During graduate school I worked each summer in the maintenance department of a large financial services company helping to maintain its landscaping and beautiful rolling lawn. Early on I could tell that the guys on the maintenance crew weren’t real thrilled with having a “pastor-in-training” on their team, but their misgivings only strengthened my resolve to reach out to them and convert them to Christianity. My first week on the job I adopted the guys on my crew as my spiritual “project.” I remember praying, “Jesus, when I leave this place I want every person on my team to be a Christian.”
By that time in my spiritual journey I had already proved myself to be a fervent evangelist, so I assumed my goal would be easily attained. The first part of my strategy was to set myself apart by living a morally noticeable life. I worked harder and longer than everybody on the team. I refused to join in when they told dirty jokes and swore, and whenever we were in the locker room I made sure never to look at the pictures of naked women hanging on the walls. The second part of my strategy was to insert spiritual ideas into our conversations to provoke discussions about God and faith. Some would have called this “picking a fight,” but at the time I called it “witnessing.”
I zeroed in almost immediately on one man named Andrew. He was in his early forties, and just moved to the states with his family from Poland. Andrew could barely speak English, so most of our conversations revolved around Andrew pointing to something and asking, “Brian, what English word for…?” I figured Andrew would be the easiest to reach on our team, so I chose every assignment I could get that involved working with him. I discovered Andrew was a former Catholic and had little interest in spiritual matters. However, this didn’t deter me in the least. With the zeal of a pushy door-to-door salesman, I forced spiritual matters into just about every conversation Andrew and I had.
Near the end of the summer I was talking with Andrew and casually asked, “Andrew, we’re friends, right?” He took me by surprise when he answered, “No.” Shocked, I said, “What do you mean? We’ve been working together an entire summer.” He answered, “Brian, what you call people…you know…you talk with them…you work with them…they are nice people…you go home and don’t see them until you go to work again? I said, “Acquaintances?” He said, “Yes, acquaintances. I have many acquaintances.” Then he said, “In Poland, our word for friend is special. In Poland, when we call a person friend, it means that we share hearts with that person. So, to answer your question: In America, I do not have any friends yet.”
Before I knew it the summer came to a close and I returned to school full-time, but when I returned the following summer I was a different person. I had spent most of the school year doubting the existence of God and sorting out an excruciating crisis of faith. I started my first day on the job thoroughly broken. I was still a believer, but I felt as if I had just come out of surgery and my soul was still bandaged. Gone was the spiritual bravado and pushiness from the summer before, replaced by a few things that were new to me: empathy, respect, and patience. I think Andrew was puzzled by the change in my persona because late one afternoon he asked if I still believed in God. I looked at the ground and slowly said, “Yes, Andrew, I still believe in God, but my faith in myself has been shaken.” Andrew wisely responded, “That might be good thing, no?”
As Andrew and I spent time together that summer I found myself listening more and talking less, and because of that I was amazed at what I learned about him. I discovered that Andrew was a lawyer in Poland, and that he couldn’t practice law here in the U.S. because he didn’t have the money or time to go back to school. I discovered that Andrew had a wife of twenty years named Eva, and two children. I also found out that Andrew was a brilliant man. He spoke four languages, studied philosophy, and had a fanatical interest in soccer. As Andrew talked and I listened, he initiated profound spiritual conversations and asked probing questions for which I had few answers.
Over time, the more we walked around the grounds, cutting the lawn and working on the building, the more ashamed I became of the way I acted the previous summer. I was afraid that I had single-handedly turned Andrew off to spiritual matters completely. Fortunately that didn’t seem to happen. It struck me as odd at the time, but it appeared that the more Andrew watched me struggle and the more I was honest with what I was feeling, the more spiritual interest he showed. There was something very authentic and natural about the way our relationship unfolded each day.
On my last day at the company, something happened that will always hold a special place in my heart. After I said goodbye to everyone on my team, none of which had become Christians, Andrew followed me out to my car. He placed both hands on my shoulders and said something I will never forget: “I will miss you, Brian Jones, my friend.”
Brian Jones is an author and the Senior Pastor at Christ’s Church of the Valley, an innovative community of faith he and his wife helped start in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Brian’s first book, Second Guessing God, was his attempt to help people wrestle with the question, “Why does God keep allowing really bad stuff to happen in my life?” In his second book, Getting Rid of the Gorilla, Brian explored the difficult issue of forgiveness, why he’s not very good at it, and how an unforgiving heart can make you do some pretty hurtful things in life if you don’t deal with it.