“I’m an atheist. My girlfriend is a Christian. And we can’t even talk about religion without her bursting into tears. Can you help?”
This man was not looking for a prayer, and his request required more than a brief conversation on the street. So he made an appointment and came to see me in the office. The story he shared about himself and his girlfriend ended up being a familiar fact pattern. One I knew well because I had been that girlfriend. Brought up Southern Baptist. Always taught I had to marry a Christian so as not to be “unequally yoked.” (2 Cor. 6:14). Started dating a guy in college who had been raised Catholic but identified as agnostic. Felt torn about dating him, attacked when he asked questions about my faith beliefs, intolerant of even listening to his, and ultimately sad and fearful that he would end up hell. Hence, I would burst into tears too. Not so ironically, my boyfriend became even more resistant to Christianity. My attempts to convert him didn’t help either.
My behavior was immature, yet my pain and fear were very real. They stemmed from a heartfelt theological belief that only Christians go to heaven. I’ve long since abandoned that belief, but back then I clung to it. I couldn’t even entertain a thought that challenged it.
So when this man I met on the street sat in my office and described his situation, I realized what he needed most was to feel heard. He didn’t feel heard by his girlfriend, just as my boyfriend hadn’t felt heard by me. So this time I listened, and I listened deeply.
It turned out this guy wasn’t as much of an atheist as he thought. While he didn’t speak explicitly in spiritual terms, he talked about healing, personal transformation, and what I identified as the movement of God in his life. I answered his questions about Jesus and church history. We discussed differences among Christian denominations. He said he wanted to come to Bible study. While he never made it to that, he did come to church a few times.
As for that college boyfriend, I married him. We both have deep and meaningful relationships with Jesus and a Christ-centered marriage, in large part because of the Episcopal Church. This could only happen after I let go of my distress over his salvation and honored where he was on his spiritual journey.
The desire to evangelize is still with me, with much thanks to the faith tradition of my childhood and the importance it places on Christian witness. My emphasis is less on conversion, however, and more in line with the mission of Canterbury Cathedral, the mother church of the Anglican Communion. And that, quite simply, is "to show people Jesus." Confess him with a quiet confidence in his love, proclaim the goodness of his grace all around us, and trust that one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Phil. 2:11).