If I Were A Street Corner Evangelist

One day I was sitting in a coffee shop downtown when I noticed a couple of street corner evangelists setting up shop across the street—an older and a younger man (possibly his son?), wearing dark suits and ties and wielding King James Version bibles. They commenced taking turns preaching the gospel, as they understood it, at full volume. No surprises here—basically it was “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”

The unanimous response of passersby was to ignore them and walk by as quickly as possible.

A bit later, while crossing the street, I overheard a young skeptic engaging these two in a no-holds-barred theological conflict, and I must admit I secretly cheered for the young man who was challenging their fundamentalist assertions—“Way to go dude! Sock ‘em with some good strong rational arguments!” Like most folks, I daresay, I wished that these two bothersome characters would stop disturbing the peace and clear out. Yes, I confess it—I looked down upon them with an air of theological condescension and intellectual superiority.

A month or so later I was listening to a radio program in which the narrator was describing a conversation he had had with two evangelists. These two evangelists asked him if he remembered a concluding scene in the movie “Schindler’s List” in which the main character Schindler is among all the Jews he has saved from the Nazis, and he is experiencing heartbreaking remorse because he could have saved even more Jews if he had sold his watch or his car or other luxurious amenities—but he didn’t do that and he is breaking down in tears, asking himself why he didn’t do more to save more Jews. Of course the Jews in the scene are profoundly grateful to Schindler for having saved them when no one else would come to their aid, but Schindler is overcome with remorse. The two evangelists told the narrator that they saw their predicament in the same light, and they knew that at the end of their lives, if they hadn’t done everything they could to save as many souls as possible, they would be asking themselves why they had taken that day off, why they had indulged in some pleasure or pastime when they could have saved someone’s immortal soul from eternal damnation.

Upon hearing this on the radio I saw the two street corner preachers in a new light. They hadn’t been hanging out haranguing passersby just to be irritating. They were doing this because they cared, and they were doing what they honestly believed was the most important thing they could be doing on that sunny Saturday afternoon when most other folks were out shopping or strolling in the park or watching football games. They were out there on the street corner, enduring the scorn and rejection of practically everyone in the hopes that they might save at least one soul. And realizing this, I felt chastened. I may not agree with their belief system or their techniques for spreading their faith, but those two were out there trying to do what they honestly felt called to do. Give them credit for that.

And I had to ask myself, “Why am I not doing something like this myself? Don’t I take my own religion seriously enough to want to share its message with others?” And so I began to imagine how I would go about being a street corner Unitarian Universalist evangelist. (I know that in our times, when there are mega-churches who harness the full potential of modern technology and business strategies, delivering their messages on videocasts on cellphones and over the internet through blogs and podcasts, that the idea of a street corner evangelist is rather quaint, but humor me here.)

First, I make a sign that folks can read before they pass next to me. It says: “I not only honor and affirm, but celebrate, your right to ignore me since I am sharing my religious views. However, if you are interested in hearing about a religion that honors reason, science and is open to the wisdom of many religious traditions and other sources, let’s chat.”

In other words, I think that street corner evangelists who shout and accost people are not only displaying poor marketing skills but disrespect for people’s right to freely chose whether to listen or not. On the other hand, I must confess that we Unitarian Universalists, overly conscientious about not forcing our religious views on others, go too far in the other direction and “hide our light under a bushel.” Which is to say that most people don’t even know we exist. On a number of occasions I have had to personally face the frustration and anger of newcomers who have said, “I’ve been looking for something like Unitarian Universalism for years. Why the heck didn’t you make your presence known?” To which I respond, defensively, “Well, it’s not my fault. Well, OK, it’s partly my fault for not advocating for more outreach. I guess we don’t do a very good job of this.”

But I am rectifying this situation, at least in my imagination, because there I am, out there on the street, sharing my UU faith with any passerby who freely chooses to stop and chat. And what exactly is this faith I share? Well, um, now we come to the tricky part. Recently I heard another UU minister describe a workshop he was at with other prominent UU ministers and the leader of the workshop--some big shot mega-church founder—asked all of them: “What is your saving message—what is the saving message of Unitarian Universalism?” The room was silent. No one could answer on the spot. I don’t fault those ministers for not responding because we just don’t do sound byte theology that well, and I’d say that in some ways, this is to our credit.

Furthermore, I have some difficulties with the way that question - “What is your saving message?” is framed. Earlier I mentioned the two evangelists who, in their efforts to save people’s immortal souls, felt like Oscar Schindler trying to save Jews from the Nazis. Well, think about the theological implications of that analogy. Doesn’t it make God come off looking like a big nazi in the sky who sends the impure, unacceptable types down to the concentration camp of hell—eternal Auschwitzs and Treblinkas where there is not even the promise of the release through death? Yikes!

Traditionally, in our movement - especially the Universalist half –we don’t do eternal damnation, and I couldn’t be prouder about that. And yet, personally, I do believe in hell—not eternal hell, but hell nonetheless. I’ve seen too many people down there or headed down that way not to believe in it. I’ve even drifted down to where I could feel the heat and smell some sulfur fumes myself. Now I’m not talking about hell in the afterlife but in this life.

Most major religious traditions have some notions of a hell, and I have too much respect for their combined wisdom simply to toss the whole concept overboard as worthless, fear based poppycock. Surely the various myths of hell contain a dose of spiritual and psychological truth, and think it’s especially important to pay attention to this. They shed light on how our personal choices in life are important, for they lead us down certain paths. So I don’t think we should merely say “to hell with hell” and throw the entire concept overboard. It can be a good reminder to us that if you take the wrong fork in the road often enough, over and over again - if you make dumb or selfish or cruel or fearful choices repeatedly, that you will end up in hell—the hell of total isolation and estrangement, the hell of fear and anger and hatred and selfish preoccupation. How we choose to think and feel and live and act does have profound implications for each one of us, good or ill.

Then, too, the other side of this coin is that people who consistently take the wrong fork in the road create living hells for other people—exploiting, abusing, demeaning, and oppressing them. So, the message here is that God may not send us to hell for an eternity for not accepting some arbitrary theological creed, but we certainly can create hells for ourselves and others by the lives we choose to create—so be aware of how you live, think, act and feel. I think that is one of the essential purposes of Unitarian Universalism—to create communities where we can remind one another to make wise, compassionate choices in our lives and not create hells for ourselves or for others, and to challenge those who do create hells on earth—hells of violence, of social, sexual, racial and economic oppression.

Speaking of salvation, Jesus and a host of other spiritual luminaries have weighed in on the subject with some counterintuitive and paradoxical wisdom. In a nutshell, it is this: “Don’t focus on saving yourself (however you may conceive salvation, and there are many ways people seek to save their own skins, either in this world or the next). Focus on serving, saving, helping others. For if you try to save yourself, you lose yourself, yet if you seek to save others, you save both the other and yourself.”

Why is this so? If you are only thinking of yourself you will fall into the trap of the mindset of selfishness, which deludes you into thinking you are the most important thing in the whole universe. It’s idolatry—the worship of a false god, namely oneself. And this worship of self above all else sustains an illusion of separateness, the idea that we’re isolated beings. And feeling isolated, we are cut off from the rest of life—out there on our own, having to fend for ourselves. But when we seek to save others—with our love and our compassion we become aware of our connectedness to the larger whole. Or, as Malvina Reynolds puts it in the Song “The Magic Penny:” “Love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away. Love is something if you give it away. You end up having more.”

But let’s not forget, I’m a street corner UU evangelist and although I can’t shrink this down into sound byte theology, I do have to distill my thinking into some essence because the passerby who does stop to chat doesn’t have all day. So I say this to an interested person: We (Unitarian Universalists) affirm that every person (that means you) have an inherent worth and dignity—and each one of us is called to see that sacred worth in others—especially those who are the most vulnerable and neglected. We are called to ground ourselves in boundless compassion for all beings, for all things. We’re all in this together, part of one interdependent web of existence.”

Seeking a bit more information this person asks me: “Do you believe in God?” In response I begin with a quote from Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe who said: “We do not want churches because they will teach us to quarrel about God as the Catholics and Protestants do. We do not want to learn that. We may quarrel with people sometimes about things on this earth. But we never quarrel about God. We do not want to learn that.” And then I go on to explain that Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal religious movement dedicated to spiritual freedom. We do not seek to achieve uniformity of belief because good and honest people have had different life experiences, different ways of conceptualizing and arrive at different understandings of the ultimate reality. Each one of us embraces beliefs that ring true for us—for many, that includes belief in a sacred dimension of existence we may call God or some other name, and others among us do not find such concepts meaningful in their lives. I tell those who ask that this word has deep meaning for me, personally, but I do not argue about this or insist that others embrace my views, for we realize that theological coercion always betrays the ideals it seeks to uphold. So we do not argue about God (unless we forget who we are), but we certainly discuss this and many important matters concerning life—how we are called to live it and death—how we can face it.

Some passersby do not have much interest in me and walk on by. Some look at me with disdain and incredulity—they seem to be thinking “and what kind of religious nut do we have here?” Yet I endure this, remembering how the fear of scorn and ridicule has inhibited me too often in the past—and I remember that I am standing out here testifying to something that has deep meaning for me and am pleased to see how little the scorn of the casual passerby affects me after all. But a surprising number of people stop to chat. There are more yearning, questing souls in the general population than I had thought, and some others who are facing great pain and sorrow and will turn to anyone who might have some answers. I tell them, in so many words, what I have told you this morning, and I add these thoughts: “It is important that there be communities where people come together to think and feel deeply about the ultimate meaning and purpose of life and that our unique faith community is a place where many people—people who may not think they fit into organized religion at all—can find a spiritual home—a place where the yearning for truth, compassion and courage to confront the injustices of the world is honored, affirmed and nurtured. Without such a community as ours there is much good that will not happen in our world—both the blessings we experience and the blessings we bestow would not come to pass.

Now I confess I will probably never stand out on a street corner to be a UU evangelist—but who knows? Just like the two evangelists who were haunted by the scene in that movie “Schindler’s List” and worried about not saving enough people, I worry, too - not about saving people’s immortal souls, but about saving them in this life—saving them from loneliness, despair, alienation, feelings of worthlessness, from perpetual states of hatred and anger and fear, from addictions, poverty, injustice. And I must ask myself, what is my role here? Would telling more people about my faith tradition—inviting them to join and be part of our community—make a significant difference in the lives of those who are lost? Could this bring more hope and compassion into their world? Yes, I believe in many cases it would. The thought that I might be missing such opportunities to share something I cherish, something that makes a positive difference in the lives of so many haunts me—and I think it should.