At first, he seemed like a normal passenger, politely asking if he could sit across from me on the train. After a minute or two of the usual seatmate small talk, I went back to sightseeing from my window. He leaned forward with a question, calling me by name, which he used every third or fourth sentence. After too many years of working with insurance salesmen and car dealers, I recognized his training. It didn’t take long to hear what he was selling.
First came the poorly-copied page of push-poll questions about human justice and dignity. I politely pointed out its contradictions, disingenuous statements and lack of context. He was unperturbed. Next came a page of typo-strewn, out-of-context bible quotes. I asked him which translation he was using. Ignoring my question, he began talking about the approaching end-times and offered me a DVD of his leader’s views on the Middle East. I told him I didn’t have a player and went back to admiring the scenery, knowing the chances of either of us converting the other were somewhere between zero and nil. Several times I asked him how his views corresponded to recent media coverage. He admitted to not following the news and continued to tell me what needed to happen so that Arabs and Jews could come to Jesus and act like good Christians.
After a while he realized his sales pitch wasn’t working, so he shifted gears to start a normal conversation. He told me he’d retired after 37 years in the Salvation Army and had just returned from two weeks in the Holy Land – his first trip there – guided by his newly found end-times preacher. I admired his journey and asked him questions about his experiences with those he tries to save. While he admitted that soup precedes salvation, it was an intellectual statement, not a part of his soul. He spoke of his frustration with the lack of appreciation and conversions through the years. I suggested that he was supplying answers to questions his audience didn’t have.
He was a decent guy who’d found someone to believe in – in this case, someone who’s peddling end times and Israel. He thought everyone was like himself, looking for an inspiring leader who made them feel good. If in your heart, you know he’s right, do you really need to worry about those little facts about other people’s lives, history and viewpoints?
Re-grouping, he told me of the one god who created all. But he firmly denied it after I asked if this same creator was responsible for Muslims, Hindus and other non-Christians. He wanted to bring non-Christian youths to Christ, but told me they just wouldn’t listen to him. I asked him how he could respond to the point of view of a 17-year old kid in Gaza, Brussels or the Paris suburbs. After several times, he admitted that he didn’t know.
My seatmate wasn’t a bad man, just a man without any curiosity or need for analytical thought He was happy having found someone to follow, someone who gave him a sense of security and reason for being. So I just kept asking questions and tossing in the occasional fact, hoping to plant a few seeds of thought that might eliminate some of the frustration he felt from the fact that no one was buying what he was selling.
He got off the train a bit before my stop, giving me a chance to enjoy the scenery in the part of the world where the Republic of Ireland is north of Northern Ireland.
I hope he finds a way to open his mind the way he appears to have opened his heart.