What do Jesus, chewing tobacco and the Crusades have to do with each other? Read this re-post from 2014, re-posted just because it was such a delightful experience for me! I mistakenly posted this twice recently…so here it is a final time. Enjoy Kari at the end!
I thought today it might be useful to share a recent experience I had attempting to be faithful to St. Peter’s command, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you.” — 1 Peter 3:15
I traveled to Pittsburgh for a conference back in December. On my flight back to New Orleans, I was seated next to a man from rural Alabama who was on his way home for Christmas to visit his daughter. He was a single dad, as his daughter’s mother had abandoned both him and her early on and moved away to another state. His mom and dad helped him raise her. He had a thick Alabama accent, donned a University of Alabama ball cap and chewed tobacco the entire flight, spitting the brown juice every few minutes into an empty Coke bottle with remarkable precision. The indescribable sounds accompanying this 90 minute dip-spit ritual served as a fine appetite suppressant and flipped an occasional gag-reflex on.
He was very chatty, and spent 30 minutes telling me about his six-weeks-on, two-weeks-off contract work in Pittsburgh. I didn’t really understand everything he said, as we were next to one of the jet engines, but it had something to do with dredging contaminated materials. After he shared his last story about his co-workers’ nighttime drinking binges, the stewardess broke his train of thought to ask us if we wanted any of those air-filled packets with 5 mini-pretzels in them. When he picked up the conversation again, he said, “Damn man, I’ve been chewin’ your ear off! Tell me, what do you do for a living?”
I thought, here it comes.
I told him that I taught theology and served as academic dean at a Roman Catholic seminary in New Orleans.
He said, “Whoa. That’s different.”
I replied, “Yep.”
After about two minutes of silence, he continued, “Hey, I’m a history buff, and I’ve always wanted to ask a Catholic this question. Why did the Catholic popes kill all those people in the crusades?”
I spent about 4 or 5 minutes trying to set the crusades in historical context, tried to explain a Catholic take on “just war” and proposed some ways one might consider a medieval crusade as just, as unjust, or as both just and unjust. In other words, I tried to explain that moral judgments on complex historical events should never be oversimplified for the sake of a slam-dunk point. When I had finished my meandering argument, he said,
Cool. Makes sense. Thanks for explaining that. When I went to college I was always told that the Catholic crusades were proof that popes just wanted to control the world and that the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment brought an end to that. You know, there’s no Catholic church anywhere around where I live, so I don’t ever get to talk to Catholics. And when I’m in Pittsburgh I just hang around with my work buddies, and trust me, none of them go to church even if they were Catholic.
Then, without missing a beat, he began to tell me about why he didn’t go to church. He said,
My mom and dad went to the Baptist and Methodist churches once in while when I was a kid, but mostly dad and us went fishing on Sundays. I’ve always thought that people who go to church were just as bad as those who don’t, so I figure, what’s the point? I just don’t get why there’s so many churches and they all disagree. How can Christians say they’ve got the true religion when they don’t even agree on their own? I just try to be a good person and keep to myself. I don’t drink. But I don’t think about God much, either. Just never comes up much. But my daughter [who is 14] goes to a Presbyterian church with her friend these days and when I come back in town she tries to drag me with her. She’s good for me.
I asked him if he planned to go to church with his daughter this Christmas. He said,
Maybe, but we’ll see. I mean, you’re Catholic and you teach the bible to priests. So why do you go to church?
As he continued his ritual spitting, I asked him what he knew about why God asked the Jews to keep the Sabbath holy. We talked about that a bit. Then I explained how Jesus’ resurrection on a Sunday morning made Sunday the new Sabbath for Christians, and how it was the eighth day of creation. He thought that was neat. Then I told him the story about what motivated Christian martyrs of 3rd century north Africa to go to Mass on Sundays, even though it was illegal. I told him how this one group of Christians on trial before a Roman prefect explained their choice to risk execution to worship their God this way:
Without Sunday we cannot live!
I also mentioned the need to worship and give thanks to God not just as individuals but as a family of faith. I said only God gets to decide how and when he is to be worshiped, and pointed out the many blessings that God pours out in the celebration of the Eucharist that makes the rest of our week a whole lot better. As he actually seemed to be listening, I asked him why he bothers to celebrate his daughter’s birthdays, why it’s so important for families to gather at Thanksgiving and Christmastime, or why human beings dedicate any special days and times to gather and celebrate important things in life. That then led to a great side-conversation about the devastating effects his grandmother’s death had on his extended family.
She was the anchor of our family. She always brought everyone together for special times and it kept our family close. My happiest childhood memories are being at her house for family get togethers. But now that she’s gone, there’s nothing left to hold us together any more. It’s sad. Now that she’s gone the center unraveled, all the old grudges people had before now keep them from ever talking. My grandma always forced us to get together, and she’d say to anyone who’d complain, with fire in her eyes: “There ain’t nothin’ more important than family!”
What a perfect segue! I said,
That’s exactly what Jesus meant when he commanded his disciples to celebrate the Eucharist together every Sunday as a faith family together. If you look at Jesus’ disciples in the Gospel, they were always arguing. He forced people to be together who would never have otherwise hung out together. Jesus brought enemies and rivals together to show us how God wanted people to live, and that God is the only one who can reconcile everybody together. Take Him out, it all unravels. That’s really what going to church is supposed to be about, God bringing us together, making us forget the grudges and feeding us with His best food just like your grandmother fed you all.
After a brief pause, he said,
Damn, that’s deep. I’ll have to think about that one.
That was the end of our exchange. We were silent for the rest of the flight. After we landed, he told me that his daughter had a serious and chronic illness. I told him that even if he was not ready to go back to church yet, he could pray. And I said I would pray for her. I said, “If you love her, the best thing you can do is pray for her.” He said,
Right. Well, I’ve never been a praying man but that’s a good reason to pray. Thanks, man.
And that was the end of our conversation. I wondered if I should ask him if I could pray for her at that moment, but I didn’t. As I sat in the Atlanta airport, I wished I had. I thought of the charismatic Catholic woman in Florida I know who would pray with anyone anywhere, and thought of her gentle boldness that deeply impacted so many people. But what I was grateful for was the rare clarity of mind I had that so often escapes me when I am taken off guard by deep questions, posed by a stranger seated inches away from me. He challenged me not just to teach theology and history (which for me is safer), but to witness (which is riskier).
I find that my conversations with curious people wondering about faith give me a healthy opportunity to self-critically reflect on what it means for me to share my Catholic faith in Christ in a manner that is respectful and bold, personal and thoughtful. What it mostly looks like is finding natural openings that allow faith to speak to real life concerns — where they’re “at” — and giving God’s Spirit freedom to work through the uniqueness of that moment.
I will end with Mother Teresa’s favorite prayer (penned by Bl. John Henry Newman). It is really the prayer of the evangelizer. Please join me in asking Christ to make us fitting instruments of his Light.
Dear Jesus, help us to spread your fragrance
everywhere we go.
Flood our souls with your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly
that our lives may only be a radiance of yours.
Shine through us and be so in us
that every soul we come in contact with
may feel your presence in our soul.
Let them look up and see no longer us, but only Jesus.
Stay with us and then we shall begin to shine as you shine,
so to shine as to be light to others.
The light, O Jesus, will be all from you.
None of it will be ours.
It will be you shining on others through us.
Let us thus praise you in the way you love best
by shining on those around us.
Let us preach you without preaching,
not by words, but by our example;
by the catching force –
the sympathetic influence of what we do,
the evident fullness of the love our hearts bear to you.