Is This Evangelism?

Is This Evangelism?

by The Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton
I am one of four area clergy who has a monthly column called FAITH MATTERS in the local, regional newspaper, THE DAILY RECORD. Three of the clergy are Episcopalian; the other is Methodist. I file the work done for the column on my 'time management' sheet under the category, 'Evangelism.'

The newspaper's religion editor reports, to my astonishment, that she had a very difficult time recruiting clergy to this task. It seems a no-brainer to me to take one hour each month and edit a reflective essay or sermon I've recently written down to the prescribed number of words required, and submit it once a month. In exchange for that labor, I get FREE publicity for my church - perhaps even some new members who may be curious about what this woman has to say about matters of faith and how they really do matter.

Under the general banner of Evangelism is the special category I've named 'Johnny Appleseed' where I've filed this particular activity. I'll probably reveal more of myself as a child of the 60s than I care to admit, but I'd like to think that this is the best part of the 'Free Spirit' of those years. I never know what particular seed I've planted, or where it will grow, but I trust that it will bear good fruit even if I never get to see or taste it.

Everybody, sing along with me that great Beatle's hit: "All you need is love . . . (la,la,la,la,la)^. All you need is love. Love. Love is all you need."

And then, I got that phone call a few weeks ago. A woman called - with a name that was almost stereotypically Episcopalian - to say that her mother had died (I confess to looking frantically through the parish directory for the last name while she prattled on) and wondered if I would "come and give 'the talk' at her funeral in two weeks." "The Talk?" I asked. "Yes," she said, "it will be in the little chapel at the crematorium. Just a little talk before we spread Mother's ashes."

"Ummmm," I said, "I'm sorry, but I'm new here. I'm going to have to ask you to help me out a bit. Tell me, was your mother a member of this church?" "Well," she said, we used to be Episcopalians and then mother got miffed at a sermon the minister gave about membership or something. Wanted to get more people in the church. Mother said membership in the Episcopal Church had always been 'by invitation only' and he had no right to play fast and loose with the 'recruitment'. (Could she have meant 'evangelism'?) So, we left. Then, they changed the prayer book and it all went to hell in a handbasket."

Oh," she said, finally coming up for air, "I'll bet you want to know why I'm calling you to do this. WELL," she said, taking another deep breath, "I've been reading your columns in the paper and I just LOVED your obituary for your dog (An obituary? I had written what I considered a heart-wrenching essay on the death of my beloved Bogart. How DARE she reduce that piece of work to an obituary!). I lost my 13 year old Golden Retriever 17 months ago and I swear I'm not over it yet. I read your column and I cried and cried all over again. I thought you'd be able to do a smashing job for mother."

In my anger and annoyance, I suppose, I felt an urge to ask if she wanted me to read Bogart's essay for her mother and instead thanked her profusely while asking her to wait while I checked my calendar. Gosh, gee wiz, would you look at that! I am busy every blessed minute that day. I'm so sorry. Just can't make it. You understand. "Oh, that's okay. It was a long shot anyway," she said. "Maybe next time," she said with a cheery voice that was as unnerving as it was baffling, and with that and a few closing pleasantries, our conversation mercifully ended.

So, was THAT evangelism?

There's a part of me (probably that 60s love child) that wants to argue that maybe, just maybe, I touched her soul and that's as much as will probably happen for this woman on this side of Paradise. There's another part of me that fears I am pandering to the 'pop religious culture.' You know, the kind of simplistic 'Oprah spirituality' that draws lines around the heart and soul in broad-brush strokes of light pastels, accented with gray and mauve tones. Still, how terribly sad to come to the end of your life and not have someone say the prayers for you because of a sermon on 'recruitment' - whatever that means.

Another part of me says, "Well, if you have to ask the question . . ." I suppose I don't know what evangelism is, really. I guess the whole evangelism campaign called '20/20' with specific goals for the number of people we will have as new members in the Episcopal Church by a time certain has me just a little spooked.

I feel so unequal to the task. While I am not - never have been and never will be - part of the Episcopal Church that gave birth to the genre of my telephone caller, and I stand four-square for inclusion and diversity, beyond that, I admit that I have little or no skills or training that will bring the kind of specific results 20/20 has in mind. What's worse, I'm not sure I'd want to take the course that offered that kind of training. Something a little too slick - too 'Madison Avenue' for me in all that. I know. That makes me sound like the snob I protest I am not.

The whole evangelism thing has me conflicted, for sure, but one thing is clear: I'm not going to stop writing that column for the newspaper. Just tonight, in the super market, I had another strange encounter. A woman kept circling around me as I stood in front of the frozen food section. It was starting to get a little creepy. Finally, she parked her cart in front of mine and asked, "Are you the woman from FAITH MATTERS?"

I thought for a second about denying it, fearing another invitation to give a 'talk' at someone's funeral, but I had my collar on, so I was on the spot. "Guilty as charged," I responded rather sheepishly. "I just wanted to say thank you. You make me think. That has never happened to me in church. St. Paul's, isn't it? I just may stop by your church one of these Sundays. Thanks again. I really enjoy what you have to say."

Well, I don't know. Maybe it's not that my definition of 'evangelism' isn't clear. Maybe is that my definition of 'church' is too small.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
200 Main Street
Chatham, NJ 07928
973 635 8085
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