Shanah Tovah. I’ve been on the RP’s staff since the website’s launch, but this is the first long piece I’ve written for this site. I usually stick to short blurbs in the Weekly Web Gems on Faith and Food. In order to understand my New Year’s resolution, you need to know a little about me. I’m a progressive/liberal Christian, and a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I’m a person of deep faith who tries to respect the religious views of all people, but since I’m only human, I inevitably respect some religious view more than others. Many mainline Protestants, myself included, shy away from traditional evangelism. I don’t like to push my beliefs onto others. To me, the “E” word sparks images of angry Christians clad in sandwich boards with megaphones in hand, yelling at others about their sinful ways. Telling people that they are damned is contrary to my faith convictions and theological understanding of the Holy. That being said, this past week, I irreverently used evangelism as a weapon against a con artist, and the result was both bizarre and amazing. The lesson I learned is that while I will never agree with the evangelist I meet on a street corner, there may be some value in daring to share my beliefs with others.
One day last week, a man who went by “Tom” called the office where I work, stating that one of our employees owed his company money. We quickly became aware that Tom was nothing more than a con artist working a scam. Tom began calling our office incessantly, often becoming very profane and vulgar on the phone. He eventually told us that he would not stop calling until we sent him money. For two days, the phone calls continued, which interrupted our work and tied up our phone lines. While we tried to remain professional by simply hanging up, our patience eventually waned and we began return insult with insult. Near the end of the second workday, we came to the realization that nothing we were doing was working. To no successful end, we filed a police report and tried to get the number blocked. What we needed was an immediate solution because he was driving us crazy. We were getting desperate, so I told my co-workers to let me answer the phone and try something out. Since evangelical fundamentalists tend to grate on my nerves, I decided to try out my acting skills and take-on that role in hopes that Tom would get so annoyed that he would hang up on me, and never call back. I knew it was a long shot, but since no there were no better ideas, I went with it.
The next time Tom called, I answered, and my religious irreverence went something like this (in a loud, preacher-like voice): “Hi, is this Tom? I am so glad that you called. I’m extremely worried about your soul. I worry that if you continue on your dishonest path, you are headed towards eternal damnation. I believe that your phone calls are actually a gift from God because I now have the opportunity to save a soul.”
No, I didn’t really believe in anything that I told him, and he saw right through my plan. We were now at war. Who could outlast the other? Who would hang up the phone first? I persisted on by reading him passages from the Bible, praying for him enthusiasticall and asking him to give his life to God.
About 30 minutes into my extreme evangelism, however, something happened and things got real. I told him that he was obviously a hard-working determined person, and that he should use those God-given talents for good, rather than to steal money from others. I told him that I understand that he needs to make money to meet his basic needs, but that there were other, honest ways to do so. Tom responded by telling me about his childhood—his parents died when he was young, so he’s had to do whatever he could to feed himself. He asked me if I sincerely thought he could lead a different life. He asked me if I really thought there was a God who loved him. I had not expected our conversation to take such a turn. Luckily my seminary training came in handy and I was able to transition from my mocking tone to one of pastoral counselor. Yes, no matter how much this man had angered and harrassed me and my co-workers, I believe in a God of grace and love, and Tom too was a beloved child of God. Tom and I spoke for another 30 minutes, and I shared my faith convictions with him in a real way. At the end of our conversation, Tom apologized for all the hurtful things he has said to all of us in the office. Tom also thanked me—he said that no one in his life had ever spoken to him so kindly. I have to admit that I felt some guilt since my initial purpose in answering his phone call was to use religion as a weapon to get him to stop calling. In the end, I got what I wanted. Tom hung up the phone. He didn’t hang up out of annoyance as I had originally planned. He apologized again for what he had done. I told him that I forgave him and I wished him happiness in life, then we both said goodbye. We received no more calls from Tom.
My experience with Tom was the motivation behind my New Year’s resolution. Evangelism as a weapon may be effective to annoy con artists. Embracing an evangelism based in sharing genuine faith convictions, however, may be a way to offer hope to those who need it most.