Evangelization: a study in conflict

Last Saturday, the boys and I went ice skating at the Sculpture Garden. While the Zamboni was doing its thang, a young couple -- we'll call them Tim and Leia -- came over to me and asked if I would take a picture of them with my camera and email it later, as they had forgotten theirs.

Of course, I said, and snapped a quick pic. We got to talking. They were friendly and warm. After some chit-chat, I bid them goodbye and headed back to the boys. Behind me, I heard Tim call out, "Thanks! And God bless."

At the time, I remember thinking how unusual it was for me to hear peers end a conversation with 'God bless.' I typically associate it with older folks -- namely, relatives from predominantly Catholic South Philly neighborhoods -- who use it more as a talisman, rather than a benediction. Either way, I simply considered it interesting, and went back to skating.

The next day, I sent the picture with a basic "hey, nice to meet you, take care" email. Here are the responses I received:

From Tim:
Thank you so very much for actually sending the picture and following up. It is nice to be able to capture that night as we had forgotten our cameras. It turned out really well and is greatly appreciated.

Again, welcome to DC. You will definitely enjoy everything that it has to offer!

I wanted to share that if you guys are ever looking for a good church in this area that you are more than welcome to join Leia and I. It is called McLean Bible Church and it is out near Tysons Corner. I have attached the link if you want to take a look.

Thank you again! Only the best for the upcoming year.

From Leia:
Thank you so much for the picture! That was very thoughtful. I hope we can meet up and thank you in person!

Not to overwhelm you, but I wanted to add to Tim's suggestion... Being that you moved here recently, our church is a great place to meet a very diverse group of like-minded people to build life-changing relationships with. McLean Bible is a non-denominational church based solely on the Bible as the written Word of God. Our pastors share stories in the Bible and apply it to your everyday life. It is powerful ...

So Julia, we would love to meet you at church sometime. I hope you have a blessed New Year!

Whoa there. Never in a million years did I expect a tiny favor to turn into full-blown proselytizing, especially since I had not even mentioned religion. What surprised me most, however, was my own mixed reaction.

On one hand, I was impressed they felt so strongly about their faith that they were eager to share it with anyone who seemed even the least bit amenable. Their outreach seemed sincere, and I appreciated they were thinking of me and wanted to make me feel welcome.

On the other hand, I was offended. What gave them the right to insert themselves so strongly in my personal life, and on such a nonexistant pretext? Talk about ballsy. They knew nothing about my spiritual life or beliefs. A very large part of me wanted to write back and explain that thanks, but I was a happily practicing Catholic-Christian, just to see if they would appease them -- because I had a feeling that even being a fellow Christian wasn't going to be enough -- not if I wasn't their kind of Christian.

And on the third hand that doesn't really exist but I need for purposes of framing, I was conflicted. I have never felt comfortable promoting my faith to others. Sharing it, explaining it, inviting others who practice the same to join in -- yes, that I do. But full-out ministry with intent to convert? No.

Moreover, I don't WANT everybody to be Christian. I don't think it's the only way to find joy on earth. In my view, God is infinitely personal; He/She meets hearts where they are. And I love living in an ecumenical society where people share their diverse experiences and interpretations of faith, because that helps my own spiritual growth.

This all leads to one critical question: If I don't think Christ is the only way to salvation, but it's how I choose to connect with God, am I still a Christian?

I say yes. I think, however, that Tim and Leia might say no. That bothers me. Because I think limiting our understanding of God to one manifestation -- and insisting others are only "saved" if they share that particular understanding -- is presumptuous.

We are mortals. We are flawed. And to claim we know the only way ... I just can't do that in good faith.

Believe me, it's a weird experience to have other Christians tell you you're not Christian enough. I have sat as the only Catholic-Christian in a multi-denominational Christian Bible study and felt open hostility because I did not agree with everything that was being said. I don't want to do that to others. I can't see how that's productive.

What I DO want to do is help others find a greater purpose and meaning. I want them to feel comfortable, loved, deepened. I want them to experience faith in a way that resonates for them. And if that way isn't Christ ... can I still say I evangelized?

I say yes to this too. Though, I'm sure there are plenty of folks who will disagree with me. And plenty who will agree. So, I want to hear from all of you. What is your experience with evangelization? Do you practice it? Have you been on the receiving end?

I'd love to hear other religions' perspectives on this as well. Is evangelization a strong component of Judaism and Islam? How is it perceived/received by others? How is Christan evangelization perceived by non-Christians?

One more thing before we go ... my questions are hardly new or original. The conflict in my heart echoes across time and geography. One blog post barely addresses it, let alone solves it. So let me instead leave you with food for thought from Eboo Patel, the founder and director of Interfaith Youth Core, and we'll keep this conversation going:

Faith is the belief that your job as a human being is to move creation in line with the intention of the Creator. And I believe the Creator intends for us, as the holy Qur'an says, to come together in ways in which we come to know one another.

Photo by Svadilfari