A personal essay by Daniel Ortiz, Admissions Counselor
When I was told that part of the International Leadership Summit would be street evangelism and outreach, I immediately felt a knot in the pit of my stomach. It was the first week of a terribly harsh Winter season. I was ecstatic to see an email from the Christian organization, Envision, who was hosting the International Leadership Summit in Paris. My mentor, Dr. Martin Sanders, told me about this summit and how beneficial it would be for me as I am looking for my next steps into ministry and seeking to refine my skills and talents for kingdom change. I was very excited to see this email, until I saw the dreaded words, “street evangelism.” Just the thought of stopping people from their rhythms of life to tell them how lost they are, how they need to do what I say and read a tract made me extremely anxious, but what could I do? I was already committed to this trip and I agreed to participate in all activities “being open minded”. Little did I know, my conception of sharing the gospel was about to be restored
I grew up in an era of evangelism filled with rambunctious claims of the second coming of Christ, the fiery judgment that is soon to come and illustrious tracks that would give a visual aid to all the hollering and yelling in the streets of the Bronx. This was how sharing the gospel was taught to me and many other young Christians and frankly, it made me feel quite uncomfortable. I didn’t feel right about telling people that they are “wrong” or “condemned” especially because I didn’t know them. I didn’t know their life stories; if they have ever heard the gospel or what problems they might be facing. I was just supposed to assume that because they weren’t doing what I was doing, they were lost and I needed to give them a 4×6 booklet that would give them the key to the pearly gates and some wicked pictures of what happens if you throw the tract away and don’t listen to what is taught.
The first day in Paris was such a whirlwind. After our six hour flight and four hour amazing race around the city, we were finally able to sit down and enjoy some Parisian pizza in one of the conference rooms at the American Church of Paris. Ben Stewart, the director of Envision, took this time to brief us on part of the schedule for the week. He referenced the time of street evangelism and ministry with a quote by St. Francis of Assisi. “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.” This quote shook my core. I have never heard such an approach for sharing the gospel but it made so much sense to me. We can talk until our faces turn blue, but actions will always speak louder than words. I thought deeply about this quote for a moment, and then I began to think how it’s not about remaining silent about our faith, but the quality of the words we use. We were taught to evangelize, not with tools of condemnation and forced persuasion, but with love and relationship. We were taught to live our lives, enjoy ourselves and simply enjoy the people and culture of Paris, and letting the spirit speak through our life and actions.
Now let me explain something. Just because the approach of evangelism may not include very direct questions and statements regarding one faith and spiritual life does not mean it cannot be intentional. Our time for ministry and street evangelism was extremely intentional, just with a different approach than we might be used to. We spent a lot of time prayer walking. We were told about some key locations, either local churches that Envision was affiliated with or just areas that were known to be darker and holding some spiritual bondages. We were instructed to pray over these places and keep eyes and ears open for what the spirit had to say. We were also told to be in community, talk to people, and enjoy their culture. Talking to people without an agenda will give the spirit freedom to become known in any part of the conversation. Talking to people in love, just to get to know them or share a joke or just a bit of life demonstrates the kind of relationship our father wants us to have with each other. For some, that can be the best form of evangelizing.
I experienced this through the outreach done at Genesis, which is an art gallery and open mic held by one of the local churches. The international workers in residence use this place to share common interests with the people of Paris, as they have an artsy and talented culture. As I simply listened to many people share their talents at the open mic, I struck a conversation with a local student who is originally from Venezuela. I heard him speak in Spanish and decided to just join in with some Spanish slang to bring some familiarity to a foreign setting. We spoke for about an hour, just about our backgrounds, sports and eventually why we were at that place at that time. We did not have a conversion experience, nor did I share bible verses on why he needs to become a Christian, rather I just became a friend to him. I know that God was able to use that conversation to plant a seed, a seed that I might never see grow with my own eyes but I have faith that the seed planted will lead to something; a thought or a moment of curiousity as to why these Americans were so happy? Why did they want to know who I was and just talk to me? We just plant the seed, the spirit is the true gardener.
Another example of the evangelism we experienced was through an ESL project that some of our Nyack college students participated in. I briefly interviewed Maria Verano and Kari Nehlson, two current students at Nyack who were able to go to a foster home right outside of Paris. Most of the children at the foster home have been removed from their families because of drug addiction and abuse in their homes. Our students were able to work with 5th and 6th graders who were practicing their musical talents to travel to Florida and perform with a group of American students. Our students played games with the children, and taught them basic conversation such as introductions and traveling terms. Their evangelism focused on the tangible needs of the people, learning basic English and just having some people to talk to and play games; a brief escape from their harsh situations. This was a little different than the other outreach that was done, however it was equally as effective and necessary. Why just pray for the needs of people if there are things we know can be done for them. Evangelism should not be passive, rather a very active experience; reaching people where they are and helping their needs. That was how we shared the gospel of Christ.
Our responsibility as followers of Christ is to emulate what Jesus did while he walked this earth. He would go to those in need and those needs, allowing the spirit to use every conversation and every moment. I not only had the opportunity to finally understand what this meant through scripture, but I was now able to put in into practice with other fellow Nyackers the tools we learned in a completely different culture! It was one of the best experiences of our trip to Paris.