Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: connecting to strangers (Page 1 of 2)

How, Oh How Can We Be New?

Dan and I spent two hours Tuesday morning walking around our Pennsauken neighborhood hanging flyers on our neighbor’s door knobs. We wanted them to know that we’re trying to do something new by starting two new Sunday meetings, one at 10:30 a.m. and one at 7:00 p.m. Afterward I marked out the area we had covered on a map of our target are in the gathering room at 3800 Marlton Pike. On that big map, the streets we canvassed in two hours were about the size of a dime. Phew! This is going to take a long time! It takes some work to be new.

But every time I walk around the neighborhood I realize that we’re newer than we think. This week we met people who are new to the neighborhood who have never heard of us. We also met people who grew up in the neighborhood but they were still new to the knowledge that “Oh Circle of Hope is a church?! That’s not a firehouse anymore?!” We’re newer than we thought even before we started two new meetings.

The energy of the new meetings is a lot of fun. The teams that have gathered around them are the best part. On Sunday mornings we stand in a big circle at 10:00 a.m. and pray for all the people who might be on there way. Then we snap into action and we’re ready for them when they arrive. Many hands, light work… light work, good vibes. In the evening, the team turns our garage bays into a living room, moving almost every piece of thrift store furniture we have collected in the place. Folks that come for the first time are getting in on the action when it’s time to move it back. We’re making something together. It feels good.

And the goodness is spreading. The cell leaders are getting in on the action by hanging the same flyers on door knobs in the neighborhoods where their cells meet. We’re spreading out across the region. Planting seeds, maybe in areas not bigger than dimes on our map, but so be it–the seeds are sown. We’re doing it together. That’s the whole point.

Honestly, it’s not that grandiose. By doing something new I think we’re getting back to basics. It’s a lot simpler and, as a result, older. The church has been regular folks living life together for a long time. Our simple vision is an old vision. Acts 20:20 says that the disciples in the early church met “in public and from house to house.” That’s our Sunday meetings and cells. It doesn’t take much more than sincere participation in these simple gatherings to be a real Christian. The meetings need to happen because they need to be made. Christians are makers and we want to be good at making something with Jesus. Space needs to be made for the next person because we need to love them intentionally. Christians are lovers who love without exception. That’s it! Make something with love! Each person brings their gifts, their love and their mustard seed of faith that any of this matters and the miracle of the Church gets born every day. We’re new, yes. We’ve always been that way.

Check out our facebook events for details of our Sunday Meeting After Party on September 10th and or come to our Family Dinner for More Than Just Family on September 3.

I’m back on campus

Camden County College, Tell Me Your Story

Me and my new friend, Yelitza in the Cafeteria at Camden County College

Some of you heard the story of how I got kicked off Camden County College’s Blackwood campus last November for holding my “Tell Me Your Story” sign.

It caused a bit of a stir among my friends and people I didn’t even know. Someone egged me on to enroll in a class because the security official who booted me said I would be welcome only if I were a student. A bunch of people quickly helped me reach the $500 GoFundMe campaign goal I started (Thanks again!) and now I’M BACK ON CAMPUS!

My first day was Thursday. After my Digital Photography class (It’s basically just Photoshop 101 which I am totally interested in and it could come in handy as I communicate Circle of Hope’s unique vision) I went and sat in my old spot with my sign. Within 5 minutes I was having a great conversation with a new friend about his long distance relationship. Within 15 minutes I was confronted by security… again.

I thought last time it was the head of security, but this time it was actually the head of security. A guy named Steve. Nice guy. I’m not sure why they need to come out with the heavies, five deep to have a conversation with me, but that’s how they roll, I guess. Steve asked me if I was a student. I whipped out my shiny new student ID and John, the not head of security who I had spoken to before asked me if I attended classes. I told them how excited I was about learning Photoshop. Steve thought it was actually pretty great that I went and did what John had suggested, but he wanted to give me another hurdle. I had to go and talk with the Dean of Students to get permission to do my project.

The Dean, Jackie, was nice but in a hurry, so she asked me to send an email. This is what I wrote her:

Dear Dean Tenuto,

Thank you for seeing me in your office on Thursday to talk about my idea to listen to people’s stories on campus. You asked me to tell you why I wanted to do this.

It’s basically an expression of who I am and a gift I have to give to the campus. I always wanted to bring the power of a non-anxious presence “to the streets.” There’s something special about a non-judgmental ear with a stranger. I discovered this as a hospital chaplain, a career for which I am highly trained but no longer employed in full time. I recently moved to Camden County (I live in Haddon Township) and I thought the Blackwood Campus was one of the few places around that had a high enough concentration of available people to try my idea.

My plan is to sit in the “quad,” or whatever we call it outside” the Connector” building, with my “Tell Me Your Story” sign once a week for an hour or so. I did this a lot last semester on Wednesdays (before security asked me to leave) and it was a lot of fun. I only got positive feedback from the students. Now that I am a student, myself (I enrolled in a photography class mostly in defiance to the strange experience of being kicked off campus for what I thought was a beautiful thing), I think this exercise doesn’t really need sanction because it is a peer to peer connection that enriches the community and builds connection and kindness on campus. However, I submit to the request of campus security as I did in November.

Will you now give me permission to do this, please? Thank you.


Ben White

And I got permission! Now I’m free to do my beautiful thing and hopefully keep making friends. I was there yesterday but it was raining, so I was in the cafeteria. I’m looking for people who want to be the alternative with me. Jesus is building a Circle of Hope in South Jersey. I’m looking for those who want to expand our Good Story Telling and break down as many barriers between neighbors, classmates and even security officials as possible.

I Got Kicked off of Camden County College’s Campus Today

Yep, you heard that right. I got kicked off of Camden County College’s Blackwood Campus today for hanging out with students who I met while holding a sign that said “Tell Me your Story.” The head of security asked me to leave because I was not an authorized guest. I asked him how I could be authorized and he basically said I couldn’t… We’ll see.

tell-me-your-storyI went to Camden County College (CCC) with my sign because I wanted to meet young people who might be interested in making a movement that broke down the barriers isolating so many of them. The campus in Blackwood, NJ, is pretty set apart, geographically, from anything else, so everyone is commuting. Everyone is rushing by each other, getting to class, feeling alone a lot of the time. The college is a kind of paragon of the epidemic of isolation that comes sweeping behind our technological integration of pocket computers. It was a great place to randomly ask for connection to strangers and it was very well received. I probably talked to a hundred people.

Army Recruiters get a pass but I don’t

A couple of weeks ago I met some army recruiters there. They were friendly people and interested in my sign like so many others so we talked. In our conversation I kept saying the word “killing” as a major downside of joining the military. Finally one of them tried to correct me, “We don’t really use the word ‘killing’, we say ‘we’re defending the guy next to us.”

Yep, you do. You do say that, new army recruiter friend, because if you don’t, you would have to admit that no matter the reasons, in the end, war comes down to killing. Human beings are not designed to kill. Something inside of us rejects it and it takes some serious reprogramming (like avoiding the word “killing”) to sign up to be a part of it. (Have you seen the Netflix show, Black Mirror’s episode, “Men Against Fire”?)

I asked, and none of the three recruiters had discharged their weapon in combat. One was a mechanic; another was a chemical weapons specialist, and the third was a data analyst. I doubt there are many infantrymen who have been through the reality of war and not just it’s periphery that are recruiting the next generation of killers. There is an epidemic of suicide and addiction among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan (and don’t forget Vietnam). War has the nasty habit of breaking people.

And now, after being booted from campus as an unauthorized guest, my encounter with these recruiters is starting to sting a little more. These peddlers of death (giving and receiving it) were there as authorized guests, talking to students, but I can’t be there as a peddler of love and connection!? I am decidedly not super religious when I talk to people, because I want to provide a space for them to be heard and cared for, not pump my own agenda. I give them my card or a flyer about Circle of Hope’s Sunday meeting if they seem interested in what I am doing, but not everyone gets one. I am not a gimmick, I am a human being with skills in being a non-anxious presence (I was a hospital chaplain) who follows Jesus too. I am eager to find people who want to build Circle of Hope with me, but I am glad to just be a compassionate ear as well.

Opposition is Par for the Course

tell-me-your-storyIt took security about two months to notice my weekly Wednesday presence. I made some friends and maybe some future partners before I got caught so not all is lost, but I hated the feeling of being caught. They asked me to leave and requested I not come back unless I enrolled as a student (Digital Photography might be a fun class though).  I don’t want to sound too weird, but it seems like I’m encountering some serious resistance, like from cosmic powers of darkness or something. The Spirit of the Age protects students at a public institution form my influence. Ugh!

As demoralizing as my ousting was, I take some comfort in this opposition. It sounds just a little like Jesus in the Garden, “Am I some dangerous revolutionary, that you come with swords and clubs to arrest me?”, or Paul in 1 Thesalonians “You know how badly we had been treated at Philippi just before we came to you and how much we suffered there. Yet our God gave us the courage to declare his Good News to you boldly, in spite of great opposition.” Opposition is par for the course in this Good News spreading business.

But… Peacemaking

I am a peacemaker. I call war what it is and I make space for some peace of mind through storytelling. I am not welcome. They are war makers. The “opportunity” of military recruitment in our “volunteer” armed forces is a lie. They convince people that killing is protecting. They are welcome. This is the world we live in! We’ve been saying it all week in the wake of the elections, but I need to hear it again, “Take heart, Jesus has overcome the world.” And when I do take heart, I feel a something burgeoning against this resistance. If we are opposed, we must be on the right track. The Spirit is on the move like in Gethsemene and Philippi–hopefully in Camden County too.

I’m like 30. How do I make a friend again?

Someone asked this question in my cell recently. And it was sincere. I feel it. How do you go from not knowing someone to knowing someone or being there for someone? The prospect is daunting. And it’s more than just my cell mate. This is something everyone feels. I was recently listening to the Judge John Hodgman podcast (a hilarious fake internet court where John Hodgman, who is most famous for being the PC in the Apple commercials a few years ago, settles petty disputes between people who write in to the show). On this show a couple had recently had a baby and the husband wanted to make a concerted effort as a couple to find friends who were parents who would help them adapt to life as parents. The wife was reticent to put the time and energy into making new friends. It was a very interesting dialogue about parenting and how friendships form (there was a guest host so it’s not the same as the show always is but if you want to listen to it, here ya go)

Friendships form when you are young and transient so fluidly. Proximity is a big factor. How many of your good friends were in your algebra class in high school or on your floor in your college dorm? For folks that live close to where they grew up I bet the answer is “most of them”? But what about folks who have moved out of state? How do I make new friends when I’m totally new? The people on the podcast were Christians and they had a lot of friends through church, some of whom had already babysat for this couple’s 12 week old baby. The church looked good. The non-religious hosts were notably flabbergasted by that community.

The problem is that having kids or getting swamped at work or getting consumed by other stress tends to isolate us. Survival mode equals getting responsibilities dispensed and collapsing on the couch. There’s not a whole lot of time or energy left to make a friend or even maintain the friendships you already have. I think the Church often gets put in that expendable category and the community support that is available gets lost in the shuffle too. Church is a great place to make friends, and Circle of Hope especially because cells are, by design, anti-anonymity.

But making the time for others in our lives can often seem really hard, especially if we are wired to love our alone time. No one can get everything they need from solitude. Even those who are wired for alone time are also made for human connection. And if you are a Christian, you have even more incentive to lean into that part of who you were made to be, because it is in your human connections that you have an opportunity to share your connection with Jesus.

For me, it’s kind of what I do. I make friends. I don’t think I’m an expert yet, but I do think that being a Christian helps me do it. Because making friends is dang awkward. If you are going to really make friends with someone, like get beyond the acquaintances level, you’re going to have to cross a threshold. That threshold is sometimes just barely high enough to arrest the movement of the slow rolling ball that is your personhood. It just takes a little push to get over the hump. Other times the barrier is higher–your personal psychology or history makes you more risk averse, or the situations of you and your potential friend just leave the two of you more separate–the leap to friendship seems too far. Making it over that hump or across that separation is hard to do. It takes some faith. You could fear rejection, disappointment, scarcity…

Being a Christian helps me make friends because I get the stuff I need from a source other than these people I am trying to connect with. There’s less on the line in that awkward moment of becoming friends. In response to my cell mate’s question the other week I said “You have to say something sincere. Give honor. Be vulnerable.” Becoming a friend means risking exposure, putting your defenses down to some degree, letting the other in, or coming in when invited by the other. Can I risk entering that territory? What would prevent me? All friendship is spiritual whether both parties have a sense of the spiritual in their life. So if my spirit is secure in God, I am freer to be a friend.

I think identifying our need for true friendship is something in which God is very interested. How do you make a friend? Make friends with God and ask God to help you cross these barriers. Ask God to heal the wounds that fuel your hesitation. This sort of awareness doesn’t happen overnight. But ask and keep asking. Ask every day. I think you’ll get loosened up and opportunities to connect with others will shake out.

You also will need to do the practical thing of putting yourself in situations where you will meet new people. You can’t make friends with someone in your own living room very well (unless you host a cell or invite strangers over often for some other reason). I find that working together on something, being on a team is really helpful for my friendship formation. Let’s do something together. My best friends in college, for example, were those with whom I was protesting the Iraq war (check the pic above). Other friends have come from the work I’ve done forming the West Philly Tool Library, but most of all through the team at Circle of Hope. These are my soul friends. These are the ones I am bound to by more than affinity and my own time and energy. These are the ones I love. It helps that I made a public commitment to them at a Love Feast 14 years ago. That was a REALLY sincere thing to say–the covenant of mutual love in Jesus Christ–it doesn’t get much more sincere than that. You could consider taking that opportunity if you haven’t yet, or you could rededicate yourself to it if you feel like you’re fading out. It will be awkward. You’ll feel a little bit like an “ass-hat,” as my friend just described it, but Jesus will help you get over the hump. Our most recent Love Feast has stirred something among us at Circle of Hope that is drawing us closer together and closer to God in the process. That synergy is why and how we are a Circle of Hope. Let’s keep at it.

Hitchbot is Dead. Long Live Humanity!

I made a vow to pick up every hitchhiker I  ever find after receiving a number of rides from strangers when I really needed it.

When I was 19 I drove with my brother and  a couple of friends up to Mount Desert Island in Maine to spend a week camping in Acadia National Park. Unfortunately our transmission fluid was leaking all twelve hours of our drive and the transmission died just outside the park. Fortunately, one friend had AAA which could tow our 1991 Toyota Camry the 40 miles to the nearest Toyota dealership to replace the transmission (Ka-ching!) and we broke down directly outside of a private campground. We were in Maine without a car for at least 5 days. It was only a few miles in to Bar Harbor, the town on Mount Desert Island, so the next day we decided to walk it. Not long after we started walking it started to pour. There was some debate about it before we did it, but not long after it began to pour we had our thumbs out. We were hitchhiking!

It was astonishing how easy it was to get rides on Mount Desert Island. My friends and I had met in a Philadelphia public high school which taught us geometry and street smarts in disproportion favoring the later. How was this happening? We explored a lot of the park and even went into town one evening expecting to get a ride out of town when we were ready to go back to our camp. We carried a notebook with us and scribbled our desired destinations in bold lettering on the pages counting on someone to take us there. AND THEY DID!

I didn’t hear about hitchBOT until he was “destroyed by Philadelphia” but when I learned about it I was equally ashamed and proud of my Philadelphia brethren. I have a soft spot in my heart for hitchhikers, even semi artificially intelligent hitchhiking robots, and I didn’t like the bad press that was being heaped on the city I love with loads of references to the irony that this could happen in the city of Brotherly Love.

The hitchBOT website reported:

“Unfortunately, hitchBOT was vandalized overnight in Philadelphia; sometimes bad things happen to good robots.  We know that many of hitchBOT’s fans will be disappointed, but we want them to be assured that this great experiment is not over. For now we will focus on the question “what can be learned from this?” and explore future adventures for robots and humans.”

I was struck by the existential flare of the post. “Bad things happen to good robots” and “Explore future adventures for robots and humans.” It seems that this robot was going to teach us something about ourselves as a human race. “Kindness” was presumably the most attractive element to the fans of the experiment designed by a couple of social scientists, but that kindness, in my opinion, was wasted on a robot. The kindness I received on Mount Desert Island was real, and random, and beautiful because it was human to human. HitchBOT lacks that connective capacity because it was a machine.

HitchBOT is a symbol for the increasingly virtual way humans relate. It was yet another digitized triangulation of human connection. Yes, it was cute, and mostly fun, but for the sake of Philadelphia and for the human race, I choose to praise the vandals that unwittingly prophesied against the technocracy, and helped Philly live up to it’s name. It is the City of Brotherly Love- brother to brother- human to human- an art that is conceivably in danger and in need of no digitized competition. If an out-of-towner asks me what I love about Philly, I always say, “It’s the f*** you attitude.” It’s strangely charming, maybe because it’s so real and raw.  It’s human at the other end of the spectrum from kindness, but, nonetheless, very human.

HitchBOT is dead. Long live the humans. In Circle of Hope we are creating a space for anyone and everyone, from people who give rides to strangers to people who give middle fingers to strangers. It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you are at, with God, yourself or whatever. There’s room in the car. We’ve been on the side of the road too.  We’re driving the car, but we didn’t buy it. Jesus gave us the keys. Get in… if you’re human.

How do I escape the stereotype?

I got stuck on the trolley for about 45 minutes last week. I also got stuck being a Christian.

Where much of my conversation occurred- 40th and Woodland

The trolleys were broken down in the tunnel and we were beyond the diversion point. We just had to wait it out.  Instead of being consumed by my fantasy novel I struck up a conversation with the man who sat down next to me. It started with our common inconvenience- a trolley in front of us was broken down in the tunnel and we were stuck behind it and very late for work (we weren’t stressed about it because it was the day after the big snow and we were already heroes for showing up at all). It went deeper when I simply asked him “what are you reading?”

I might have been leery to ask this man this question- he seemed a bit eccentric and I could tell by the titles I spied on his photocopied reading material that his interests were a bit weird too. He was excited to tell me that every clergy person was a charlatan and religion was just a power grab.

I listened and agreed with some of his points- scientists could now describe the forces at work which caused the sun to rise or the moon to be eclipsed which made ancient stories about gods and their daily celestial responsibilities seem false. Religious people had leveraged their spiritual power throughout history to control unlettered people groups.

My new friend considered himself very lettered and he was sure that if we all just thought about things for ourselves logically we would reach the same conclusions that he had reached. I held my tongue as he insulted all religious people but eventually got a turn to speak. I contended that his evaluation of logic as the utmost criteria for reality was not unassailable- how do you logically describe love? I rejected his overly individualistic approach to truth and pointed out that it was just as much an inheritance of the western philosophical domination system as all the other homogenizing force he decried. And I told him that I trusted my own experience of God and appreciated how the stories that had been passed down to me resonated in my heart and with my desire.


As soon as I expressed my faith I was lumped into a category. I was foolish and beguiled.  I was a bleating sheep.  We danced around our points for a while but I don’t think I swayed him. He did concede to me that I wasn’t stupid, just that I had made a choice based on criteria which he had chosen as less important than his own criteria. We parted ways with a smile and a handshake which I consider a victory. At the very least he met a nice articulate Christian who took him seriously.

But afterward I was discouraged.  Maybe I should have just read my fantasy novel.  I didn’t like being lumped.  At one point I said, “Listen, you don’t know me, you can’t put that on me.”  He was putting all the deceit and power of Christian history on my shoulders, but more so he was insisting that my faith was blind.  The moment I have faith I am deceived.  I don’t think there is a way to win that argument.  If I had the opportunity I would just have to prove to him that I wasn’t what he thought I was.   Arguments won’t win the day- only time, relationship and love.  That’s why Circle of Hope organized ourselves into cell groups- so we could create spaces for someone like him to have that opportunity.  God will have to work with this guy a bit more before he’s ready to get into a cell but if he did, it would be great fun!  Let’s pray for those we know like him and pray for more opportunities to make a way for people to get in or at the very least to have the conversation.

For All the Saints

Tractor battery? Check!  Current inverter?  Check!  Slideshow of awesome Christians?  Check!  Partner in crime?  Check!  Let’s do this!

I got pretty stoked about infiltrating First Friday with some saints–the occasion of First Friday falling on All Saints Day (November 1) won’t happen again until 2024.  I rigged up a tractor battery with an inverter to run a powerpoint of saints on a projector right there on 3rd Street.  ben and vanessa at first fridayI got my church planting partner, Vanessa, to come along.  She brought her baby, Leo.  It was going to be fun.

The powerpoint was pulled from Circle of Hope’s blog celebrating the transhistorical body of Christ [link]. The flyer I made for the event said, “Circle of Hope looks to the great ones of the Church throughout history to inspire us and lead us to acts of great love and resistance.  We are part of the transhistorical body of Christ.  We are convinced that Jesus has always found ways to move His redemption project forward in all kinds of circumstances.”

When we got there I learned First Friday has attracted a lot of street vendors, most of which are as unsanctioned as my slideshow.  So my subversive sense of what I was doing was a little undermined.  Nonetheless we set up shop, made friends with our neighbors and as it was getting dark we fired up the projector.  Subsequently the bulb blew out and our whole big thing became a much smaller thing.

I was disappointed but being there with Vanessa, intrepid mother and effusive optimist, salvaged the fun.  We made some more friends, talked about the great saints in our slideshow and passed out a bunch of flyers.  It was a good learning experience.  I learned what First Friday was like these days–who comes, when do they come where they go.  I learned how to use an inverter and a battery to power electronics.  I learned how to fail.

I had spent a lot of time and energy making this idea work- probably too much.  To not get to see if it was even somewhat fantastic was a real bummer.  However, Vanessa and I agreed that it was better to dream big and do something than to think small or to do nothing.  Trying and failing unlocks me from a pattern of high expectations for myself.  I can be stuck in a desire to achieve something great and do nothing for fear of not meeting my own expectations.  Not doing anything fails to meet those same expectations but in a way that allows me to believe in the hypothetical success of my ideas.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of our saints, and author of “The Cost of Discipleship”

Talk is cheap.  It doesn’t cost anything to have an idea.  Doing something in this case cost me some of my most valued currency- my sense of my own capacity.  Fortunately my valuing something and its being valuable are two different things.  Messing up, or burning out bulbs or whatever other perceived failures we experience can be rich investment in heavenly treasure.  Receiving the good gifts that occurred despite my unmet need for fantastic success was a good thing to learn to do.  It frees me up to try with lower stakes.  By God’s grace it loosens me up to be more creative.  It’s not an act of my will or my power.  Nothing works but God.

And of course I’m praying along with all of you for those I did meet–for the cool flyers sitting in their car, or on their kitchen table, or in their pants pocket–to be noticed again and reconsidered. Pray with me that they would join this part of the transhistorical body of Christ and be saints (holy people) with us.

Why are you doing this?

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on my bench on Locust Walk at the University of Pennsylvania holding my “tell me your story sign”.  It turns our it was parent’s weekend and I got two stories from proud Penn parents.  One man, D, came up to me and said, “Ok, you’ve piqued my interest.  I’m not going to tell you my story but I would like to know why you want my story.”

logoI answered, “I want to meet people and I think that telling stories is good for us.”  He probed further addressing the Circle of Hope logo I had drawn on my sign, “This ‘circle of hope’ looks rather sinister doesn’t it, with this menacing black circle.”  I got a little defensive, but backed down from the direct conflict, “Well, I didn’t design it.”

“But you did make this sign and you couldn’t change it?  See that’s the sort of thing that religion is always doing.  Obedience is demanded and you’re either in or you’re out depending on whether or not you obey,” D responded.

“Now hold up a minute!” My dander was up, “That’s putting something on me that I did not say.  I want to use this logo because I am Circle of Hope.  This symbol has value to me because it has a history and a cache that I have been a part of and I don’t want to lose.”

D appreciated my push back and we proceeded to have a very interesting discussion about the language of commercialism and the concessions one makes to participate in the system of marketing, logos, etc. D’s claim was that a logo at it’s essence is manipulative.  It may be, but I said I have to speak the language of the culture.  I have to do something to make a relationship, and if that means I have to get my hands dirty in some imperfect communication, so be it–because I must communicate my hope.

benchD seemed to appreciate my passion and he actually went on to tell me his story of life in the church as a boy and his teenage disillusionment.  He said, “Well look at that, you did get me to tell you my story!”  I got to share with him my desire for the promises of Jesus to be true and my experience of living out of that desire as a sort of loop that fueled the desire and my trust in the promise more and more as time goes on.  He liked that and seemed genuinely pensive about the whole conversation which contrasted with his initial aggressive posture.

Why am I holding a sign that says tell me your story?  Because me asking you creates a space in which we can be real with each other.  I’m not responsible for what happens next.  I have hopes.  I am looking for friends, and I am finding them.  I want to share my hope in Jesus with anyone who wants to have it with me, but I also think that the storytelling has its own value whether not I make a friend or Jesus’ story makes its way into the conversation explicitly.

To close I give one other story.  I met a woman, R, who was walking up the walk.  She looked at my sign.  I said, “hi” and “how ya’ doing?”

“Not so good,” she replied.

She then tearfully explained to me a difficult conversation she had just had with a dear friend.  This friend had believed a lie about her that a third person had told her.  She thought that their friendship was primary enough to trump any other person’s influence.  She had invested a lot in building that sort of intimacy and trust and based on her friends reaction it seemed that that sense of connection and investment was not mutual.  She was heartbroken.

After telling her story and shedding her tears with me right there in public, she walked away thanking me for listening.  I was so awed, I didn’t even give her my card.

There are many reasons to hold my sign.  I’m grateful for what God is doing with it.

I’m that guy with the sign

At one point this week I was having a conversation with 3 new acquaintances simultaneously about 1) good and evil 2) greek tragedies, 3) vampires and 4) the broken Democratic machine in Philadelphia.  My “Tell Me Your Story” bench kind of blossomed on Monday afternoon.  That wasn’t the only multi-person conversation I had either.  I’m trying to be “that guy with the sign” and it seems to be working.

I’m trying to make some new friends at the University of Pennsylvania.  I’ve still got my toes in the water at University of the Sciences and Drexel, but I’m hanging out mostly at Penn.  I think that among the 11,000 undergraduates there are some who want to explore relationship with Jesus.  The problem I had when I had this idea is that I didn’t really know anyone at Penn.  I had to break the seal between me and the thousands of people walking down Locust Walk.

So I found a bench on the walk, held up a sign that says “Tell Me Your Story”, and waited. (I’ve told you some of this before)  Today I have a strategy about the waiting that I wanted to articulate.

Not only is the sign itself with its unexpected invitation disarming enough to stop someone in their tracks upon first seeing it, but it also has a cumulative effect.  Someone came up to me last week and said, “I’ve seen you here before.”  Yes!  I want the people walking down Locust Walk to gain a sense of familiarity with me.  Why would they come and talk to me?  Hopefully because they’ve seen me so many times and they’ve seen other people talking to me.  They always liked the idea but they would never just, like, talk to a stranger.  But I’m not a stranger anymore–I’m that guy with the sign!

I think Jesus held up a similar sign of sorts when he told his parables-those amazing word pictures he was always painting.  My favorite definition of a parable is C.H. Dodd’s “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” I’m teasing the minds of those who see me into active thought.  I’m arresting them with my strangeness.

And yes I’m doing it for a reason.  That’s the first thing people ask me when they come to my bench.  I tell them “I’m a pastor at Circle of Hope and I want to know you and be known.  I’m looking for friends.” (Also, a pretty arresting thing to say).  Usually people who have already come over won’t walk away after I’ve told them what I’m doing, but it has happened.  I’m offering them myself, and that is a little too intimate for some.

I think that is what Jesus is doing in his parables.  He’s not serving it up to us in some very concrete way, maybe because it cannot be expressed concretely or at least should not be, but I think also because he wants to offer himself to his listeners.  He’ begging their questions.  He doesn’t want them to just get his ideas, he wants them to get him and relationship with him.  Too often Christians have sold Jesus as an idea.  They react to me that way.  One woman actually said, “Oh, is this the part where you try to sell me something” when I mentioned Jesus.  But I’m looking for people to share a life with me in Christ.  I want t be known as Jesus wants to be known.  To get there with the people of Locust Walk at the University of Pennsylvania I’m being that guy with the sign.

tell me your story

I’m expanding the idea with a group tonight at 8:30pm in Houston Hall (3417 Spruce).  Please pray for me and my new partner, Saul, as we seek those who want to connect with us and Jesus.  At the very least tonight will be a good time of prayer for me and Saul.  At the very most God will start something new that impacts Penn in astounding ways.

Tell Me Your Story, Penn

My friend, Howard Pinder, came up with this great idea.  The “Tell Me Your Story” sign.  I’ve been emulating him at the University of Pennsylvania this week.  It’s pretty fun! People look at me when I’m holding the sign, many look away when I meet their gaze, they look away and smile.  Many give a thumbs up or say they like my sign, only a few tell me their story but enough people do for me to be excited about doing it again.

I even ran into my old friend Stephen, who was in town for like 12 hours.  How rad!

I even ran into my old friend Stephen, who was in town for like 12 hours. How rad!

I’m breaking down the barrier between us.  I’m inviting people to escape their cynicism and fear for a moment.  I’m doing something weird that breaks the monotony of those who are just passing by.  Those who stop to talk are interested in why I’m doing this.  “What is this for?”, “Is this for a class?”  Nope, I’m just a local pastor looking for friends.  I think everyone has a story worth telling because everyone is valuable in God’s eyes.  You’re important so what happens to you is important.  I want to listen because I think it’s good for me to honor your importance and give you my ears as gifts.  I usually tell people about Circle of Hope because they want to know what sort of church has a pastor that does this sort of thing.  It’s a great opportunity to meet the next partner.

5 stories I’ve heard:

1) A man from India is here visiting his niece.  He runs a green technology company in India that makes less money than his old company but he is more satisfied with the more meaningful work.  His Hindu faith influenced him passively by instilling in him a reverence for nature that he wants to protect with his business.  He told me how he decided to change his vocation after a conversation with a friend.

2) A first generation immigrant from Afghanistan lost her dad to cancer 2 years ago when she was a freshman.  She realized then that there is more to life than economic success and being “the best.”  She wishes more of her peers at Penn would learn this because she is sick of the elitism she perceives among them.

3) A woman grew up on a farm in South Dakota with her 10 younger siblings.  She was sort of Mom #2 to her youngest siblings.  One morning, one of her brothers busted a gash in her other brother’s forehead with a golf club.  The whole clan climbed into the van and went into town to get him stitched up.  It wasn’t a big deal to her–a real pioneer!

4) At his senior show, a guy got a few friends to sing “I get by with a little help from my friends” by the Beatles with him.  Thy all sang to another friend who was part of the show too.  It sounded like an episode of “Glee”

5) A woman waxed nostalgic about watching boys play football on her street in Detroit.  She misses the strong sense of community she experienced as a kid. She feels a bit isolated in her current circumstance.

People are looking for connection.  People have a story to tell.  I make the cell group I lead about telling our stories all the time.  In telling our stories we get to listen to ourselves tell it.  Our fears often feel less frightening once externalized.  Our hopes often feel more real when shared.  Taking the risk to connect, especially with people we don’t know or with whom we don’t have an automatic affinity is one way that we can experience Jesus’ love.  Uncanny bonds and unexpected discoveries are made on a regular basis in places where Jesus is at the center.  A sense of belonging comes quickly and a warmth that defies easy explanation.  That’s the “safe place” we say we are.  That’s the “safe place” next to Jesus.  I felt some of that even with strangers on Locust walk this week.  I wonder how deep this will go.

[Check out for some of Howard Pinder’s collected stories]

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