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Witnessing Harvard: a failure and a lesson

by Stephen Hebert on Wednesday - 31 January 2007

in Ministry

When Natalie and I initially decided to make the big move to Boston, we had a difficult time convincing some people that it was a good idea. It would be an utter lie for me to say that the prestige of the Harvard sheepskin did not attract me. Who wouldn’t be attracted by it? Only the truly snooty Yale and Princeton types…

The looks that I’d get from my fellow Texans told quite a story. They seemed to think that Harvard was only a place for the “ultra-rich, godless liberals who were ruining their country” (can you paraphrase a look?). In order to avoid these looks I came up with an answer that was at once convincing and sounded good.

I told these folks that I was going to Harvard to show the northeast what an evangelical kid from Texas could do. I wanted to be a light in a dark place. I wanted to make Harvard Yard my mission field.

I got so used to telling this story that I eventually began to believe it.

Culture and a Shock

Missionizing the northeast turned out to be a far more difficult prospect than I first realized. I quickly became immersed in schoolwork, and finding a church in our area was difficult. Natalie and I experienced a great deal of culture shock. Eventually, the culture shock and the lack of church would be worked out. We ended up with a great appreciation for Boston and what it had to offer, as well as a church family that we loved at Gateway Community Church.

If we fast-forward a couple of years, from 2004 to 2006, I realized that my missionary efforts had been long forgotten and abandoned. One afternoon in the Spring of 2006 Natalie and I were walking to the laundromat. I typically brought a book with me, and this time I had my Bible laying on top of a basket of dirty clothes. As we walked through the parking lot of Star Market, we passed 2 of my classmates. I had taken several classes with both of these people. I had even traveled in Europe for 5 weeks with one of them. Surely, they knew a lot about me—we’d had so many conversations!

Natalie and I said, “Hi,” and one of them pointed to the Bible in my basket, and said: “Steve, are you a Christian?”

Earth shattering moment.

How could it be that this was not apparent? Had I not been living out my faith? Had I not taken the time to tell them about my beliefs?

The Lesson: Chameleon Disease

We lived directly across the street from a methadone clinic. We met all sorts of unfortunate types, the sort of people that defined “down on their luck.” This reality coupled with the outward focus of Gateway, bred in us a spirit for evangelism.

How was it that people who knew me so well could be unaware of my position?

Chameleon Disease.

In class and around classmates, there was nothing to distinguish me. I did all of my work and did it pretty well. They did all of their work, and they did it pretty well. I used fancy words like “metanarrative.” They used fancy words like “metanarrative.” I could blend right in.

Often we make the mistake of assuming that by doing our best, we’ll outshine the rest and appear attractive to those around us. This attraction will somehow lead to deep, philosophical, life-altering conversation.

I’m not saying that can’t happen, but how many times has it honestly happened to you?

The truth is, blending in to our work environment is rarely enough. In 1 Thessalonians 2:2 Paul speaks of having the boldness “to speak…the gospel of God amid much opposition.” This is in Philippi after he had been beaten and imprisoned.

Paul, the greatest of missionaries, was not afraid to stand out from the crowd. He was not afraid to wear the skin of Christ in a Christ-less world. He was not afraid to confront that culture head on.

American Nightmare

Why are we so fearful of our peers and what they might think? Well, Paul may have been martyred because of his beliefs (there is no definitive evidence as to what happened to Paul). I don’t want to be killed!

We are so wrapped up in being liked that we don’t take the time to be who we are. As I’ve mentioned, being a Christian requires subscription to a philosophy and worldview that many would consider radical. If you’re going to be a radical on the inside, then perhaps it’s time to be on one on the outside.

There is no reason that my classmates should be in the dark about my beliefs. It was a failure on my part, but also a lesson. I firmly believe that Christians should not be chameleons in this world. Rather, we should be at the forefront of issues of politics—whether governmental or corporate or Little League.

How do you do that without annoying the world? Well, I’ve got to think about that…

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