Inside KFI-AM, the face of this Jesus looks nothing like familiar images of Christ. Bald and goateed sans moustache, he wears a hoop earring and bears the tattoos of a rebellious youth.
The voice of KFI Jesus – a strong, smooth bass – belongs to Neil Saavedra, who does not believe he is the Messiah, yet he assumes the godly persona during a three-hour call-in show that airs Sunday mornings.
His tone is not sarcastic but loving, his aim not to deceive but to reach Christians in need of support, encouragement and pastoral advice.
For Saavedra, a lifelong Christian who had his born-again moment at age 17, it’s a calling. Serving as marketing director for KFI-AM (640) pays his bills. Hosting “The Jesus Christ Show” is how he gives back.
“Do I feel qualified to answer any of this stuff? No way,” he said during a commercial break. “But sometimes the people are so desperate for help, my God, I’ve got to do something.”
Listeners heed his wisdom; some consider it divinely inspired.
“Oh, Jesus?” Pete Moyes, 54, of Murrieta said after waiting on hold for about an hour. “Question – I really appreciate you taking my call – how can I be assured of my salvation?”
“OK, what’s your concern?” KFI Jesus asked.
“Well, people that know me, and I’ve known you for 30 some-odd years and I know that you are going to perfect whatever work I start, but I would think that after 30 years, I would get rid of some of these character defects, things that I do that I know I have to apologize for,” Moyes said. “Why is my brain still thinking that way?”
“Well,” KFI Jesus responded, “Scripture says it via (the Apostle) Paul very well: `The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.’ … The benefit is that it’s paid for: It’s taken care of by the blood of the cross. … You hit it on the head when you called, and that is that I will finish the work and the perfection I started in you. That comes from me and not you.”
Weighty words from a man who didn’t die on a cross and rise from the dead three days later.
The natural, if knee-jerk, reaction is to question the audacity of a self-trained, unordained minister of the Gospel who would answer people’s most haunting questions and try to heal their deepest wounds by pretending to be their best friend and life guide.
The Christian Bible warns no fewer than seven times against false teachers who will twist God’s message for their own gain. Christians are taught to be on guard, clearly illustrated during an early commercial break.
“Hey Neil, on Line2 the guy seems a bit combative,” KFI Jesus’ call screener said. “He wants to know if you are a false Jesus and if we should run from you.”
Suspicions come from the informed and the ignorant. Some worry not about KFI Jesus’ intentions but fear the nature of the show makes listeners too impressionable for human advice.
“My concern is when someone takes on the persona of deity,” said Ingrid Schlueter, a syndicated Christian radio host who gave Saavedra the Hall of Shame Award on her blog in May. “Doing that is a form of fraud. And when you are dealing with vulnerable people, we are fallible humans, and we make mistakes.
“I can give good advice, but I can’t give the same advice as Jesus.”
The first time Brad Abare tuned in, he thought, “This guy is just off his rocker.”
But after listening, Abare, director of communications for the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, an L.A.-based Pentecostal denomination, began to appreciate the show as a “fresh” way to sow the Gospel among a secular audience.
“I love the fact it is on a top-rated station,” he said. “It is not on some obscure, cheesy Christian station that no one is listening to.”
Saavedra, 37, comes from a large family – five brothers and one sister. Born and raised Catholic, he grew up in a lower-income Ventura County home and was never much of a student.
Uninspired to attend community college and transfer to a university, Saavedra became a graphic artist but also began auditing courses at a Christian academy in Santa Monica, and poring over the writings of Christian apologists J.P. Moreland and Hugh Ross. He also found in the Bible his hero – Paul – and a verse to live by, 1 Peter 3:15.
“But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” the passage states.
The first incarnation of the “The Jesus Christ Show” was on KFI’s “The Bill Handel Show.” Saavedra, who worked in Christian radio before joining KFI in 1994 as an intern on Handel’s show, was invited to join his friend for an Easter program. The condition: He had to play the role of Jesus, and he had to do it without kitsch or irony.
“There was no question he could not answer. Out of that evolved what I consider to be the most unique show in radio,” said Handel, who is Jewish. “It’s sort of like Dr. Dean Edell meets Dr. Laura meets Jesus on the cross.”
Calling into KFI on Sunday morning is not what most Christians mean when they say they are going to talk with Jesus.
But radio is the medium through which about 100,000 Angelenos and tens of thousands of Southern Californians connect with their savior each week. For the past six years, many regularly have tuned into “The Jesus Christ Show” to hear what they believe to be Jesus’ perspective on the mundane, the profane and the arcane.
“Two thousand years ago, he walked this Earth,” a recent airing began just after 6a.m. “Teaching, guiding, loving and preparing to make the ultimate sacrifice. `For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ What if today you could talk to him, laugh with him, cry with him – not just through prayer but through the radio?
“You’re listening to `The Jesus Christ Show.’ To be part of the show, call (800) 520-1KFI. And now, here’s our host, Jesus Christ.”
KFI Jesus opens with a monologue, and the show then becomes a call-in. Callers are screened and placed on hold for two minutes to two hours.
In the studio, “your holy host,” as KFI Jesus refers to himself, has a stack of references – his “safety net” and “security blanket” – which include the Bible, commentaries on the Old and New testaments, the books “When Skeptics Ask” and “When Critics Ask” and a 2-inch stack of notes.
And, of course, the Internet.
During breaks, KFI Jesus prepares for the next caller’s question, so when he answers without hesitation, it seems God-breathed.
But off the air, Saavedra’s not perfect, and he doesn’t pretend to be. Before beginning a lunch interview, he made it clear he wasn’t going to speak for God. Only between 6and 9a.m. each Sunday does he play that role. Never in conversation with friends or colleagues. Never as a party trick or a Halloween costume.
“One time, I dropped an F-bomb in front of my mom, and this sweet lady, who was raised Catholic – she went to parochial school – looked at me and said, `Son, you are no Jesus.’ And I said, `Mom, you are no virgin.”‘
Saavedra’s faith is fervent, but he is not pious. His opening monologue usually is an indication of his recent struggles, and when it’s about God’s plan for sexual purity, his colleagues know he’s not following it.
“He is very religious, but he is very rebellious,” said Robin Bertolucci, KFI’s program director. “He has sort of a love-hate relationship with religion.”
Saavedra does not belong to a denomination. He’s typically too tired to attend church after the show, but, when he does, it’s the Oasis Christian Center on Miracle Mile. Its pastor, Philip Wagner, mentors Saavedra when he is in need.
“I heard him on the radio and just called,” Wagner said, recounting how he met Saavedra four years ago. Wagner was intrigued by the show and listened intently for several months before inviting KFI Jesus to host a question-and-answer at Oasis.
“He wouldn’t come to our church as Jesus and answer questions. He just wanted to be Neil Saavedra who produces the show,” Wagner said. “He wanted to be careful about how he answers questions for Jesus. I thought, `That is great.’ I thought pastors could use that.”
But is his shtick blasphemous? Wagner says no, and for the same reason most supporters do: Instead of asking “What would Jesus do?” the show asks – and attempts to answer – “What would Jesus say?”
And many who call in to the show believe the words spoken to them are coming directly from above.
“I was talking to Jesus through Neil,” Helen Harris, 69, of Woodland Hills said after calling KFI Jesus.
The founder of RP International, a nonprofit that fights retinitis pigmentosa, a rare disease that causes blindness, Harris’ life has been scarred by trauma. RP stole her vision 33 years ago and now is taking her two sons’ sight. One also is battling prostate cancer and depression.
For the first time, Harris said, she was asking, “Where is God?”
“Why after we fix one problem after another and don’t fall because you help us, why is there another one after another one?” she asked KFI Jesus.
He listened and encouraged, and when the show went to commercial for a half-hour news update, KFI Jesus put Harris on hold. Saavedra picked up the line off air.
“I hate hearing what has happened to you, and I hate hearing what has happened to your family,” Saavedra said before slipping back into character and reminding his disciple that God doesn’t guarantee life will be easy. “You’ve trusted me for many years. I need you to keep doing that.”
Then Saavedra prayed with her and hung up.
“It was very, very, very important what he did,” Harris said later. “It was touching. It was real. It was driven by God’s hand.”
Driven, yes, but not divine, said the Rev. Thomas Rausch, professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University.
“There is a good principle in Christian theology that revelation comes to an end with the death of the last Apostle,” he said. “Therefore, someone who claims to be speaking the words of Jesus is doing it by his own light and inspiration, but that is not the same thing as divine inspiration.”
Despite the faith some of his listeners have in him, Saavedra is aware that his message is like any other sincere minister: It’s an informed opinion.
In arguing that the Bible must be the written word of God, he belies any pretense that man, even extraordinary men, can be a surrogate for his Heavenly Father.
“Elijah was suicidal; Isaiah preached naked. These are not perfect people. Job went bankrupt; John the Baptist ate bugs. It wasn’t about perfection. It wasn’t about them not having any flaws. It was about God using them, seeing in them the passion and intensity for the word of God,” KFI Jesus told his audience.
“My producer, Neil Saavedra, loves me – no doubt about it. But is he the person you should follow or use as a standard? Oh please, heavens no. A work in progress, like anyone else.”
Dec. 3, 2006
Brad A. Greenberg