How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
On an uncommonly blue afternoon near the end of a wintery March, the evangelist Eileen Lee sat across from a journalist who did not believe in God. It was three days before Easter, and the small meeting room of Peniel Community Church was illuminated by a delicate yellow light that glazed the rows of empty chairs, the unattended lectern and an unplayed guitar. The evangelist and the journalist sat together at a small table, two Bibles opened to Genesis, one of which — the journalist’s — was fraying at the edges. They were alone in the yellow room. No one else had come to the weekly Bible study.
Lee met me for the first time on Cross Campus more than a year ago, during one of Peniel’s daily evangelism rounds in New Haven. On that day we talked for nearly an hour about love, free will and why God allows suffering to exist in the world, and Lee gave me Peniel’s little green card and asked me to come to the next Bible study a few days later. I did not go. That was not unusual. When Lee evangelizes, she tries to speak with about 30 people in a day, but she is happy if three of them really listen. “It’s like knocking on a stranger’s door,” she said of evangelism. “And that can be humiliating if you’re turned away. But that’s how God comes to us. Sometimes they don’t listen, but the truth is the truth. Their soul listens. If you scatter the seed, then it is sown.”
Lee sat with a notebook open before her, wearing a gray fleece and a tiny jeweled cross that hung at the end of a thin necklace. She wore an expression of anxious intensity. Anxious because she had been criticized before — sometimes even insulted — by students who objected to evangelism, and because I had just told her that I wanted to write about her, and she was worried about what people would say. Intense because she had spoken with me many times before, and now I was finally at the church, and maybe I would listen.
“What we need to do is wipe out doubt,” she said to me as we read Genesis. “A child never doubts that his parents love him, does he?”
“But there are some children whose parents do not love them,” I answered quietly. “Is it better for those children to believe that their parents do?”
Lee’s face darkened. “You’re talking about bad parents? Maybe this is not a perfect analogy.” She tried something else. She had me flip to Matthew and read the first commandment — to love God with all your heart and soul — and the second: to love your neighbor as yourself. “The bird is made to fly,” she explained, “and if it does not fly — if it chooses to walk — then it will suffer. We were made to love. And we will suffer if we do not love.”
So this is faith, I thought. And in my thought there was acceptance and denial and the bitter awe felt by the layman who hears a choir singing in a foreign language. I marveled at the melody but could not understand the words. There was a light in Lee. I wanted to talk with her, not to find out which of us was right and which was wrong, not to be converted, but to learn whether we could believe different things and talk about them calmly and sincerely. At the end of the Bible study, I asked her a question: Why does God need evangelists?
One year later, Lee asked me to flip to Romans 10:14–15, and then she guided me patiently because I did not know where to find Romans or how to interpret the numbers she had given me. Finally I found the passage. “There should be a person, because that is love,” Lee said. “The presentation of love is between a person and another person. And Christianity is love.”
The Rev. Edwin Pérez remembers it well. On the New Haven Green in late April 2017, the sun had sunk low enough that the evening’s uneven light entirely missed the man in black with the microphone. Bearded, wearing a black hoodie, Phillip Blair — director of Torch of Christ Ministries — turned to the rainbow flag of United Church on the Green. He began to preach from the middle of a darkening shadow.
“[God] will change everything about you if you go to him,” Blair began. “He will help you turn away from that fornication, having sex outside of marriage, he will help you turn away. He will help you turn away from abusing your wife and being impatient and abusive to your kids.” A crowd of spectators, one of whom was recording the sermon, had gathered, and the preacher became more forceful.
“We have perverted our affections to fulfill and satisfy the lust of our flesh, and God is commanding us to repent, to turn back to foundation and biblical truth and to pursue holiness without which no man will see the Lord. Repent, Church on the Green. You’re not teaching the Bible. You’re leading souls to hell.”
It was not the first time Pérez had been the target of evangelists. “You’re an openly gay minister, you need Jesus,” other Christians would sometimes say to him. “I’ve got Jesus,” Pérez would reply. After seeing the video of Blair’s sermon uploaded to YouTube, Pérez had gone home and prayed. He had prayed that, someday, Blair would meet the loving God Pérez had found years ago.
Leaning forward across a small table in a bustling cafe, Pérez remembered how he had started as an evangelist. He began preaching at the age of 14 with the Assemblies of God. He had walked through the streets asking people, “If you were to die today, would you go to heaven?” Pérez is still an evangelist. But that is not the way he preaches now.
“When you join a relationship out of fear, you’re on a path to self-destruction,” Pérez told me in the cafe. “I think that everybody is on a journey; I think that everybody has a veil and that it’s slowly being lifted. I don’t necessarily believe that God is a Christian. … I don’t look to convert people. It’s more of an invitation. Because love can’t be forced. Love can’t be coercing.”
Love. When I began talking with evangelists, I did not expect to hear so much about love. I was familiar with evangelism delivered at the knife edge. The evangelism of the childhood barber who, when I told him I was an atheist, looked at me with dilated eyes and said he was frightened for me because I would burn and that I should be frightened as well. The evangelism of the grave man with the sign who stopped me on York Street and, learning that I was a scientist, began to explain patiently, as one explains simple things to a child, that evolution is illogical and intelligent design is self-evident. The book-bound evangelism of theologians who tell me that, because I have no God, I cannot have morality — I must be a hedonist. More than my secular friends, more than my scientific professors, more even than myself, these were the people who turned me away from God.
And yet here was Pérez, speaking softly amid the chattering students in the cafe, telling me that he did not want to convert me; he only wanted to talk with me. “I can only spread the good news of my faith with the hope that you will receive it,” Pérez said. “I don’t try to convert, because that’s not my job.” He paused, turning to the right and focusing his gaze on something above him — something I could not see. “My job is to preach the good news.”
The large meeting room in Linsly-Chittenden Hall was dimly lit on the Thursday after Easter, crowded with 50 or 60 members of Yale Students for Christ, one of whom was the dark-eyed Karin Nagano ’20. It was Thursday Night Together — a weekly gathering for members that Nagano helps organize — and on this day they would listen to New Haven Police Department Chief Anthony Campbell ’95 DIV ’09 talk about how, as a police officer, God has guided him. Nagano stared at Campbell fixedly, resting the long, thin hands of a concert pianist on her lap, and in the room’s semidarkness the deep brown of her irises melted into the pupils.
It has become harder and harder for Nagano to reconcile her religious and secular lives at Yale. “My suitemates accept me for who I am,” she later told me, “but they see my Christianity as a sort of extracurricular activity.” In Paris, where Nagano grew up, Catholicism is widespread, but for many, it is merely a formality, and back then, Nagano did not feel a personal need for God. “I would say that I was Christian, that I believed in God,” Nagano explained, “but I didn’t really understand what that meant.” Coming to Yale, leaving most of her friends behind in Europe, she began to ask what really mattered to her. And she realized that she was unhappy.
In November of Nagano’s first semester, one of her friends, Lucy Wang ’17, came to her suite with a group of other members of Yale Students for Christ. They asked if they could clean the suite’s bathroom. Every year, the members of the organization’s outreach team go to certain first-year suites in a form of community outreach that is called, appropriately enough, toilet cleaning. They do not hand out pamphlets or ask for email addresses. They tell the first-years what organization they are affiliated with only if they are asked.
Nagano did ask. There was something about Lucy — the serenity with which she approached life, the fact that she never forced her faith on her friends, the humility of toilet cleaning — that moved Nagano. She began to attend Yale Students for Christ’s weekly meetings; she read the Bible for the first time. And finally, a year later, she participated in toilet cleaning.
Now Nagano had come to listen to Campbell, and I had come because I wanted to see something that the Rev. Ian Oliver, a senior associate chaplain at Yale, had told me about a few days before. He had said that evangelism could sometimes be done without proselytization or knocking on strangers’ doors — simply by living a life of grace and talking with those who come to you — and I had wondered if that was what had drawn me to Lee and Pérez. Maybe that was the conversation I wanted to have. “Ideally,” Oliver had said to me, “you’re living a life that is so distinctive that people wonder why you are the way you are.”
Campbell was seated at the front of the room, relaxed and in uniform. For the past half hour, he had talked about his life without notes or hesitation, spoken compassionately about a father who had sometimes threatened to kill him, joked about the time he woke up from a coma in the hospital, and told us that, in his opinion, “When we make an arrest, we’ve already failed.” He spoke humbly, profoundly and insistently, with a voice like running water.
“Our faith is not something that can be compartmentalized,” the chief said, staring at the crowd before him. “It is part of who we are the greatest part of who we are. And we are called on every day to live it out.” There were a few more questions, and one member asked the chief if he initiated discussions about faith with his subordinates. The chief said he did not need to. “I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘I don’t know why you are the way you are. I don’t believe all the things you believe. But I see the light in you. And I want to be more like you.’”