In one of my more memorable meetings with Don I was caught by the following statement, the implications of which offer an excellent overview of what made Fairhaven Student Ministries successful.
If you really want to follow Jesus, then find the person sitting alone in the lunch room and offer to be their friend.
My initial response after hearing that statement was the sensation of a heaviness pulling at the bottom of my stomach. I’m not sure if Don knew it at the time, but I had first hand experience of being that person who ate alone. Eating alone is oddly similar to that feeling you get right after learning that a close friend has died in that time slows, your mind can’t focus on anything else, and you lose all sense of appetite. At the time of our conversation I had managed to become reasonably adept at avoiding being that person, but the memories were present enough that I knew it was something I did not want to revisit.
I knew, first of all, how visible one became as a result of eating alone. Though the process involved doing as little as possible to attract attention, inevitably it was as if every eye in the cafeteria was bearing down on you in an effort to determine what repulsive quality prevented anyone from wanting to be seen with you. Indeed, one of the caveats of having been that person is a familiarity with the other individuals who also face the threat of eating alone; whether due to their objectionable clothing, or wrong piercings, or unattractiveness, or questionable grooming habits. Whereas adolescent culture (and more often than not, our culture at large) dictates the importance of distancing oneself from such marginalized individuals, Don helped me see that following Jesus challenges our self-centered impulse by suggesting that it is pricesely those marginalized for whom we are to give our primary attention.
Yet the most frightening realization was that following Jesus meant I couldn’t simply visit during a lunch period, say some nice things, hope too many people wouldn’t spot me, and be on my way. I had to become a friend. Friendship isn’t just another word for being nice, but involves getting to know the other person to the point where a level of responsibility is placed on the relationship. In other words, friendship requires a commitment over time. This was not something I could accomplish in a day, or even a week. Rather, it would need to become something like a habit, something that in a small way might even change who I was, and something that posed a threat to the person who, at the time, I thought I wanted to become.
Finally, the full impact of this challenge lay in the reality that it wasn’t an idea I could just talk about, but something I had to live. For many of my Christian friends, sharing the gospel in high school involved adorning oneself with a disgraceful Christian t-shirt (disgraceful in that it was usually neither thoughtful nor creative) and “taking a stand” when the subjects of abortion and evolution were brought up. Don challenged this interpretation with his belief that the Gospel is something we embody (and vicariously, if it can’t be embodied, then it probably isn’t the Gospel.) More precisely, being a Christian isn’t about asking the question “what would Jesus do?” it’s about determining based on Jesus example, “what kind of person is Jesus calling me to be?”
To conclude, Don’s suggestion offers several profound insights about what it means to follow Jesus, which conveniently happen to be the same insights which I think made Fairhaven Student Ministries successful, in particular:
- Christianity is visible
- Christianity is nonjudgemental
- Christianity is relational
- Christianity is concerned with the other over oneself
- Christianity involves risk
- Christianity is embodied