Amelia JareckeJuly 19, 2021
Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash.

During an abnormally hot evening walk around a modest, man-made lake near my home in Lincoln, Neb., my friend and I spotted a large red sign posted above a picnic table. Seven men who appeared to be in their late 60s stood around the table. The sign read in all caps, “PRAYER,” and Audrey and I were inching ever closer to it as we travelled down the gravel path.

The men were stopping the passersby in front of us, so walking towards them felt a little like entering shark-infested water or a clothing store where calculating sales associates eagerly pick out outfits for meek shoppers to try on.

As we neared the table, a tall man in jeans, a plaid short-sleeve button up, glasses and a baseball cap stepped onto the path and offered us bottles of water. Audrey, red-faced from the 92-degree heat, was the first to concede. While we drank, he asked us if we had any prayer intentions. I thought for a moment, and said, “I just learned about a family in Lincoln with six kids. Three of them are autistic and struggling to receive adequate care, and they could really use your prayers.”

He told us that his nephew is autistic and then shared a story about a time when they had a funny misunderstanding over pancakes because his nephew didn’t catch his sarcasm.

The man seemed genuinely kind and thoughtful, while also demonstrating a master class in persuasive rhetoric. I had recently listened to an episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast featuring a social psychologist who offers a summary of his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. The book outlines seven principles that convince people to “buy, behave and believe.” His principles were fresh in my mind as we interacted with the man beneath the PRAYER sign. I wondered what he might want Audrey and I to believe.

Psychologist Robert Cialdini explains that reciprocity is an extremely useful persuasive strategy. People are more likely to give something of theirs, in our case, our time, to someone who has given something to them; in the man’s case, two water bottles. The man doubled down on reciprocity by asking us who in our lives he could pray for.

He then asked us what high school we attended, and when we answered the only Catholic one in town, he seemed pleased. “Ah, so you’re familiar with the Lord’s teaching.”

Jay then prompted us with the million dollar question, revealing his evangelical intention: “If you died today, what would be your eternal destiny?”

Through both the story of his nephew and his ability to find common ground with us through our former school, he employed two more principles of influence: liking and unity. People often trust those whom they like and with whom they relate.

He finally asked us our names and gave his own: Jay.

Jay then prompted us with the million dollar question, revealing his evangelical intention: “If you died today, what would be your eternal destiny?”

I deflated a bit, feeling unsurprised that the water bottle and prayer intention came at the cost of confessing to a stranger how I think God might judge me when I die. Had he not been so friendly, I would have immediately rejected this conversation.

Jay waited patiently for an answer, so I looked at Audrey and said, “You first.”

“Well in the Catholic Church, we believe in purgatory,” Audrey began. “I don’t think I’d be headed straight to heaven if I died today, but I think I’d make it to purgatory and spend some time there,” she said.

I nodded in agreement. Inwardly, though, I was unsure. I haven’t done anything malicious, just the normal-to-me sins that one can commit on a college Saturday night. Followed by sleeping through Mass on Sunday morning. The message I received from my Catholic high school—and Jay’s literal biblical interpretation—was that because of these “works of the flesh,” I would certainly not be inheriting the kingdom of God. So by those measures, if I was to get fatally struck by a lightning bolt without having confessed and received forgiveness for those sins, I would be damned to the flames for the rest of time.

Thus began Jay’s sales pitch: Repent and be saved. He rattled off Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” He quoted Romans 5:8 and five more Bible verses around that theme, none of which I would remember had he not handed me a small card with a few printed on it

The gist of the message I did catch though: Turn away from sin and profess Jesus as my Lord. Thus, I was finally certain that it wasn’t overly cynical of me to note his earlier strategies of persuasion.

Audrey and I nodded, making no promises about repenting and devoting our lives to the Lord, but assuring Jay that we understood him and he did not need to go on quoting the Bible.

What is beautiful about being a spiritual, but not religious person, is that it is easy to be open to finding the truth in all kinds of lives and devotions.

He then asked us if we would say a prayer with him. I looked to Audrey once more for guidance. She yielded a few more moments of our time.

We bowed our heads, and Jay asked for the Lord’s blessing on Audrey and Amanda. I smiled down at the sidewalk, and then he corrected himself, saying, “Amelia.” He asked for the Lord’s blessing on the family I mentioned, then asked that we might see that salvation comes only through the Lord and that we might turn to Jesus.

Audrey and I then parted ways with Jay, water bottles half full in our hands.

As we walked away, I let out a long-stifled laugh. Not at Jay, just at the rare seriousness with which my friend and I composed ourselves in a somewhat absurd situation: reluctantly confessing to a complete stranger the belief that upon dying we would need to suffer in purgatory for Lord knows how long.

Audrey laughed too.

We are both spiritual but not religious people like much of our generation, or at least many of my friends. We contemplate the meaning of things, mortality, the existence of God, grace, a divine plan and the afterlife, but we don’t hold fast to the traditions, texts and symbols of our faith upbringings that surround those topics.

So while I do not believe in a physical afterlife, therefore forfeiting the idea of an eternal existence in which I am tangibly rewarded for my earthly deeds, I told Audrey that I still found Jay’s mission heartwarming. Jay, it seems, certainly does believe that after we die, we will exist, body and soul, all the same, except in heaven or hell. So by his account, by talking to us at the lake, he saved us from materially suffering for ever and ever and ever. From his perspective, telling us to repent is not a judgment of our current state but a Hail Mary touchdown pass for our eternal lives.

If you do truly believe in the scorching wrath of Satan, then saving random people on the sidewalk from experiencing that wrath is a good way to spend a Wednesday afternoon.

Jay’s conviction did not prompt me to rethink repentance and salvation. But, he did lead me to consider what lengths my neighbors will go to to help me out. If you do truly believe in the scorching wrath of Satan, then saving random people on the sidewalk from experiencing that wrath is a good way to spend a Wednesday afternoon.

What is beautiful about being a spiritual, but not religious person, is that it is easy to be open to finding the truth in all kinds of lives and devotions. What is beautiful about being a traditionally religious person is the apparent ability to rest in the comfort of salvation; and even more, if one is a persuasive orator like Jay, perhaps help others experience that comfort, too.

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