I have learned, over the course of nearly four years being a solo pastor in a small church with no office staff to handle phones, to be wary of answering calls with unfamiliar area codes. At best, these tend to be automated telemarketing calls or faxes (there are people out there who still fax, apparently) and I can easily hang up the phone and move on with my day. At worst, they are eager representatives (frequently relentlessly cheerful young women with southern drawls—unless it’s Promise Keepers calling) from large, usually American, religious organizations who are seeking my/our support for some upcoming event or initiative or massive multi-site networked “experience” that will revolutionize my ministry. These calls are much more difficult to extract myself from. I am never rude, but I’m afraid I don’t give them much by way of encouragement. Usually by around the second minute of our phone call, I can sense the exasperation bleeding through the line all the way from Tennessee.
This morning, a strange area code appeared. Against my better judgment, I answered the phone. A man with a thick accent began to speak.
Goood mahning sah! My name is Humberto, and I am calling on behalf of the ______ Evangelistic Association. Would you agree, that one of the church’s major problems is that our young people are not being evangelized?
I thought about this for a second, and began to respond, “Well, I’m not sure I would put it exactly like that, but…”
And sir, would you also agree that all churches need to have better tools to evangelize their young people?
“Um, well, yes, probably, but…”
And sir, did you know that there is a conference coming to your area by video link that will equip you to evangelize your young people and train them up in the way of the Lord!
“I did not know that.”
Sir, this conference will bring back the fire of the Holy Spirit to your ministry and your young people will come back to church! Can I say that you will attend?
Many things went through my head at this point. Things like, “Do you really think that 1970’s style evangelistic methods are the missing ingredient to drawing millennials back to church?” and “Are large-scale video conferences with high-octane hyper-enthusiastic speakers the tool for the job in every context?” and “Is a lack of evangelism really the problem here?” and “Do you think your diagnosis for what ails the postmodern church might be overly cognitive in nature or that sometimes young people have decent reasons for leaving the church?” and a whole host of other less-than-enthusiastic responses to the services he was offering.
But what I said out loud, was more of a halfhearted and lame, “I’ll think about it and get back to you.” Mercifully, Humberto seemed reasonably pleased with this response. Or, at least not obviously displeased.
I sighed with relief, imagining my ill-advised phone conversation to be nearing its completion. But before I could disconnect, Humberto had one more question for me. “Before I let you go, is there something I could pray for you about?” I don’t tend to spend a lot of time praying for (or being prayed for by) total strangers on the phone, so I was a bit taken aback. Oh, um, well, I guess you could pray for the week ahead… For our Maundy Thursday and Easter services… That they would, um, go well? I imagined that Humberto was probably thinking I was the lamest pastor in the known universe by this point.
But Humberto said, It would be my pleasure, pastor… what is your name, sir? “Ryan,” I said. Well, Ryan, let me pray for you. Humberto began to pray. And pray, and pray and pray. His language soared as he prayed for all kinds of things that buttoned-down Mennonites tend not to pray for. Or, are too afraid or respectable or enlightened to pray for. He uttered phrases like “the fire of the Holy Spirit!” and “rushing roaring winds.” He used words like “revival” and “glory” and “majesty.” On and on he went, louder and louder his voice grew. He prayed that Pastor Ryan would be a MIGHTY servant of the living Lord!! I squirmed and shuffled my feet, embarrassed at my lack of both mightiness and servanthood. But Humberto kept right on praying. Loudly. For me.
And the longer he prayed, the more I began to think—for the first time in our conversation, I’m embarrassed to admit—about Humberto as an actual human being instead of as an inconvenience. I wondered what part of Africa he was from (I was reasonably certain his accent came from that part of the world). I wondered what he had seen in his lifetime. War? Famine? Persecution? None of the above? I wondered about the ways in which he had experienced the risen Christ as his Friend and Saviour, Liberator and King. I wondered what had led him to work for the _____ Evangelistic Association. I wondered if perhaps this organization had introduced him to Jesus once upon a time. It occurred to me that perhaps the reason Humberto spent hours on the phone reaching out to reluctant pastors like me was because he was profoundly grateful that once upon a time someone from a far off place had reached out to him.
I thought about that for a minute.
Humberto’s prayer reached its crescendo in its closing words. We pray these things in the MIGHTY name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, RISEN from the dead, glorious LOOOOOORD of Life and head of his church!! Aaaaay-MEN!! Amen indeed. Humberto was breathing loudly into the phone. I half expected to open my eyes and see chariots descending from the sky or Jesus himself riding on a white horse. But all I saw was a banana and a half empty cup of coffee on my desk. I smiled, and thanked Humberto for praying for me. My pleazhah, sah! he said. And you know what? I absolutely believe that it was.
I don’t think that I will be attending or viewing the videoconference put on by the _____ Evangelistic Association in order to “revolutionize my ministry” and “bring back the young people.” But in the end, I’m grateful to have had the chance to speak with Humberto. I appreciated his prayer for me very much, superlatives and all. I’m glad that I picked up the phone.