Ed Smith recounts a terrified attempt at evangelizing an especially coarse member of his roofing crew.
It’s an unfortunate reality that the Bible we actually have isn’t the Bible we’d like to have. I think we all have some parts we’d like to edit just a bit. If I could change anything, it would either be the conquest narrative commands to kill everyone or the last chapter of Matthew. Instead of the command to go out and make disciples of the nations, I’d like to have Jesus offer kind assurances that a life of sincere but private piety would result in wealth, happiness, and, ideally, six-pack abs. But, regrettably, we are called to share our faith with others, even though Christianity, neither at its best, or its worst, can ever be described as cool.
Perhaps my first witnessing crisis occurred on my first day of grade one, specifically at lunchtime. A prayer before the meal was an unalterable routine, but on that day, on my own, I was embarrassed, already intuiting that my peers would notice and make fun. I prayed, but silently, with eyes open and hands unfolded, head up. And that was the start of the privatization of my faith.
The division continued. I faithfully attended church, Sunday school, Awana (a club whose name is an anagram for “approved workmen are not ashamed” but which I never talked about with my non-Christian friends) while simultaneously living a secular life with my heathen friends.
However, I was able to console myself with St. Francis’ admonition to “Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary.” (What a gift to timid Christians!) And this I did (effortlessly!) since I naturally liked following rules, pleasing authority figures, and would only curse under the most justifiable of conditions (when a great joke required colourful language).
And that’s the witnessing philosophy I followed, although always uncomfortably aware that this was probably not the philosophy that Jesus would endorse. However, as I grew older, my peers also become more vocal in their criticisms of my faith, making witnessing that much more difficult.
My first job, the summer before going into grade 12, I started working for a tar and gravel roofing company. Roofers are, as a rule, a coarse lot, and my colleagues were no different. Never had I spent time with a group of people who needed salvation so much yet wanted it so little. It was quite a contrast: me the young, naïve, honour-roll-and-citizenship-award-receiving, junior high youth leader, and them, older, rough and vulgar, hard drinking and hard living men. There were, among others, Wes, the foreman, whose instructions for me could never be expressed without the liberal use of expletives; there was Louie, nicknamed Barney after the Simpson’s boozer with whom he shared several defining characteristics; and there was Ronnie, the muscular parolee who would loquaciously tell me about his drunken escapades, the violence which he wanted to perpetrate against his ex-wives, and other less savory topics. I didn’t have any desire to tell them the good news that Jesus had come to save them from their sin, since by their own accounts, sinning was their favourite pastime. So I continued working with them, and if we didn’t have too much in common personally, at least I was able to earn a grudging respect as a kid who was eager to pull his own weight on the job site.
At the time we were working on a condo at the Big White ski resort, driving about 45 minutes each way. Sometimes the drives were quiet, everyone lost in their own thoughts, sometimes coarse stories would be swapped, and sometimes Wes, Louie, and Ronnie would split a six pack of beer. Wes or Louie would be driving, and whoever had the passenger seat was tasked with ditching the empties, throwing them out the window at the passing road signs. I, invariably, would be in the back seat, praying (silently, eyes open, hands unfolded, head up). I had entered a different world.
Usually the truck would be full and so it wouldn’t matter if I were quiet. However, one sunny afternoon I rode back to town alone with Wes. We didn’t have much to say to each other and so the ride was made in awkward silence. I mentally cycled through possible conversation topics but none of my stories involved alcohol or sex, necessary components of any good roofer’s story. Wes turned on the radio. We listened in silence.
Now perhaps there had recently been a sermon on witnessing to one’s friends and colleagues, or perhaps my youth group had just finished a series on not being a lukewarm Christian, but I suddenly started wondering if God was calling me to share my faith with Wes. A Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston duet had started playing “When You Believe.” It was from the soundtrack to the film, Prince of Egypt, which told the story of Moses and the Israelite’s escape from Pharaoh. Predictably, there was great excitement in Christian circles when the film proved to be a commercial success, because it brought a Christian story into the mainstream. I could mention the song’s connection to the film and the story behind it. Wes would be intrigued and ask questions about Moses. I would tell him that it’s not just a story about God’s salvation of the Jews, but also a story about God’s character and his desire to provide salvation for the whole world. Now Wes would start to talk about the emptiness of the drinking lifestyle and the futility of life. I could then share the good news about how Jesus came that we might have life, and that abundantly. Wes would then come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and accept him as his own personal saviour, and all this because I was not ashamed to be a witness.
Except for the problem that I was ashamed. And so began an internal debate.
“Don’t be scared, just talk to him.”
“Are you crazy?! Wes does not want to become a Christian!”
“You don’t know that. God came for everyone.” Here the first verse of the song finished, and the chorus began. My opportunity was disappearing.
“God has placed you in this workplace. You are probably the only one who would share the gospel with him.”
“I don’t want to share the gospel with him.” (The second verse begins.)
“God is calling you to take this step out in faith. Are you willing to ignore him?”
“God isn’t necessarily asking me to do this.”
“But maybe this is God calling you to be a witness. And even if he’s not in this specific situation, you know that he is calling you to be a witness. You know you should share your faith and this song is your opportunity to steer the conversation that way. You might never get another chance, especially since it’s just the two of you.” (They start singing the bridge. It’s decision time.)
It's now or never. Somehow I find my voice and croak, “Have you seen the movie this song is from?”
Wes, surprised at the unexpected query, looks at me for a moment before answering.
He’s quiet for a moment, apparently reflecting on the question. He then turns to me and asks, “Have you seen American Psycho?”
“No,” I reply.
We finish the drive in silence.
Want more stories? Read "Good Medicine," in which Cheryl Bear, from Nadleh Whut’en First Nation, shows us through narrative the character and purpose of humour in her culture.
 They nicknamed me Ned Flanders.
 Ronnie, I learned years later, also became a reluctant witness of a different sort. He hired out his muscles to a gang of drug dealers, and after being caught participating in some reprehensible crimes, he testified in court against his employers in order to earn a more lenient sentence for himself.