It was the Friday night of a giant Christian conference in Edmonton, Alberta. We’re talking 15,000 evangelicals jammed into the downtown of a relatively small city. (If you’re wandering downtown Edmonton in the middle of January, and if you feel strange, it’s not just the 40-below temperature. It’s also the Holy Spirit.)
Just outside the conference centre doors, I saw a young, earnest-looking guy, looking right at me. Waiting for me at the next corner.
My assumption that this young clean-cut white fella was capital “E” Evangelical was not crazy, given the context. It was perfectly reasonable for me to mentally prepare myself for this stranger to share with me the exciting things that God was doing in his life, and how the Holy Spirit was really speaking to him this weekend. I’ve had those conversations before. This ain’t my first rodeo.
As I walked towards him, I rehearsed my lines: “Yes, I know Jesus. Yeah the worship was awesome… Really powerful… Totally… Cool, I’ll be praying for you… Well, I gotta stop at this ATM. Blessings, man!”
(For my non-Christian friends, repetition of those phrases in some sort of order can get you through almost all evangelical encounters.)
As I got closer though, I noticed he was carrying a can of spray whipped cream. My first thought was that this guy was a youth pastor or something like that, and the whipped cream was some crazy thing for the kiddos.
I was wrong.
“Would you like some whipped cream?” he asked.
Still thinking this was an odd lead to the Jesus conversation, I replied, “No, thank you.”
“It’s whipped cream left over from the stripping gig I just finished at The Treasury,” he continued.
Though he kept talking, my brain struggled to assimilate the information this young man was sharing with me. “Did he have to miss the main session to do that? It’s too bad because John Ortberg was awesome. Stripping is an odd job for a youth pastor to have on the side. Are his elders cool with that? Oh, wait a minute…”
It took longer than I care to admit for me to grasp that I was walking and talking with the only person in a five-block radius who hadn’t accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Saviour. It only firmly set in when I heard him say, “… and I’ve still got whipped cream in my …”
I sometimes wonder if I’m a good Christian. I don’t doubt my status as a Christian, but I occasionally doubt my quality as a Christian. This was one of those occasions, because my first reaction was not to ask the stripper if he was using his body the way God had intended.
Rather, I asked, “Who books that gig?” (As if I might take up removing clothing for money, as well.)
Our conversation continued, as the young man obviously wanted to tell a stranger about this experience he had just had, and I was more than fascinated enough to ask questions.
Who books that? (The fiancée of the guy who was graduating.)
Sorry, but can I ask the genders of the people involved? (It was for a guy, but his girl fiancée booked me.)
That’s an odd engagement gift. (My fiancée thought so too.)
Is your fiancée a girl or…? (Oh yeah, she’s a girl.)
Is she OK with this? (She supports me one hundred per cent.)
Really? So this a career move for you? (No, I think I’m in the red with all the booze I had to drink beforehand.)
How can I put this delicately… how does one prepare for this sort of performance? (Well, I go out back before I start my finishing move…)
Wait, you have a finishing move? Like a professional wrestler?
Our conversation continued for at least five blocks until I actually had to stop at an ATM. There’s a voice that lives in my head that tells me if I were a good Christian or a good pastor I would have turned this into a conversation about Jesus. There would have been a changed life and a new calling for this guy. (One that involves less whipped cream in his unmentionables.)
But rather than proclaiming the gospel and making him a disciple and teaching him to obey everything Jesus commanded (i.e. don’t take off your clothes for money), I learned how to navigate the fun and unprofitable world of semi-professional male stripping.
During our entire conversation the voice in my head screamed, “THIS IS YOUR TONY CAMPOLO MOMENT AND YOU’RE SCREWING IT UP!”
As someone who believes in the sovereignty of God, this situation raises some strange questions. Did God have me run into him to remind me that even though there are 15,000 evangelicals worshipping in a conference centre across the street, my place is with the guy who just finished taking his clothes off for money?
Or did God choose me out of the 15,000 because maybe I was the one who wouldn’t make this kid feel any more like a piece of crap than he already did?
These are the people in our neighbourhoods. There are people who want to talk about Jesus and there are people who take their clothes off for money. It’s very difficult to tell them apart; sometimes they’re even the same person. Most of the time though, you don’t know until you start talking to them.
Flickr photo (cc) by [xinita]