There are a lot of coffee shops in downtown Santa Cruz. I think by the end of the week, my friend Chris and I had stopped into most of them. It’s important to me to maintain fully optimized blood-caffeine levels throughout the day, and I like good coffee–so much that I even roast my own at home. That led to an interesting conversation at one of the shops that was experimenting with roasting a small batch of coffee on site. An employee was teaching herself how to “cup” coffee, which is the art of identifying, analyzing, and ranking the many flavor notes that can vary greatly from one coffee to the next. We chatted for awhile, and then I noticed that the barista was sporting a tattoo on the inside of her bicep. It featured a forest at the bottom and a canopy of stars at the top.
I told her that I liked the tattoo, and asked if there was a story to go with it. She was pretty shy about answering, and then when I encouraged her to share more, she kept speaking in monosyllables.
“It’s a constellation,” she finally answered.
“Is it a particular constellation?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s one that I like.” Okay…
It was time for lunch, and I was tired of the high-priced, less-than-spectacular fare of the downtown strip restaurants. Through Yelp, I was able to locate a hot dog stand within walking distance that looked promising. It was getting late in the week, and the research wasn’t going so well. I had thought Santa Cruz, with its California surf culture, would be optimal for Ink and Skin research, but it wasn’t turning out to be the case. I had never had to work this hard to draw out people’s stories. It seemed like everywhere we went in Santa Cruz, people were on a different page than we were. From the concert to the surf shop to the coffee shops, we ran into one dead end after another.
On the way to the hot dog stand, we encountered a young man sitting on the sidewalk with his dog. He look up at us and disinterestedly remarked, “Repent.”
“What?” we asked.
“You need to repent,” he said again, without looking at us.
“What does that mean?” While I wasn’t expecting a theological treatise, as a pastor I wondered what angle he was taking on the idea of repentance. As he sat on the sidewalk, he was preparing to paint something onto a long wooden board that he had beside him.
“If you have two shirts, give one to the one who has none. The rich are taking from the poor.” I didn’t disagree at all with his ages-old prophetic message.
I asked, “What’s your dog’s name?”
“Dog”, he replied offhandedly.
“Is he friendly?”
“Yeah sure, whatever.” I proceeded to befriend the dog while the street preacher began working on his sign. Without planning it beforehand, Chris and I began to try to get this man to go off of his cold, impersonal message, but he pretty much stuck to his script. We moved on, remarking that the man didn’t seem to care who his audience was, nor was he interested in getting to know who he was trying to save.
A few blocks away, Happy Hot Dogs delivered the goods I was looking for. It was a street vendor with a cart that produced boiled, “skin-on” Chicago-style hot dogs and steamed buns. It was just right.
On the way back to the strip, we encountered our street preacher again. He now had the outline of several letters, a few of which he had filled in with a permanent marker. The single word REPENT served to reinforce his earlier message. I asked him where he was from. “I’m not from this world.” Chris asked where he grew up. “I choose not to grow up.” Chris asked where he lived when he was ten years old. “I’d rather not remember.” Perhaps this was the only clue he was going to give us as to who he was or what he was about.
After reflecting on our encounters with this man, as well as the week of strange encounters in Santa Cruz, I came to a realization about the Ink and Skin project. In order to have a legitimate opportunity to ask someone about their ink, I need to establish at least some minimal form of relationship with that person. It doesn’t need to be much, but there has to be some contact other than a cold approach, even if the goal is to get to know the other person. A couple of examples might help to explain what I’m getting at.
If I’m at a restaurant, and I notice that my waiter has an ink sleeve, I will have already established a client-customer relationship with that person before breaking out a question about their ink. The same is true if I’m talking to a barista or an airline ticket agent or a person sitting next to me at a ball game. There’s a reason other than my question that has brought us together.
I realized that what I was trying to do in Santa Cruz was to either (A) come on completely cold with the question, which was uncomfortable for the other and for me; or (B) create an artificial situation such as the coffee shop where the question could be asked. Neither worked very well. What has worked in the past is what I would call “incarnational” asking. It means that I’m already there, in the flesh, and the beginning of a relationship has already taken place. It’s not cold, it’s not artificial. Instead of a scripted situation into which I might insert someone (i.e. the street preacher’s method), I need to really be there.
This is true of Christian evangelism as well. Working in cold or artificial conditions doesn’t lend itself well to reaching out with the good news. There has to be a relationship that has already sprouted before we have earned the opportunity to speak. But even greater than this is the fact that Jesus came in the flesh to share this message with his disciples. Not cold, not artificial, not distant or off somewhere else, Jesus made his home on earth with real people in real places with a real message to share into the real relationships he made. Incarnational: real, and in the flesh – like a tattoo with a real story to share.