A few days ago I received this text message: “Hi. How are you? Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow. Jesus is the only way out.”
Naturally, I responded, “Jesus is dead. Blow me.”
The text message was from a number I didn’t recognize. I figured it was a message from a missionary, or a telemarketing blast text from a religious organization. But then I imagined a teenage boy text messaging a girl he’d just met at Jesus Camp. Maybe they’d fallen in love and couldn’t wait to see each other again at their hometown church. Then I felt bad. What if I had just destroyed their relationship?
If the mystery texter wasn’t a love-sick teenager, how did he or she get my number? The last time I got a phone call that involved Jesus was six years ago, my freshman year of college, when I thought it would be funny to order Miracle Water from one of those public access ministries that was on TV at two in the morning. The next day, the ministry called to ask if I wanted to upgrade to a Miracle Water Healing package. Had the Miracle Water people sold my number to a third party? Maybe. Or maybe it was a text from the cute girl I gave my number to on the corner of 14th Street and Broadway a few years ago when she was handing out Jews for Jesus pamphlets.
I grew up in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Monsey, New York, but left the fold when I was 16. I now live in New York City, where you can’t walk a city block without being harassed by a born-again Christian yelling that years ago he was an asshole and he magically isn’t anymore, since he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior; or by the Scientologists who recruit you to join them at their church in Times Square to discuss Dianetics; or by the Chabad-Lubavitch Jews who ask you if you’re Jewish (I tell them, “Not yet” or “Sometimes”) because they want to wrap phylacteries around your arm; or by the black Israelites — who look more like New York Giants linebackers than religious zealots — who preach on street corners that they’re the real Jews. I got so fed-up once, I decided to counter- preach by holding up signs. One said: “I’m not Jewish, I’m black.” The other said: “I’m Jewish, want to check?”
I didn’t get any takers.
One day, a couple years ago in Union Square Park, I joined a circle that had gathered around a man who was yelling his story (drug addiction, alcohol abuse, adultery, then born-again. Surprise!). He sounded angry, as if he was being forced to recount his painful past.
“You sound angry,” I said when he stopped yelling.
“I’m not angry!” he yelled.
I walked away and sat on the railing near the George Washington statue, avoiding an argument with the Born-Again Hot Head. He reminded me of the angry rabbis I had in yeshiva, whom I am always trying to forget.
A moment later a young girl walked up to me and handed me a pamphlet. Here we go again, I thought. It turned out that she was the daughter of the Angry Born-Again Hot Head. She asked me the stock questions: Do you believe in God? Have you repented for your sins? Do you want to go to heaven? When I convinced her I wasn’t interested in learning more about being born again, she asked me, “What are you going to do when you get to hell?”
“I’ll wave hello,” I said.
She looked disappointed. She turned and walked away. I felt bad for her; she was no more than 16 or 17. I wanted to call after her and tell her that there’s a way out; she could live a non-religious life and stop worrying about burning in hell. But I hesitated, watching her hand out pamphlets to passersby and try to engage them in conversation. I realized I’d been doing the very thing I hated — trying to show the light to people I believed to be in the dark. At that moment, I made a commitment to stop engaging the missionaries, holding up protest signs, and giving out my number to cute Jews for Jesus.
I haven’t met any religious missionaries recently and I’ve made it a point to keep my eyes lowered on the subway and while walking the city streets. That’s why that text a few days ago caught me off-guard. And I succumbed to temptation and responded. I didn’t mean to be so harsh. All I was really trying to say was: I don’t want to be involved.
And blow me.