doesn’t mean much to most of us. But as soon as one mentions Joe the Turk to anyone with a connection to the Salvation Army, there is an immediate recognition of a brave and unique “savior”, a recollection of the man who became a legend in the U.S. as an evangelist with unusual and surprisingly effective methods of persuasion.

Once Joe found out that the American missionaries were planning to open a school at the other end of the town. He immediately headed there. “Where are all the boys and girls?” he asked seriously. “The school has just been opened,” replied the missionary. “Then I’ll run to bring my brother.” Soon, as a result of Joe’s active advertising campaign a large number of children enrolled in the school. Missionaries were curious to know how Joe managed to attract so many children. He would not reveal his secret; he simply answered, “I could have found students for several more schools.” When Joe was a boy of eight a drunken man accidentally shot him with a pistol. For fifteen days he hovered between the life and death. The man was arrested, but his mother begged for her son’s release, as he was the only worker in the family. Her plea touched Joe’s heart, and the first thing the weakened boy did after his release from the hospital was to walk three kilometers to the prison to deliver the necessary papers to set the prisoner free.
Joe was a natural leader. He relentlessly learned at daytime and spent evenings “campaigning’ among his relatives and neighbors for greater enrollment in the missionary school. Soon, due to Joe’s efforts, the existing school buildings were filled by new students, and the association of missionaries had to build another school in the center of the town. Meanwhile, the local bureaucrats became envious of the missionaries’ success. They sent their priest to convince Joe’s mother to send him back to his previous school by offering him a free education. However, Joe liked the missionary school and his new schoolbooks as well as his ability to comprehend language in which the subjects were taught. When he demonstrated his newly acquired knowledge, the priest was amazed, and recanted his former request, saying, “It must be the best school in town, Joe. I think it’s to your advantage to continue your education there.”
Joe graduated from the school with excellent grades but to everyone’s surprise he decided to become a shoemaker. He moved to Constantinople and found a job in a shoe factory. As soon as he mastered the shoemaking trade, he opened his own store. His business went until the Russian-Turkish War shattered off the country’s economy. Joe lost his business as well as all his earnings. Then, along with many others, Joe immigrated to the United States.
He learned English and moved to the West Coast, where he found a job in the vicinity of West Berkeley, California, at a flour-mill. He started drinking and became the talk of the town. People called him “the walking terror”. When he was drunk he was easily getting into fights and once mercilessly beat his best friend. His poor friend spent six months in a hospital. When Joe was in a “bad” mood, he could drive away all the customers from the bar, and no one would dare to oppose him.
All has changed when he met a Salvation Army officer in San-Francisco. The man told him about the mission and goals of the Salvation Army. By that time Joe had returned to his previous occupation - he owned a shoe-repair store. He learned of the Salvation Army when he heard drumming on the street. He went out and saw the marching soldiers of the Salvation Army. That night he followed them, and when he returned home, he prayed and asked God for forgiveness. “I felt relieved at heart,” he confessed later. The first step in his conversion was to quit smoking. His next step was to stop drinking, and it wasn’t an easy task. His shoe shop was adjacent to a pub that allowed him to open a hole in the common wall for convenience; the beer mugs were passed to him several times a day. Starting his new life meant starting to close that hole. Once the passageway was sealed, his shoe shop turned into an unconventional religious center which is when his gifts for oratory were fully revealed.
Joe was a colorful character with a combination of Armenian expansiveness, a Western talent for public speaking, Latin vehemence, the determination of a Scot, and the enthusiasm of an Irishman. “California for Jesus!” was written on the flag hanging over his shoe shop entrance. “HAVE YOU BEEN SAVED?” he wrote in chalk on the pavement in front of his shop. A strange poster hung on the wall of his workshop: “What about your soul? Salvation is free for everyone.” Usually the customers asked about the meaning of the writing, which was exactly what Joe had been waiting for to start the conversation. On the soles of the shoes he repaired he stamped the letter “S” with copper pins. “What is this?” asked a customer, looking at the copper letters on his boots. “It’s my trademark,” answered Joe. “What does it mean?” inquired the intrigued customer. “Saved from sins, a salvation soldier,” explained Joe. Six months later the customer came back, “I cannot wear out these shoes. What kind of material do you use?”
“I used cheap materials before, but since I got converted, I put my best effort into my work and use only quality leather.”
“If that’s the case,” said the customer, “from now on I want to have this letter on the soles of all my shoes.”
Joe's shoe shop became a vibrant religious center, and Joe constantly thought of new ways to attract people. Once he asked his customers to bring him nine stovepipe hats. The curious customers wanted to see how he was going to use them. Soon the cylinders were decorated with slogans: “Do you have salvation in your mind and soul?”; “Jesus is a friend of drunkards”; “Be prepared to meet God.” Joe and his collection of old-fashioned hats attracted many new members to the Salvation Army.
Joe’s new avocation wasn’t necessarily a safe one. Joe learned to play the drum, and as he marched down the streets, a crowd followed, taunting him with insults and reminding him of his past. On one occasion, they threw stones and injured his head. Another time they injured his eye with a sharp stick, and yet another, broke his nose. He stoically bore all the insults and harm.
Shortly after Joe became an officer of the Salvation Army, he closed his workshop never to return to the trade of the shoe-making. Preaching the Bible became his only occupation. He gave his colleagues the remaining shoes from his shop and abandoned his tools to storage. Joe the Turk never looked back. He became an appointed evangelist, traveling the country, attired in a special costume, carrying an oversized red, yellow, and blue umbrella with religious slogans and a portrait of William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. His audiences were fascinated by the glow-in-the-dark light bulbs attached to the edges of the umbrella as well as to the illuminated miniature Statue of Liberty at its top. He wore the uniform of the Salvation Army with a golden-tasseled fez. As a remainder of his nationality, the words “The Salvation Army” were written in Armenian on the fez.
There is an irony in this whole story. If Joe the Turk would have not been converted, he would have ended up in prison for his drinking and fighting. However, he was frequently arrested for his religious activities. Fifty-three times in eight different states Joe was arrested by the police but usually won his cases in court. He made postcards with the greeting “In Jail for Jesus” from his photographs from prison.
He was arrested for the first time in 1887 for marching on the streets of Los Angeles. He spent seven days in prison waiting for the court hearing, and he spent the time teaching his fellow inmates Salvation Army songs. Afterwards, he lined up his strange choir in the corridors of the prison, and they sang. The singing behind the prison walls attracted crowds outside. As a result, the judge disapproved of the actions of the police and released the prisoners.
In 1888 in San Bernardino, California, Joe was again arrested for getting into a fight with a mob that attacked the soldiers of the Army. The next day he was sentenced to pay a twenty-dollar fine. “Thank God!” exclaimed Joe and was fined for another thirty dollars for disrespecting the court. The fine wasn’t paid, and each day of non-payment added two more dollars.
Joe was not the kind to waste his time even in prison. One of his inmates was a painter and had his paints and brushes with him. Together they went to work. The painter drew the letters, and Joe colored them with the paint. Soon the walls of the prison had thirteen slogans, written in tall letters. «Heaven is real and so is hell.» «Jesus is mighty to save.» «No cross, no crown,» and “Where will you spend your eternal life?” were just a few of his many slogans. The authorities were so astonished by the sight of religious murals, that the judge himself subsequently became a soldier in the Salvation Army. For several years Joe made sure that the slogans were not erased, and people from all around the country came to see them.
In 1893 the Supreme Court of Wisconsin came up with a landmark decision in the case The State ex rel. Garrabad (sic) versus Dering that declared the law that caused the arrest of Joe for playing his cornet in the street was unconstitutional. Joe was able to influence the court decision by carrying out an unprecedented attack on the police authorities in the press. The police persecutions had stopped, but there were plenty of other dangers ahead of him. Once Joe’s appearances gathered large crowds, the bars and taverns of the town lost their customers. The angry owner of the one of the establishments became so enraged that he drove his carriage into the crowd at the center of which Joe played his cornet. The wheels passed over his body, but fortunately did not touch his head and Joe survived. Fortune was once again at his side in Illinois. At night, as he was coming back from a meeting, a group of bandits shot at him. Miraculously, none of the bullets reached the target. Later it became known that these criminals had planned to get rid of the zealous crusader of the Salvation Army.
The ability to act quickly and to remain in control even in the most dangerous situations was Joe’s trademarks. These qualities became even more evident in the town of Macomb, Illinois. The town was in the grip of a corrupt mayor, who was the owner of a large bar, and his gang. The mayor canceled all municipal elections and persecuted anyone who opposed him. He also ordered the arrest of several members of the Salvation Army. At this point in the story Joe arrived in town and initiated a full-scale campaign against the mayor: demonstrations, marches, newspaper publications. The public unrest reached such a level of intensity that the mayor and his gang simply ran out of town. Joe took over the town and declared himself the mayor of Macomb. He was in charge for six days, until the people could hold an election. After that incident Garabed changed his title to “Joe the Turk, Former Mayor of Macomb.” Another incident happened in a town of Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he saw a mob intended to lynch a corps officer of the Salvation Army; he used his persuasive talents and braved the crowd to put the officer safely on the train.
Joseph Garabed retired in 1925 after 38 years of adventures, persecutions, and victories. He criss-crossed the country many times, led by his service in the ranks of the Salvation Army. He passed away in his New York hotel room in 1937. Thousands today continue to call «Joe the Turk» their spiritual father.

Yerevan Magazine, Summer, N1, 2008

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