“So, you go to seminary school. What’s that all about?”
There it was, the opening I had been seeking for months. Handed to me out of nowhere while I did the dishes at the restaurant sink. I blinked, then stammered, and went for it.
While in college, I had gotten a job as a delivery driver for a local branch of Jimmy Johns, the sandwich shop chain that prides itself on “freaky fast” delivery. I didn’t know how much of a cross-cultural experience I was in for. Because the area of our restaurant was full of hip bars and nightclubs, I worked mainly the nightshift, delivering sandwiches to famished partiers at the bar or those having just returned home, as long as they didn’t pass out before I made it to them. There were many quiet hospital staff deliveries as well, but also the runs where inebriated twenty-somethings requested that I toss the sandwich through their second story window and they throw the cash down. They were too drunk to make it down the stairs. My manager kept our shop temperature at near-freezing to deal with the recurring problem of the intoxicated coming in to buy a sandwich and falling asleep at one of our tables. The freezing temperature trick was actually quite effective. But I, as the only Christian working in that restaurant, did not feel very effective.
My American coworkers were all unchurched or post-Christian, most were drug users, some were alcoholics, others were LGBTQ or living with their partner. On more than one occasion, coworkers were arrested for drug possession. I, on the other hand, was a missionary kid who grew up in Melanesia, spent time in the Middle East, and was now going to the undergrad of a Southern Baptist seminary. I hung out with refugees and believers from many cultures, but I had the hardest time knowing how to connect with the younger, unchurched crowd from my “own” culture. There were many times I wished for my dad’s counsel, who had passed away many years before. He had grown up an unchurched American, was radically saved, yet never forgot how to connect with the partiers for the sake of the gospel. When I hung out with internationals, bridges to spiritual conversation seemed to overflow like the facial hair of an Assyrian monarch on an ancient stone relief. But when the topics of conversations were about parties, sleeping around, slasher movies, and hiphop artists I had never heard of, I just found myself at a loss.
Discouraged, I returned to the kinds of prayers I had lifed up many times in settings where I was insecure in my identity and didn’t know how to get to gospel conversation.
Lord, you know I want to share the gospel with my coworkers. But, I just don’t know how. I don’t know how to find a door in the conversation. But if you make one, I will step through it. I could force one, but somehow that doesn’t feel right. Would you turn the conversation? Would you help me?
I can’t remember how many times I prayed this prayer while I did the dishes, mopped the bathroom floor, or returned from another 3 a.m delivery in my beat up ’95 Honda Civic. How could I share the gospel with Middle Eastern Muslims and yet be so clueless when it came to people my own age in my own country? I kept on praying, tried to work hard, reported all my tips (much to the confusion of my supervisors), and tried to listen well. Sooner or later a door would open.
Then late one night, a slower shift than usual as I recall, a kind lesbian coworker asked me about seminary school. God had opened the door. I don’t remember much of the conversation that followed, but I know that I got a chance to speak of my faith in Jesus and my motivations for studying the Bible. My coworker must have spread the news of our strange conversation around, because it wasn’t long until some kind of switch flipped and all my coworkers started asking not only about seminary, but also about why I didn’t under-report my tips, and (scandalous!) why I was waiting until marriage to sleep with my fiancée. This final topic evoked quite a bit of interest, not unlike a team of anthropologists encountering a member of an unknown tribe for the very first time.
God had graciously opened the door, and then he kept on opening it. I got to share the gospel many times with my coworkers. They wanted to know what the Bible really said about being gay and about drugs and they even wanted to know about my experiences sharing the gospel in the Middle East. Coworkers started talking amongst themselves about their beliefs and their upbringings, even when I wasn’t involved in the conversation. They started joking that my presence alone caused everyone to start talking on cue about God and Jesus, “like some kind of #!@/ reverend of Jimmy Johns!” Through these conversations and friendships that developed we even got to set up a meeting between my pastors and a local chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance where we were able to share extensive gospel truth.
Truth be told, I don’t know if any of my coworkers have come to faith from that strange season of sandwich delivery. My hope is that some of the seeds planted will one day sprout to life. I don’t even know that I learned much about how to connect well with my unchurched American peers. But I saw yet again how gracious God is to us when we approach him as needy evangelists, full of desire and yet just not sure how to share the gospel effectively. I still find myself often praying that prayer, most recently while meeting with a local teacher in the middle of the month of Ramadan, as we sat together in a shady green garden. He wanted to talk about politics and culture. Somehow the conversation spiraled in to rich gospel content. Just like Jimmy Johns, God had done it again.
Lord, if you will turn the conversation, if you will open the door, I will step through it...
p.s. If anyone living in areas with a strong bar scene wants to start up an evangelistic ministry, there is a great opportunity to be had once the bars close early in the morning. People are hungry, lonely, need caffeine, and want someone to talk to. I’ve heard of this kind of outreach happening in N. Ireland, where booths are set up to offer tea, coffee, food, and conversation, but not heard of anything like this yet in other countries. Once the ‘Rona dies down, could be a promising field for ministry. I’ve never felt so alone as a believer as I did in the middle of the night in the bar district. So many needy people, yet all the faithful were asleep.