Over the July Fourth weekend I was at the side counter in the Montgomery Post Office sorting my mail while a business owner of my acquaintance – I’ll call her Debbie – was chatting with the postmistress at the main counter. Debbie was telling a story that included New Rochelle, a town just north of New York City.
So, I interjected, “I used to work in New Rochelle.”
“Where at?” She asked.
“I was pastoring St. Simon’s Episcopal Church,” I replied.
“Oh, really?” She said.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s a totally black and Caribbean congregation.”
“Oh, that’s totally cool,” Debbie said. “Was it like gospel, that great gospel music?” She asked. And right there she did a little jive dance as she exclaimed, “I just love the spirit of gospel music, people singing with their bodies!”
“Well, no,” I said, “this congregation was mostly Caribbean, so they were very reserved Caribbean Anglicans – quite high-church, actually, with incense and bells.”
“Oh, too bad,” Debbie replied.
“No, I loved it,” I said, “but speaking of church, here’s a card from St. Matthew’s – your invitation to church,” and I handed her a card from my wallet.
“Oh, I’m totally not religious,” Debbie retorted, “I don’t have anything to do with religion.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “Keep the card.”
“Sure,” she said as she slipped it into her envelope of mail.
“I believe in karma,” Debbie said as we exited the post office.
“Karma is a very religious concept,” I said. “It’s very important to Hindus.”
“I mean, I’m a good person, I try to be kind to people,” Debbie continued. “That’s what’s really important. I know a lot of people who try to be good. And then I know people who are into religion and don’t seem to care about being good – they mess up a lot.”
“We all do,” I said.
“Yeah, of course,” Debbie said. “But what really burns me are the Catholics. That business of having to go and do – what is it?”
“Do you mean confession?” I suggested.
“Yes, confession, that business of having to go to a priest and say what you’ve done wrong.” Here Debbie went off on a rant about the Roman Catholic Church. The conversation had run its course.
“Well, Debbie,” I said in a concluding sort of way, “God loves you.”
“I don’t think there’s anything out there,” Debbie said, “but if there’s something or someone out there, I think they’ll let me in, along with a lot of other people I know.”
And with that we took leave of one another.
Some reflections on this conversation:
- Mentioning the congregation in New Rochelle provided an opening to graze over the territory of faith, religion and church.
- Gospel music touches Debbie and attracts her. That’s something to build on.
- Following up with the parish card from St. Matthew’s in Enosburg Falls prompted a negative declaration, but it led into a wider-ranging conversation. My overall interest in our talk was neither church nor religion, but faith. The conversation hovered around the edges of Debbie’s faith and didn’t really get into mine. I was a sounding board, which was okay.
- Debbie is attracted to the concept of karma, by which she seems to understand that good deeds will lead to beneficial rewards in this life or in some kind of next life. So that’s yet another religious instinct in this professedly non-religious person – another thing to build on.
- Debbie’s approach to life is moralistic and maybe even a bit self-righteous. But she has strong values, which is good.
- Even as Debbie is skeptical about the concept of God, it turns out that her skepticism is provisional: she thinks that if God is out there, maybe God will accept her. That’s another thought that might be fruitful in the future.
- There was little to be gained in arguing theologically with Debbie – whether God exists or not, and so on. “God loves you,” seemed a good conclusion, not to sum up the conversation, but to offer something for her to take away with her – yes, a cliché, but also a profound truth.
I see Debbie around town frequently. I don’t know whether the seeds of this conversation fell on fertile or rocky ground, and I don’t know whether there will be opportunity some time to follow up. That’s not the point. Evangelism is simply bearing witness, sowing seeds. Let God do the rest.
Priest-in-partnership at St. Matthew’s in Enosburg Falls, Titus Presler is convener of Green Mountain Witness, the evangelism initiative of The Episcopal Church in Vermont.