Brand building through storytelling

Invasion of the subway evangelists

The cool look for an urban male, this summer that’s just about over, is reportedly plaid shorts, a white T-shirt and flip flops. Tell that to the smiling band of brothers who have lately appeared on Toronto’s east-west subway line dressed for school photos of days gone by–pressed gray pants, crisp white shirts, jackets and ties. You’ll never catch them zoning out like the rest of us blank-eyed commuters. They’re much too busy chatting up strangers, and the other day one of them had the cheek–or maybe just the wild optimism–to pick me. “Hello, ma’am. How are you today?”

Every telemarketer’s favourite intro. “Fine,” I said glacially, assuming my don’t-bug-me posture: arm clutching purse strap as if it were a weapon, eyes fixed on the closest ad.

“Have you heard about Jesus Christ?”

Now, I’ve studied devotional poetry and can even recite a few lines. I’ve marveled at medieval cathedrals where sunlight spills through jewel-coloured windows that illuminate the life of Jesus. And every Christmas season, I OD on the heart-swelling grandeur of Messiah: “Unto us a child is born…” I believe in something greater than myself, and I believe that Jesus was a visionary leader. First and foremost, I believe we’re all entitled to our own spiritual beliefs–provided we don’t foist them on the rest of the world. I didn’t have the heart to say any of this to the earnest, rosy-cheeked young man with the fresh crew cut. So I said, “This is not a conversation I feel like having.”

He looked at me like a camp counsellor who’s trying to coax a phobic 8-year-old into the water. “Have you ever encountered missionaries before?”

“I’m descended from them. And that’s as close to missionaries as I’m prepared to go.” This was the short version of the story. The slightly longer version is that my paternal grandparents, Christian soldiers of the most extreme sort, raised my father with a fear of hellfire that led him first to depression and then to drink. Of the pair, my grandmother was the real holy terror. She died long before I was born, but the family album shows a stern gaze and massive jaw that would give any child the shivers.

The young missionary flashed me a smile that was undoubtedly meant to be comforting. Across the subway car sat his next target, an attractive black woman nodding along to the music from her iPod. “Have you heard of Jesus Christ?” he asked her.

Out came the ear buds. “The question is what you’ve heard about Jesus. Are you aware that Jesus was black?” In full rhetorical flight, she informed him that the Bible as he preached it was a racist book. “Read your Bible, sir!” she urged, jabbing the air with a manicured finger. “Read your Bible! The truth is all there!”

I had boarded the subway just to get somewhere, and this was a bonus: a battle between missionaries, one all ablaze with passion, the other sweet mellowness. Just as the train lurched into my station, they resolved to ride together to a stop well down the line, where they’d continue their conversation. I wish I could have eavesdropped on their struggle for each other’s souls.

If there was a winner, I’m betting on the woman with the iPod. Grandmother Maynard could never have countenanced the notion of a black Jesus, and she thought that music was the devil’s work. But she’d have recognized that woman as a kindred spirit.


Posted by Rona

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