Article — From the August 2009 issue

Like I Was Jesus

How to bring a nine-year-old to Christ

Last summer, forty Christian missionaries, members of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, roamed the housing projects of Connecticut telling children the condensed and colorful story of Jesus’ life. The goal was salvation, but the missionaries rarely used that long word. They employed monosyllabic language and avoided abstract concepts and homonyms. “Holy” was a problem, the missionaries said, as children thought it meant “full of holes.” “Christ rose from the dead” was also tricky because children mistook the verb for a flower.

One afternoon in July, on a basketball court in Waterbury, Scott Harris, a black nine-year-old in an oversized sleeveless jersey, was inspecting a wound on his knee. The wound was sloppily stitched and looked grotesque, like a pair of lips. “I’m mad at Adam and Eve,” Scott said to a missionary named Isaac Weaver. “If they hadn’t eaten that apple, there would be no more bushes, prickers, and bugs. I wouldn’t have busted my knee open.”

“But do you ever think,” Isaac asked, “‘What if I were the first one?’ I think I’d probably make the same mistake as Eve.”

“No, I wouldn’t have tasted that fruit,” said Scott, his voice high and hoarse. “I’m trying not to get in trouble all the time. People say, Sit down, and I’m already sitting down. They say, Be quiet, and I’m not even saying anything.”

Isaac, twenty-six years old, blue-eyed, tan, and willowy, picked up his EvangeCube, a plastic toy of eight interlocking blocks that tell the Gospel in pictures. (The cube comes in a box that bears the slogan unfolding the answer to life’s greatest questions.) He pointed to the image of Heaven: a pastel hole in the clouds emanating milky rays of light. “You were right about Adam and Eve,” Isaac said. “Where they lived, everything was perfect.” He asked Scott if he knew his ABCs, and when the boy nodded, Isaac explained that “accepting Jesus is as easy as A B C. ‘A’ stands for Admit you are a sinner. ‘B’ is for Believe that Jesus went on the cross and died for your sins. And ‘C’ is for Choose to accept Him as the boss of your life and go to Heaven forever.”

“But what if you sin when you’re in Heaven?” Scott took the EvangeCube from Isaac and jiggled it in the air. The blocks flipped, moving from the picture of Jesus’ crucifixion to Heaven and back again.

“You don’t.”

“But what if you do?”

“You can’t. You’re in Heaven.”

“Oh, it’s like an ability.”

Isaac nodded vigorously. “Now, Scott, it’s time to tell Jesus you believe what He did for you. And one day when Jesus comes back, He will make everything right.”

“What?”

“Tell Him you believe He died to take your sins away,” Isaac gently prodded.

“What does that mean?”

“It means you really do believe He came and took away your sins. Do you believe that?”

“Yeah, I do.” Scott’s nostrils flared. “You died for me—from taking my sins away.”

Three young boys approached the basketball court, and Scott turned to watch them. When they called his name, he slowly stood up and dusted off the back of his nylon shorts. “I’ve got to play now,” he told Isaac bashfully.

Isaac obliged, gathering together his props—the cube and a worn Bible, bristling with sticky notes. Although he and Scott had only gotten to “B: Believe,” he said he was pleased with the conversation. It was the first time he had performed what the Fellowship calls “open-air evangelism,” approaching strangers with no introduction besides “Do you want to hear a great story?” Before introducing himself to Scott on the basketball court, he had been overtaken by anxiety. He sat down on the curb with another missionary, and they bowed their sweaty heads in prayer. “Father, I don’t know if I can do this,” Isaac said quietly, flicking a fly off his sneaker. “To me it seems like an odd thing to do. But, Lord, if this is what You are calling us to do, then I say no to fear. Please direct us to the right people so that we can show You to them. They need You. We need You.”

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is a writer living in Brooklyn. This is her first article for Harper’s Magazine.

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    Sensible people love God. Sensible people need God. My best wishes go to those kids however misinformed they might be.

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