No, that is not the first line of a clever joke. That was how I started my morning today. Let me explain…
Last week I was going about my business in the downtown of Harrisonburg, VA, the city where I live, and I was approached by a well-dressed man who was standing on the sidewalk. We engaged in small talk for a while, and honestly, I really liked the guy. I’m new to the city, so anyone to talk with who’s from the area is good to me. At some point in the conversation, I asked him why he was just standing on the sidewalk, “Are you the sidewalk man?” He laughed and told me that he was promoting a Bible study in the area, for the local Jehovah’s Witness group, and asked if he could give me some literature.
Now, let’s zoom out for a moment. I studied new religious movements in my undergraduate program, including a good week spent on the Jehovah’s Witness movement. I’m quite familiar with their teachings, what makes them different from other Christian groups, and their founding story. I’m also familiar with being proselytized to. My wife says that I have a friendly face, so people feel comfortable talking with me. As it just so happens, as a student of new religious movements and world religions, I’m always happy to talk with a Hare Krishna, or a Mormon, or a Jehovah’s Witness who approach me. So this kind of scenario is not unusual to me.
But this time there was just something different. Generally, street evangelists ask a single question and then go straight into the proselytizing. For example, several years ago I was approached by a Hare Krishna, that same day I happened to be wearing a tye-dye shirt. He approached me and said, “I like your hippie shirt, can I offer you some literature on the Hare Krishnas?” I thanked him and took the book he offered me, going on with my day. The next week he approached me again… with the same opening line. Needless to say, I was not impressed.
But this time, I genuinely liked the gentleman I was talking to. He seemed like the kind of guy who I would like to get coffee with, and so at the end of our conversation, I asked if he’d like to get coffee sometime.
Fast forward to this morning: I’m sitting at a local coffee shop with my friend (who I’ll call George to preserve his privacy) and discussing the Bible. Unlike being proselytized to, this is not a situation I find myself in often. I haven’t discussed the Bible genuinely in a public place since high school. I find myself a bit uncomfortable at first, feeling stares around the coffee shop that probably aren’t really here. But eventually, his congeniality and genuine love for his faith make me feel quite comfortable.
This isn’t an article about how I converted to the Jehovah’s Witness church. It is an article about how I found commonality with a man, and – in fact – a group of people, that I never thought I would. After coffee, he took me to the local Kingdom Hall and introduced me to some of the people there. Every single person I met was incredibly kind and welcomed me despite my beliefs.
At the end of our morning together, he invited me to do a regular Bible study with him, to examine what he called the ‘evidence’ for the divine inspiration of the Bible. In a spirit of genuine curiosity, and interest in his passionate faith, I agreed to join him for coffee weekly, and examine his Biblical proofs.
So what started as a bit of a lark, ended in a genuine friendship, and an interesting adventure for my agnostic mind. Updates will follow as we continue to meet. Hopefully, my experiences can help others to feel more comfortable around members of other religions, or at least have an interesting weekly read. Follow my blog to get regular updates, and see what else I’m up to.