“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). Jesus’ appeal for us to share the gospel makes a lot of Presbyterians uncomfortable. Despite the fact that evangelism literally means good news in Greek, I rarely meet a Presbyterian that doesn’t have a visceral reaction to the dreaded “e-word.” Nightmares about walking door-to-door handing out tracks or asking people if they’ve been “saved” cause most Christians I know to squirm and look for the closest exit. I’m happy to have faith, but don’t make me tell others about it!
I understand the conundrum. It’s hard to be a Christian today and wrestle with when and how to talk about your faith in a global interfaith world. It’s difficult to have a conversation about your own faith without immediately bearing the weight of how the media, blogosphere, and other Christians have defined and redefined Christianity. So it’s no wonder that many Christians today don’t lead with “I’m a Christian” at a dinner party.
As a pastor, though, it comes with the territory. The minute a seatmate on an airplane asks, “So…what do you do?” you can guarantee a lengthy conversation about faith that usually involves an apologetic for why he hasn’t been to church lately, an exposition of what it means to be “spiritual but not religious,” or a confessional booth at 30,000 feet. These conversations leave me pondering every time whether I should’ve just chosen a less direct answer: I teach or I work at a university or I’ve recently taken up knitting. A fellow campus minister went to Chipotle last year wearing his clergy collar on Halloween and was offered a free burrito for dressing up in costume and didn’t have the heart to tell the employee that his attire wasn’t a costume (plus, free burrito!). Figuring out when and how to talk about faith in an authentic, non-threatening way is a challenge of our time.
But our silence and our fear can lead to missed opportunities of holy moments for God to enter in.
This year during Duke freshmen orientation, several campus ministries constructed a giant 20×24 prayer map of the world out of Duke blue paper plates through the creative genius of our Episcopal ministry partners and the brilliance of some Duke engineering students. During a welcome week cookout on the quad, we invited students to place an LED tea light on a place in the world in need of prayer or a place in the world of significance to them and to write on a small card their prayer request. By the end of the night, our makeshift world map was shimmering with little lights.
For students who had spent an entire orientation week scurrying from one event to the next and answering the litany of predictable questions: “What dorm do you live in?” “Where are you from?” “What classes are you taking?” etc., this prayer map was at best an outlet for their own spiritual yearnings and at minimum something different to talk about.
Had we not made space for faith-based conversation on the quad, students might have continued to carry around the burdens of ailing parents, homesickness, loneliness and fear. They might not have known that there is a place on campus where one can return thanks to God for surviving their first week of college or making a new friend. They might not have known that there are people who take seriously the connection between faith and justice or who believe our faith has something to say about Syria or North Korea or Egypt. They might not have known that there are Christians who welcome the prayers of a Hindu and a Muslim on this global map of prayer.
In this subversive act of evangelism, a space was made for the holy to enter into the ordinary. The God who transcends time and space received prayers from the middle of a grassy quad in North Carolina, but also quite literally from across the globe, as students placed lights on places all across the map that they still call home.
Sure, we had plenty of students walk on by. We had plenty of students study our makeshift map with a puzzled look. But for many, we had the chance to share a slice of the good news that God created this whole world and hears the cries of God’s people. As the sun set on campus Sunday evening and the borders on that map faded into the dusk, the light shined in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And that, my friends, is glowing good news.
KATIE Owen serves as the Presbyterian Campus Minister at Duke University in Durham, NC. Katie is a graduate of Duke University (2006) and Columbia Theological Seminary (MDiv 2011). She has a passion for preaching, creative worship, teaching, and working with college students. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, baking cookies, reading novels, and watching college basketball (Go Blue Devils!). She originally hails from Topeka, KS, has never met Dorothy, but has seen a tornado. You can read more about Duke PCM here.