This Was the First Time I Ever ‘Shared the Gospel’ with Someone
And it’s something I’d regret for the rest of my life
“Wait, do they make their houses out of the trash?” I asked.
“They sure do,” Pastor Steve* responded. “They don’t make much money because they spend all their time collecting water and begging for food. That’s why we’re here — to bring the good news of Jesus.”
“And to bring food, right?”
“Well, yes, the food is our way in.”
There was that phrase again, good news. It hadn’t always bothered me. I do like that phrase more than the misused word gospel. It’s a cleaner translation from its Greek roots: eu “good” + angelion “news” = evangelion. Pretty clever of evangelicals, isn’t it?
I had taken trips to Honduras in years past
At the time, I had felt called to be there. I believed that God had orchestrated events in such a way that it was inevitable. I was spreading the gospel “to the ends of the earth” before I even graduated high school. My devoutness to evangelism followed me into college. There I joined evangelism clubs and took classes to be a better evangelist. I felt called to preach, to missions, to “win souls for Christ.” Most of this calling turned out to be guilt. It would be a long time before I realized that a threat of hell hanging over me was the cause of my devotion. And anxiety. But I was saved and on fire to spread the Gospel, the good news. So I went to Tegucigalpa again.
The good news, of course, was that there was a god they didn’t know. And this god hated their sin so much that he would let them suffer physical torment forever when they died. Unless, of course, they apologized to him and promised to tell others about this way out. I learned much later in life that Jesus cared a lot more about the present, his present, than the afterlife. But Jesus-filled, Bible-obsessed teenager me had eternity in mind. Every earthly decision was a heaven or hell affair, and I had to tell everyone about it.
I first went to Honduras in 2006, I was 15 and terrified
I experienced what the supernatural-believing part of myself could only describe as demonic. Later in life as an atheist, I edited these memories by explaining everything away to severe dehydration and food poisoning. Add in a communal expectation that we were engaging in spiritual warfare. When you enter a foreign country expecting demons, you’ll find them everywhere. Still today, somewhere between doubt and faith, I can’t shake away those experiences.
I remember hearing the crowed voices tearing out of Brad’s* mouth. Legion, I was later told. The echo of these demons reverberate in my head occasionally. I can hear Pastor Steve’s* voice wavering. He was losing hope as quickly as my friend Peter* was losing control of his own body. Pastor Steve screeched “I command you in the Name of Christ to leave” at an invisible entity that somehow had enraptured the room. It took five men to prevent Peter from hurting himself or others. This is what comes to my mind when I read about “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” My friends huddled in a corner, gasping for air as if tar filled their lungs.
This time around I knew the ropes
I had prepared for the dangerously short runway. I brushed up on my Central American Spanish. It had been three years, but I still recognized the streets, the exchange rates, and the weather. This trip wasn’t as frightening as previous occasions — despite the military coup. I was now a veteran of the short-term missions experience. We focused on performing plays and sharing Bible stories through arts and crafts.
About halfway through the week long trip, we set out to deliver bags of rice and beans to a local village. This village was constructed inside the city’s dump, a few miles outside the city itself. Pastor Steve instructed us to prepare for war — we were going into the Enemy’s territory. We prepared for spiritual distractions. We anticipated Satan trying to prevent us from saving these peoples’ eternal lives. Before embarking, Pastor Steve described this place in hell-ish terms. According to him it was a wicked, continually-burning garbage pile.
As we parked, dozens of children surrounded our bus. They begged for money. We were given explicit instructions not to give them our extra limpira. Pastor Steve said that they would use it buy glue, that being addicted to drugs was a sin.
It’s a worse sin that countries are allowed to flounder in such poor conditions that children have to huff glue instead of eating. The glue masks the hunger, and it lasts longer than beans. But systemic poverty wasn’t a hell-worthy sin, so the church didn’t care so much about it.
Blue tarps functioned as curtains, walls, and ceilings
The smell was unbearable. We walked past chicken coops and stray dogs, all scrambling on a foundation of sewage waste. As we approached a small house on a hill, Pastor Steve turns to me:
“Wilky, how would you like to take the next house?”
“You mean, like, share the gospel with them?” Hoping I misunderstood.
My guilt wouldn’t allow me to say no. I already thought I wasn’t good enough for god’s love. And it definitely would not hurt things with him if I evangelized every once in a while. I didn’t share the gospel back home to my friends, how was I supposed to do it here?
I didn’t know then, but this would be the only time I ever tried to lead someone to Christ. A woman opened the door with hopeful skepticism. This scene was a weekly occurrence for the village. She knew what she had to do to put food on the table that week: let these teenagers talk about American Jesus, let them pray for her, then she could kindly accept the beans and rice.
She had known what I realized in that moment: Jesus might give them eternal hope, but he wasn’t going to give them food. They had to make do with what they had. He wasn’t going to pay for their children’s school, and he certainly wasn’t going to make it easy for them to get water. What was most important to us, that these Hondurans not burn alive in hell forever, was the last thing on their mind. They were already there.
“Um, hola. Me llama “Wilky”… Jesús te ama.”
Okay, I need the translator now. I did my best to remember the Romans Road and the ABC’s of Salvation, but my thoughts distracted me.
“A long time ago, God created the world and all the people in it.”
Which, I guess you already know given the seven crucifixes in your living room that I’m now realizing are here. I thought we were witnessing to “lost souls,” but these people are Catholic?
“But these people, they disobeyed God. They broke His heart. And because they sinned, God had to leave them. They were separated from Him.”
You might know something about being forsaken. I heard it takes 2 hours to walk to the city from here …
“People tried to get back to God, but because God was perfect these attempts wouldn’t work.” Why did this make more sense in Bible class? Am I saying the right thing? Are their eyes open? This is awkward, it’s like we’re acting out a scripted play — she knows what I’m about to say.
“So He sent His only Son to die for us so that we wouldn’t have to.”
Is this it? I prayed this same prayer with my grandmother ten years ago. Was it good enough?
“Would you want to accept Jesus’ love, believe in Him, and confess your sins?”
What if they doubt their salvation like me? If I say the wrong thing, and they pray it, their eternal lives are in my hands!
My eyes caught everyone staring at me. The mother had already said the prayer a few weeks ago, so she nudged her daughter closer. I asked her if she’d like to say the sinner’s prayer with me. The mother insisted, she knew what was required to receive the good news. The food, that is.
She shook her head no. A wave of relief rushed over me. Oh thank god, it’s not my fault if God doesn’t accept her now. Guilt. I was the worst Christian. Was I even saved? Pastor Steve told me that if I wasn’t saved, then I would be possessed by one of those demons that attacked us years ago. Why did I feel guilty about leading someone to salvation? Isn’t that the mark of a Christian? I must not be one.
My heart didn’t buy into this version of Christianity
For the next few years I would strive to reconcile this faith my experience. I struggled with troubling theological beliefs and biblical studies that condemned homosexuality but approved of slavery. I desperately wanted to make it work. It wasn’t until my last year of college that my brain caught up and said, You know what, this might not be for real.
But my heart knew then, in that moment surrounded by this teenage girl. Her hungry mother and a group of passionate yet deceived American youth laying their hands on me. This only exacerbated the heat inside their hut. Our sweat masked the smell coming from outside. The god I hope existed wouldn’t do this. It all seemed forced. Fake. The store outside of this “trash village” (as our pastor called it) sold I survived a mission trip to Honduras shirts. I always regretted buying mine.
Next week another youth group from the US would arrive with the same hope in their hearts: to meet god, to be transformed, to change the world. As I offered the gift of salvation, I realized what a scam it was. We offered protection from something that until that moment wasn’t a problem for them. I exchanged food for feeling like a better Christian. We had paid thousands of dollars to exploit a people’s daily lives so that we could have a spiritually significant moment to talk about for the rest of our lives.
“I felt God move in the country,” said one friend. “I’m definitely called to missions,” said another. We gave testimony to the whole church body. We were the validation they needed that this Southern Baptist Church was adequately fulfilling its duty to evangelize the lost. I did my best to stay out of the light, fearing that people would find out my secret: that I wasn’t so sure I believed in the Story we just sold.
Years later Darwin, Dawkins, and doubt restored my sight
The good news started to mean something different to me. I began to see that the “fire-insurance” we were selling strangers was the last thing on Jesus’ mind. The more that I began to come to terms with losing my faith, the more I understood who this real Jesus might be.
I had abandoned all my childhood doubts, struggles, and beliefs about God long ago. And now I’m finally beginning to see that maybe it wasn’t that god wasn’t real, but that this version wasn’t. I don’t know what god looks like, but I think of Her when I remember that mother’s face. She was doing what was necessary to provide for her daughter.
Most days I still don’t know if I believe in this god, but if there’s a god who doesn’t hang the fate of someone’s eternal life on one poorly translated prayer; if there’s a god who is present when humans suffer and comfort others; if there’s a god more concerned with the well-being of Her abused daughters and oppressed children than She is with hermeneutics and Her own glory, then that’s the good news I want to hear.