He approached me on the beach where I was lying alone in a bikini. My boyfriend had departed momentarily to dip in the ocean.
He looked to be in his early 20, with yellow teeth, a baseball hat and a stack of light blue fliers in his hands. Right there at my towel he kneeled down and reached one of the fliers towards me. It read:
Do you have eternal life?
"Hi there," the man said. "How would you answer this question?"
I immediately felt the familiar escape instinct that kicks in when I'm approached by strangers asking for money, hitting on me or offering eternal salvation. "No thanks." "Not interested." "No." I swiftly cut them off while everything inside me curls in and turns away.
A second thought occurred to me this time, though, just as I was reeling toward: "No, go away, I'm in a bikini and I don't want to talk to you!" I'm a religion writer after all, so why would I turn down an opportunity to talk about faith? I felt the hypocrisy of my first instinct to run and decided instead to chat with the stranger.
"I would say yes," I answered.
"And do you listen to Jesus Christ to find the way there?" he asked.
These kinds of questions are tricky for me. No, I have not accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior. But I haven't technically denied him either. I like to think of myself as a believer in love, wisdom and compassion and a follower of any who upholds these.
"I listen to anyone who speaks the truth," I said, carefully picking my words.
"Right on!" he said, giving me a fist bump.
I was surprised he didn't press the Jesus issue, but we moved on.
"Can I read this to you?" he asked.
He flipped the flier over to reveal a long Biblical passage printed on the other side. Here was another point at which I might have said, "No thanks, I'm good. Have a great day. BYE."
But I didn't. The afternoon was young, the sun wasn't going anywhere and by now I was enjoying the spontaneous dip into religious talk in the midst of the flip flop strewn, snow cone stained beach.
"Sure," I said, and he began reading.
He read to me about God's love, about salvation and heaven, about the freedom and deliverance that lies in living through Jesus. When he finished he asked, "Would you like that?"
With the sun shining down on me and the glistening waves of the Pacific all around, I thought, Indeed, I do like heaven.
"I think I already have that," I answered.
"How long have you been saved?" he asked.
"I think we all are, from birth," I said, wondering if he would accept my answer.
When my boyfriend returned, the man posed the same questions to him.
"How would you answer this question, [Do you have eternal life?]?"
"I kind of believe that what we're experiencing now is heaven," my beau responded.
"Man, if that's true then I'm bummed," the man said.
We have murder, drugs, people dying, people going to prison. There's so much that's ugly in this world. But in the Bible, God says there is salvation from this life, that heaven is a place where those things don't exist. And those who follow him make themselves beloved in his eyes. He doesn't really send people to hell, but He pushes those away who have sinned and turned their backs on Him.
I asked him what church he belonged to and how long he'd been passing fliers out on the beach.
"I go to a church in downtown Oceanside," he said. "But I'm not really affiliated. I just do this because Jesus saved me, and I want to spread the word."
"My father was shot and killed when I was six," he continued. "Jesus was there to save me, and he's been so constant in my life."
This young man arrived at the beach that Sunday with beat up sneakers and circles under his eyes. Call it proselytizing, but he wasn't getting anything out of this other than the pleasure of talking about God. And when he mentioned his father's death, my heart ached for him. It was just one week until Father's Day.
The conversation took all of 15 minutes and offered me a glimpse into someone else's life and worldview that I wouldn't have otherwise known. It makes me think of all the other conversations I've turned down in the past. Could I have spent those 15 minutes in any better way? Personally, I don't think so.