I have a “West Michigan Nice” method for dismissing street petitioners, and it is lying. If we make eye contact, they’re usually calling out the tagline of their cause, so I’ll fake a look of recognition from afar and say, “Oh nice yeah, I’ve already signed!” I think it’s the most efficient way to be left alone on good terms without having to stop and feign attention to their pitch or pretend I’m from another state.
So when a man approached me in the mall food court and sheepishly asked if I had a few minutes to talk about Jesus, I reflexively smiled and said, “Oh, I’m already a Christian!” before realizing I wasn’t completely lying this time. He still sat down in the booth.
My smile opened to a laugh as I felt him give up the script. He laughed too and began to tell me about himself. He’d moved to Detroit from Seoul just a year ago, and it was hard for either of us to understand the other, so we mostly stared on each other’s lips, asking general questions and trying to glean what we could. We both nodded fast when anything caught on. He works as some kind of engineer but evangelizes in public spaces on weekends “because it’s what I believe.” I have no idea how he would have started with me if I hadn’t self-identified similarly.
It took me a while to explain exactly how it was possible that I studied a technical field like him, but at a Christian college that wasn’t a seminary. My explanation included a half-assed intro to a Reformed worldview: God’s love and ownership is complete, so we learn how to do “good work” outside of being a pastor.
He was in the area for some Christian conference, and was looking forward to “getting fired up” again so that he could bring more people to faith. As I listened, he re-enacted some conversations with family, friends, and colleagues. It became obvious from his tone that they found him overzealous, and didn’t enjoy him taking so much time away from them to come and do this. But he said he knows “Jesus comes first.” I guess this was what that looked like.
In different forms and phases, I’ve been cynical about evangelism my whole life. Partly, this has been fueled by my stereotypical impression of Evangelicals, who I imagine too often leading with baseless conversion motivated by fear, and chalk resistance up to martyrdom. (If any belief system’s first focus is self-replicating, it sounds more like a virus.)
But I also have a more sincere curiosity for the level of confidence inherent to evangelism. Besides big questions about a binary afterlife, a higher heavenly power that’s also a person, or a bodily resurrection, I want to hear what everything except Christianity gets wrong. Because I’ll never be able to see this faith from the outside. I’ve been conditioned to its comforts, and I’m thankful for how I was raised. So I sincerely ask “why?” to anyone who has seen Christianity as alien and selected it still. So far, no one’s told me they learned to love Jesus in a food court.
I didn’t tell this guy any of this. If I did, he probably wouldn’t have asked me to pray for him, or then laughed at the irony of that request. We held hands across the table, crunching my empty styrofoam takeout box underneath our elbows. I collected names so I could talk to God about the people in his life as if I knew them.
As soon as we closed our eyes, I compulsively slipped into Christianese: his son’s college decisions became “discerning Your path for his life.” His tense marriage became “relationships that might better reflect Your love.” Even my skepticism surrounding his weekend warrior evangelical practice came out backhanded as “Lord, give wisdom to the words of his mouth.” Words of his mouth? Did I think there’s some other word-producing body part?
I honestly don’t know if I was being authentic or just repeating how I’d learned to speak and act in these situations. Was I being manipulative by playing youth pastor to a tired evangelist? Was I just trying to keep the interaction easy by falsely signaling we were on the same team? Was I being more sincere that I would like to admit?
He eventually said goodbye, maybe even to go approach someone else. As I left the booth soon after, a woman behind me poked her lo mein and flashed me a knowing “yikes” face. I didn’t know what to do except reflexively return it.