Longform

Omar Call Preaches Atheism on Tempe's Mill Avenue

On a Saturday night in early December, it's business as usual on downtown Tempe's Mill Avenue. Dreadlocked buskers beat on bongos across from a head shop called Hippie Gypsy, banging over the strains of Jimi Hendrix's guitar on "All Along the Watchtower" screaming from the store's speakers. The scent of patchouli fades into the reek of horse manure into the sugary coffee smells of Dunkin' Donuts as people shuffle down the street, below brawny frat guys in ASU jerseys beating their chests and bellowing from the balcony of Hooters.

Beneath the neon glow of Hooters, a large crowd has gathered at the intersection of Fifth Street and Mill, looking up at the restaurant's TVs, all tuned to the Oscar De La Hoya vs. Manny Pacquiao fight. Even the cops have stopped to watch.

But there's another distraction in the street. Among the shoppers, street musicians, club-goers, and college kids, there's this wispy hipster guy holding up a sign as large as the plasma TVs. Dressed in a vintage, blue velvet Dolce & Gabbana blazer, black-and-white vinyl loafers, and a black silk tie with a double Windsor knot, he looks like the lovechild of an Anthony Burgess novel and an Andy Warhol film.

He's carrying a white megaphone and wearing a shiny silver-metal backpack that resembles a vacuum cleaner — an example of the "industrial design" he loves so much.

A couple of people ask if he's going to "fire up the jetpack" and fly away.

But more ask about the big, black sign that reads "Damn God America" in gold block letters.

Usually, street preachers share the word of God. For the past several years on Mill, you haven't been able to walk from one bar to another without tripping over someone sharing the love of Christ through an amplifier or a stack of Bible tracts.

But this blue velvet guy is a different kind of preacher. He's a devout non-believer, and he preaches atheism.

The smiling man with the sign is Omar Call, a 31-year-old fashion designer and salesman of high-end blue jeans. No matter the jibes, he maintains the dignified look on his face, helped by his high-cut Peruvian cheekbones and prominent, Roman nose. Strands of thin, dark hair hang from his English golf cap and in front of both ears, like pointed sideburns.

He asks people what they think his sign means.

One guy says it's anti-American. Another says it's communist. A third says it's blasphemous. Call explains that the sign means, "America, damn the idea of God. Damn the religious dogma that dictates and destroys."

Some of the passersby give him dirty looks; a few flip him off and call him names.

Call has been coming to Mill Avenue every Saturday for the past three years to get flipped off, but also to have heady conversations. He particularly relishes debating the Christian street preachers who've sermonized on this strip for close to a decade. He thinks it's fun. The first time he did it, he says, he went home afterwards and "it was like I was on a high. I was so excited."

On quiet nights, he stands with his signs on the street and waits for people to ask questions. Having "logical, rational" discussions and making people think is almost like a creative art project for him.

In the beginning, his tactics were deliberately provocative — he dressed as Jehovah and stood on the corner, holding a sign that read, "I quit." When preachers set up speakers and started barking about damnation, Call would talk back through a bullhorn.

Other atheists, particularly those from an ASU group called the Secular Free Thought Society, often join Call on the corner. Initially, the group was small — a few atheist ASU grads bringing out their own tracts to counteract the Christians who handed out "$1 million bills" with Bible scriptures on the back.

But the SFTS has grown, and ever since it got two microphones, a loudspeaker, and a "background soundtrack" playlist on the iPod with themed songs like Roger Waters' "What God Wants" and Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," it's started to look more like a chaotic club party on the corner of Fifth and Mill than the satirical-but-serious piece of art Call says he's performing.

The Christians on Mill clearly view him as a thorn in the side. To the other atheists on Mill, he's a god of the godless. But he doesn't care to hang with either group. With his stylish wardrobe, bookworm intellect, and theatrical approach, Call just doesn't seem to fit in anywhere.

And he seems to like it that way. His "heroes" run the gamut, from Ayn Rand and Sir Isaac Newton to Adam Carolla and Richard Cheese. Ask him to describe himself, and Call will give you a laundry list of ten-dollar words, some self-invented: bi-furious, serotonic, lethological, pantagruelist. But one word he'll never use again is Mormon.

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea