By Bill White
A few years ago I met our neighborhood witch (her term, not mine). She lives a few blocks over from me, and it turns out she wasn’t a big fan of evangelicals like me (or the me I used to be). Understandably, it hasn’t helped Ari’s* connection to evangelicals that she’s gay, has been a practicing Wiccan for three decades, and has been an Elder Priestess for almost twenty years.
What has surprised me most in Ari’s journey towards Jesus is that it has been so intertwined with my own journey away from what I’m going to call toxic evangelism. I grew up in my faith being taught (and teaching others) that we are supposed to control spiritual conversations with outsiders, direct those interactions to certain pre-established goals, and to seek to win a convert by the end of that conversation.
But when you look at Jesus’s dialogues it’s pretty obvious he was most interested in the person, not in getting ‘results.’ No two conversations looked the same for him and he regularly ‘failed to capitalize’ on the spiritual interest of people from different religions. In fact, Jesus didn’t meet the standards of evangelism that I was taught!
She called out evangelical hypocrisy.
Back to Ari. She and I first connected in 2015, after the Supreme Court passed the marriage equality act. Ari posted on Facebook, decrying:
the hypocrisy of… so many of the evangelicals who… are on their second (or third or forth) marriage… eat pork and shellfish, have tattoos, would not lift a finger to help the poor (it’s their own fault after all), love the confederate flag and are upset by all the Mexicans in their town but don’t think they are racist, and so on and so on and so on. I guess they feel there is a hierarchy of sins and they get to do the stacking with their sins at the bottom.
We had a brief exchange in the comments about that post which went pretty well. Then I ran into her afterwards at a neighborhood picnic and we really hit it off. We never crossed paths after that besides maybe a Facebook comment once or twice a year.
She thought Jesus was speaking to her.
Then out of the blue, this July Ari messaged me saying she thought Jesus was speaking to her and she wanted to read the bible. I played it cool, like I regularly have witches reach out to me with Jesus visitations (I don’t), but after a few more messages I agreed to meet at a local brewery. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how to react because I was so used to overreacting. I’d been that pastor who had jumped on any indication of spiritual curiosity as a cause for an altar call. You know, the classic used-car-salesman-evangelist-type.
As I anticipated that first meeting, I found myself wondering what’s a healthy baseline for interacting with those curious about Jesus? I suspected that the overbearing approach of my past was toxic, but I felt uncertain how to proceed any differently. Reflecting now, a few months later, I see that this back and forth internal conversation is what it takes to recalibrate evangelism in healthy ways.
Jesus was shifting my priorities.
So I bought her a beer (true confession, I drink neither coffee nor beer, which may disqualify me from ministry), and by the time we sat down she’d already asked me what kind of bible she should buy. She would ask me that three more times before we were done that afternoon. Each time I found myself instinctively refusing to answer her. I wasn’t sure why til now as I’m writing it down. Yet another step towards a healthier evangelism.
Ari was simply proceeding like a normal witch attempting to read the bible and find Jesus, unaware that she was actually leading her local pastor on a spiritual journey all his own. As she was asking about the bible, I was feeling how charged a question it was, how the answer to that simple question needed thoughtful framing, and how in the past I would have leapt at the chance to ignore the person in front of me to ‘get down to business’ with the bible. But Jesus was shifting my priorities, putting the spotlight on the person in front of me and not on the project of ‘winning a soul.’
We talked about her story.
Instead of talking first about the bible, we talked about her story. Ari is 73, so there were more than a few twists and turns, and when she got to the part about becoming a Wiccan priestess, I sensed the Holy Spirit suggesting a question I never could have imagined asking before. It felt downright heretical… and yet also very non-toxic. I took the risk and asked: “What have been the best parts of being Wiccan?”
I was rewarded by great responses, full of texture and beauty in her description of rituals and people and beliefs. If I were to translate her responses into Christian language they would sound something like this: community, prayer, Creation care, justice work, and valuing the Imago Dei in people. I was stunned by the similarities to what we talk about in church all the time. And again, can’t you just feel layers of toxic evangelism being shed here (that God condemns all other religions, that we’re supposed to redirect the conversation to our religion, etc.)?
We laughed together and traded some snarky comments about religious people (both hers and mine), and then she wanted to know all about Jesus and how to address God and how to pray and if she could come to church. Not a bad conversation, right?
More on her journey and mine next week.
*Ari is not her real name, but all of this is written with her permission (and edits).