Awhile back I was enjoying a quiet Saturday morning at home. It was in that lull between the Christmas and New Year holidays when the world seems to slow down a bit and free time is a little easier to come by. And then the doorbell rang.
We don’t get many unexpected visitors at our front door. We live in an older neighborhood with larger than average yards, so there is less neighbor interaction than in other areas. Most of our front door traffic is friends and relatives, but we were not expecting anyone this particular morning.
I looked through the peephole and made a guess: The nicely attired middle-aged woman and the young man who looked to be her high school-aged son were strangers. The political campaign season was over (thank goodness!) so it wasn’t someone wanting to talk about my State Representative or my City Councilman. And every environmental activist who has come to my door has been an earnest young person dressed in jeans.
I opened the door. “Are you concerned about the state of the world today?” Yes, we had some Jehovah’s Witnesses coming to talk to us. And I couldn’t have been more delighted.
My reaction is very likely not the reaction of most people. Most of my relatives and friends will dash off a quick “not interested” and close the door. I understand their reluctance to discuss their faith. But I come at this a different way.
I don’t blame most of my fellow Catholics for their unwillingness to engage with a door-to-door evangelist for what is (to them) a strange and exotic faith.
The problem is, in my view, that most of them can’t. Just like most people can’t explain the basic process that starts with the turn of an ignition key (or the push of a button) and results in a running automobile engine. I don’t suggest that everyone needs to be able to tear the family car apart and put it back together again, but we should at least have some basic understanding of how it works. Of course, this is not such a big deal with your car, with mechanics in every city and town who are happy to relive us of these burdens. But when your eternal state is involved, it would seem that there is more of a reason to take an interest.
My goal in these encounters is to raise questions that those schooled in their tradition have difficulty answering. The Witnesses, for example, rely completely on scripture (although it is a unique translation not shared with any other part of Christianity). I like to ask what people did in the first generation before many of the books of the New Testament were even written and for the first three hundred years or so before there was widespread agreement about what was and what was not part of scripture.
Perhaps five minutes into our discussion something fun happened. My oldest son was visiting and walked up behind me. Many of you know that he is a student brother with the Dominican order (the Order of Preachers) and as luck would have it he was still in his white habit after returning from morning Mass. He seemed interested in the discussion and I, having taken a break from some chores, found a way to excuse myself and let the conversation continue without me.
“HeeHee” was my first thought, “I’ll bet they didn’t expect to run into someone with some actual theological training.” But as I overheard their conversation progress, my attitude changed. Instead of experiencing something like the glee of LeBron James subbing into my pickup basketball game, I experienced something else.
What I heard in a conversation (that continued for at least thirty minutes) was people listening to one another. My son later told me that he was not well versed in the Witnesses’ beliefs and was interested in having them explained. At the same time our visitors were open to hearing his answers to things they did not understand about the Catholic faith. To be sure, neither of the two sides was going to convert on my front porch, but I concluded that this wasn’t the point.
My son was much more open to listening to what the Witnesses had to say than I was. Where I was listening only as a way to find an appropriate rejoinder (perhaps an occupational hazard for an attorney) he was listening to learn. And our visitors were listening as well, taking the opportunity to hear some things explained in a way they were not used to hearing.
This experience made me think that evangelization isn’t about winning an argument or being right, but about making a human connection and using it as a foundation for the discussion of important ideas.
I find it interesting that so many of us have no hesitation jumping into a discussion of politics or sports while we shy away from discussing our faith beliefs. Perhaps this is because we (my fellow Catholics in particular) seem to know so much more about these other topics. This is crucial stuff which we all ought to know better than we do.
In fact, I have no little admiration of the Witnesses (and the Mormons) who take the effort to know what they believe and to endure a lot of very unpleasant cold-calling in an attempt to share it. I consider their theologies to be both incomplete and flawed on many levels, but this does not lessen my respect for their zeal for their eternal well-being – and for mine.
This does not, however, take away from the other important thing: that knowledge does little good if we are not willing to engage in a charitable discussion with those who may think we are wrong about some things.
So all in all it was a successful morning. My son learned something about Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Witnesses learned something about Catholicism and I learned something about grace and humility. All of us finished that morning richer than when we began it.