It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m on the top deck of the 79 bus in Alperton, north-west London. The bus is full - people of all races and colours. I’m one of a handful of whites. We are all minding our own business, hoping the bus will be able to crawl its way at least reasonably quickly through the bottle-neck which is Wembley High Street.
Picture: "Bank Station London" by vegadsl/freedigitalphotos.net
A young black woman comes up the stairs. She starts preaching: in a very loud voice. “Is there anyone here who loves Jesus? Is there anyone here who reads the Bible?” We all, metaphorically at least, pull our coat collars up around our faces: whatever you do, no eye contact.
She starts to read from John’s gospel. “‘There was a man sent from God whose name was John’. Does anyone here have a friend called John?” Silence. Squirming. Cringing. And I don’t think it’s only because we can’t see the relevance of the question. She carries on...
For the next ten minutes, until we get to my stop, I wrestle with a genuine spiritual, even a moral, dilemma. Am I wrong to keep my head resolutely under the parapet? Should I not give support to a fellow-Christian, however misguided she might be? Worst of all, am I guilty of disloyalty to Jesus?
I satisfy myself with the thought that there is no reason why I should be rail-roaded into a discussion which I haven’t initiated, which I have not been invited into in an appropriate manner, and which I feel can only do damage to the witness of the church. That’s enough for my conscience - I think.
It’s a relief to get off the bus - she is still hard at it as I descend the stairs. I walk home mulling over in my mind the big question of cultural sensitivity in presenting the gospel. There’s no doubt that that young woman deserves ten out of ten for enthusiasm; but I would only grudgingly give her even one out of ten for wisdom.
Well, I thought that was the end of the matter. But now something quite remarkable happens. I ought to say that this kind of preaching is something which I was completely unfamiliar with, even after more than 20 years in this part of London. I had never even heard of it, never mind encountered it.
But the very next day - yes, the very next day, Sunday – my wife and I head for church, and it so happens that a close minister friend of mine is visiting and is invited to share his story with the congregation. He is from Nigeria, and when asked how he became a Christian he replies that it was through the ministry of - wait for it - bus evangelism back home. Yes, this practice that I and the other passengers on the number 79 found so excruciating was how he was brought to faith in Jesus.
Even worse (so to speak) follows - apparently he also, in his early days as a Christian, was himself an enthusiastic bus evangelist. I decide I have some serious thinking to do. Is this sequence of events mere coincidence? Or is God saying something to me?
At house-group the following week I ask another friend, also from Nigeria, if this is a practice she is familiar with. “Oh yes,” she cheerfully replies, “I do it all the time when I’m back home. It really splits the bus in two! Half the passengers shout that I should sit down. The other half say ‘Keep it coming, sister!’”
I am left pondering various things.
First, the dilemma I mentioned earlier: was I guilty of being ashamed of Jesus? Or was I right to calm my conscience in the way I did? Any thoughts?
Second, the question of cultural sensitivity. I decide that my initial dislike of what that young woman did was justified: even granted the massively multi-religious and multi-racial nature of the London Borough of Brent, it was clear that her intrusion into our privacy was unwelcome to all. 1 Peter 3:15 comes to mind - that bit about evangelising "with gentleness and respect".
Third, can such a sequence of events - I mean now what happened on Sunday morning too - be dismissed as “mere coincidence”?
And fourth, the sense that it’s easy to get a bit pompous and high-and-mighty over such a thing, and that God was teaching me, if no-one else, a serious lesson in humility. No, I don’t think I can defend that young woman. But if I am completely honest with myself, I have to confess that my attitude towards her was wrong; I was, like Michal in 2 Samuel 6, “despising her in my heart”. I think of Bible characters - today they might be dismissed as cranks and weirdos - like Ezekiel and John the Baptist, and recognise that perhaps we should thank God for people who are prepared to violate conventions and step out in ways that may shock. Not look down on them.
Perhaps we need to rewrite the opening lines of that old hymn: “God moves in sometimes wacky ways/ His wonders to perform...”
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister living in north-west London, with many years’ experience in the ministry.
He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at www.sedgonline.blogspot.co.uk