At our Christian College, Joanne was an institution. She had been sitting at the entrance to the college cafeteria since I was in diapers. Her tight curls and cracked lipstick were conspicuously out of place swiping student ID cards at a liberal-arts college. She seemed more like the woman you’d see dishing out greasy burgers to truck drivers in a family diner. I had seen her thousands of times, but I started to appreciate her after I started picking up lunch shifts refilling the milk and soda machines.
“Long week?” I asked Joanne as I handed her my student ID.
“It’s always a long week, sweetie,” she laughed.
“Well, it’s already Thursday,” I responded. Then I remembered she once mentioned that she works weekends.
“Yep,” she sighed, handing back my ID card. She looked tired.
This had been an especially long week. I had gone to the morning chapel service on Monday. The school calendar had said there was a famous evangelist coming to preach. I didn’t want to go, but my new roommate Michael had insisted.
Michael had grown up in a desert village raised by missionaries as a World Vision Sponsor Child. And he had gone on to study at Christian College in Nairobi. It was in the city that he began his fascination with Televangelists. Staying up late watching re-runs of any TV Preacher whose marketing team was willing to pay for their signal to reach East Africa.
I was always suspicious of people who called themselves “evangelists.” They tended to conform to one of two models. You had your Mother Teresas, the straight-to-the-point storytellers who usually spent their days ladling soup into bowls held by tired men in dirty jackets.
And then you had your Joel Osteens—usually tall men who sold the good news wearing expensive pin-striped suits, their leather shoes reflecting the spotlight to a live studio audience. These guys detailed the benefits of the King of Kings as if he was a new car fresh off the assembly line, selling at a price you couldn’t pass up.
When we took our seats, I knew I had made a mistake not doing my standard preacher background check. The evangelist of the day was a tall blonde man in his late thirties wearing a striped-blue dress shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up his long arms. His hair was slicked back and even from the fifth row it was clear he used tooth whitener. He opened with a story about using airplane rides as witnessing opportunities.
“I mean, they’re stuck there for at least two hours. So I figure it’s the perfect opportunity to share your testimony.”
At camp we had practiced giving our testimonies, retelling the story of how we met Jesus. The camp director required us to memorize two versions, a five-minute one to tell little kids, and a twenty-minute one for teenagers. Apparently this evangelist had a two-hour version, which seemed to include time for questions. I had heard it all before and was getting up to leave when I heard him say, “This morning I spoke to a sweet lady outside the cafeteria named Joanne.” I sat back down to hear what he was going to say next.
“And I asked her if she died today, how sure was she that she would go to heaven?” It was the same question from camp. “And her answer may surprise you.” He smiled with his pearly whites. “She said she was definitely going to heaven because she went to church every Sunday.” I scanned the chapel. The students were shaking their heads wrong answer.
Michael leaned over. “I don’t understand what was wrong with going to church,” he said quietly, as the evangelist rattled off a list of creative ways to create evangelism opportunities.
“No, going to church is a good thing,” I whispered behind my hand. “It’s thinking that going to church gets you into heaven. This man is saying you have to believe in Jesus, not just go to church.”
Michael looked confused. “Why would anyone go to church if they don’t believe in Jesus?”
“Maybe their family goes there,” I said.
“So it looks like you have a lot of work to do,” The evangelist continued. “Even on this Christian campus. I mean,” he smirked, “if your cafeteria staff thinks they can get into heaven by going to church, who else might not be a real Christian? Have you even considered asking your roommate about their faith? It would be horrible if the person you slept beside for a whole year ended up in hell because you couldn’t be bothered to ask.”
For the next two days, Joanne was assaulted with invitations to coffee and offered rides to this or that Bible-believing church. And Joanne just smiled, politely refused their offers, unsure why and a little suspicious that after three decades everyone was suddenly taking such a keen interest in her.
A few weeks later, Michael was laying on the couch listening to a televangelist well after midnight. The preacher’s southern drawl was loud enough to warrant me getting up and telling Michael to turn it down. “Turn off that garbage,” I said, standing in the hallway as a grey-haired southern preacher shook his fist against a glass podium.
Michael still had his cafeteria uniform on, a half-eaten slice of pizza and a glass of milk on the carpet by his bare feet. “Hey, Nate. Why are all the preachers on TV so obsessed with saving people from hell?” he said pointing at the screen.
“I don’t know, Michael,” I said, too tired to discuss theology.
“They talk so much about hell, but they never talk about saving poor people from the hell they are living in?” he scoffed. It was a profound thought that I was too tired to really appreciate.
“I don’t know. Maybe they think the hell after you die is worse because it’s forever. Just try and keep it down out here. I need to get some sleep,” I said, turning around.
“Man,” Michael said, turning off the TV in disgust. “Those guys should trying being hungry in the desert. That feels like forever.”
Excerpt from Poor Millionaires: The Village Boy Who Walked to the Western World and the American Boy Who Followed Him Home by Nathan Roberts and Michael Kimpur available on Amazon.com Read and see more at poormillionaires.org