As the wind began to whip the still tightly closed tree buds and newly blossomed dandelions, my friend Quintin and I walked up Market Street in the idyllic (and rough around the edges) Pennsylvania farming town of Sunbury where we both live.
The broad boulevard has a long narrow park in the center flanked by a cast iron fountain on one end and a Civil War canon the size of an SUV at the other. Recently renovated, the park planners caused an on-going controversy when they relocated the canon to its present position. The unintended consequence of this move manifested itself near Christmas time when they planted Santa’s Shack where it has always been on Third Street sandwiched between the east side of the park and the railroad tracks that cuts directly across town. In so doing they inadvertently aimed the canon directly on Santa as he sat in his big chair fielding requests from Sunburian children.
Right after we crossed the railroad tracks past the recently built and more recently vacated Social Security office, two young white men nearly crashed into us as we rounded the corner. In their late twenties, with an odd mix of scruffy and clean-cut looks with their facial scrub and button-down shirts and what looked like homemade haircuts, they each clung to well-worn black Bibles. Quintin and I gave the traditional Sunburian male greeting–a nod accompanied with a grunted “Good evening.” One of the two men replied, “Would you like to spend eternity with Jesus Christ?” He spoke with an accent common among the Amish Mennonite who populate much of the Central PA rural communities and speak a German dialect commonly called Pennsylvania Dutch.
They did not dress in traditional Amish Mennonite clothing–suspenders and hats, but I have learned that our area contains many different types of Mennonites each with their own rules, customs, and dress codes. English was most likely not the man’s first language, and as he spoke, I was not sure if his embarrassed-sounding, stilted delivery arose from speaking English as a second language or the nature of the question tossed at strangers on the street.
I smiled, “Already taken care of. I became born-again years ago at the age of 17.” Both men smiled back. Quintin looked like he wanted to flee the scene, perhaps worried about what I, his unpredictable performance activist friend newly relocated to the Conservative Susquehanna Valley, might do next. The same man spoke again, “Jesus is coming back very soon.” I found this curious since recently an older gentleman, replete with a long white prophetic looking beard, appeared at Pennsdale Quaker meeting two weeks ago and to those of us silently assembled proclaimed the same Adventist message with the added exhortation that we should get ready. Coincidence? Or is the Second Coming of Jesus trending among white rural religious folks who are suddenly propelled out of their comfort zones into the broader world to warn us all?
Since I speak Evangelical as a second language, I replied, “No man knows the day or the hour. According to scripture he can come back today, next month, or in another two thousand years.” This Biblical response seemed to surprise and please the two street evangelists as evidenced by their broad smiles. They then looked confused about what to do next. Likely they journeyed to Sunbury with its many bars and rough town folk on the prowl for lost hungry souls. Instead they encountered someone unashamed to say he already shacked up with Jesus decades ago.
To lubricate the conversation, I then slipped into the social banter I mastered when I lived in Memphis, TN where they truly have a church on every corner–in fact some churches take up whole city blocks. “So, what church are you from?”
This question confused the men some more. Perhaps it was my accent–strangely foreign round these parts, or that in their pre-sinner safari preparations they did not rehearse this question. The man doing all the talking fumbled a bit, “We go to one over there,” vaguely pointing towards the river, “a church in Milton,” a smaller town about 15 miles away. “I guess you would say it is a Mennonite one.”
Unlike many folks I encounter cruising the streets for prodigals, these two Christians did not engage in the typical guerrilla church marketing campaign. They did not seem at all interested in luring prospects into their church to fill the pews. Unlike the church growth methods preached bymissiology guru, Ed Stetzer, these men did not extol the wonders of their congregation, their vibrant youth program, the Family Life Center replete with Olympic-size swimming pool, and the award winning programs for all ages. They simply canvased our town in order to share Bad News (the scary announcement of End Times) and what some would consider Good News (You can have a friend in Jesus.)
I do not know what would have happened if I had informed these street ministers that I am happily partnered with a man I hope to marry one day, and that as a Christian who is also gay, I have found comfort in transgender Bible stories. Based on my experiences with Conservative Christianity, they would likely have interrupted these revelations as obvious, flamboyant signs of the rapidly advancing wicked Last Days. Or perhaps they would have surprised me with sincere questions instead of knee-jerk condemnations. I do not know because I chose instead to wish them a good night and then carried on towards the local Chinese Buffet with Quintin.
Maybe they will return to Sunbury, and we will continue our conversation. They have good news. I have good news. We are both in search of a prospect, a hungry, open soul ready to hear a life-changing message. The passion to plant our seeds in fertile, well-tilled soil drives us each out of our homes into the highways and the byways, onto Market Street and beyond.