Most of the blog posts that I write after a leadership/spiritual conference (like the one I just attended in Florida) tend to just talk about concepts that I learned throughout the week and how I plan on setting out to apply them in my life. In this post, I’m proud to present an incredible scenario where I was already able to apply what I learned from the conference.
A group of students from SVSU joined me on a trip from Michigan to Florida this past week. Florida was the site of an annual national Catholic conference for college students. Seminars and famous speakers had the intention of motivating us to build up a stronger ministry on our campus and to encourage others to join us in our discipleship. I’ve attended these kinds of conferences before. I’ve been inspired to be that light in others’ lives in the past, but have never had as much success in my attempts to apply what I’ve learned as I did just ten hours after the conference ended.
On our way back up to Michigan from Florida, our group stopped to get some dinner in Tennessee. Most of us had never been to a Steak ‘n Shake before and eagerly ordered our steakburgers and milkshakes. While we waited, we couldn’t help but notice the strong Tennessee accents that surrounded us. We’d joke about hiring one of the waiters to talk to us just so we could hear the accent more and talk about what it’s like growing up in the South.
A small group of kids our age sat down at the table behind us. Our group started to mention the possibility of joining them and getting to know them. If it hadn’t been for my outgoing friend Mary, I would have never asked “Who wants to go with me and join them?” Mary volunteered, but mentioned she didn’t know what to say to them. I added, “Don’t worry, I’ll start it off.” Mary and I made eye contact and silently counted down, “3…2…1…Go.” I left my table to join the one behind me, and asked “Hey, is it ok if we sit with you guys?”
Now I’ve heard a lot about Southern hospitality through country songs. I was half expecting them to pull the chair out and invite me to join them; this was hardly the case. Instead, six pairs of eyes looked up at mine. One of the boys piped up, “Why?” Now that was a response I was not ready for. I didn’t get a “No, sorry” or a “Sure, take a seat,” I got a “why?”
I answered “Uh…just wondering if we could sit with you?” I glanced over at those who remained at the SVSU table. I could tell they were feeling sorry for me. I sat down and Mary joined the table, sitting across from me. The awkward introductions began as we explained our reasoning for being in Tennessee. “We were in Florida for a conference and are making our way back up to Michigan. We stopped here for dinner and just wanted to visit with some of the locals.” They started to let their guard down a little more and welcomed Mary and I. Their questions started out pretty standard; “Where y’all from?”, “What are y’all studying?” These soon developed into cultural questions; “What do y’all call a group of people?” “What do y’all call a Coke?” “Y’all watch Duck Dynasty? Do you think that’s what it’s really like down here?” “Y’all listen to country music?”
When they asked what the conference in Florida was about, I told them “It was a gathering of college Catholic students from across America. Basically we attended seminars to build up a stronger ministry on our campus and to do a better job at convincing others to be disciples of Christ.” I noticed a few muffled sniggers and some quick looks being exchanged across the table.
“Catholics, huh?” one of the guys asked. “We’re Southern Baptists. Y’all realize you’re in the Bible Belt?” One of the other guys referred back to my previous statement and asked “So why should I become Catholic?”
“Uhh…” was all I could think of at first. Thankfully, some of the other people from the group began asking questions that I was more prepared to answer. “So how do y’all think you get into Heaven? Do you think all the other denominations go to Hell?” “Why’d you decide to be Catholic?” “Y’all ever attend a service of another denomination?” The questions they asked were smart and didn’t feel bitter in tone at all. We gladly began answering their questions as we pointed out some of the things we did or didn’t believe in. Soon, the other SVSU Catholics joined the table and listened in on the discussion. While they were kept busy in conversation, I made my way up to the counter to start paying for the dinners. I ended up waiting for probably five minutes behind a line of customers while the cashier remained nowhere in sight.
I left the counter and walked back to join my friends. I could hear one of them say “Uhhhh…Keviiiiin?” When I asked what was wrong, the student asked “They’re asking what separates Baptists from Catholics?” Without a degree in Theology, I began sharing with the Tennessee folks some of the basic differences between Catholicism and Baptist churches as best I could. Together, we talked about our basic differences in the Eucharist, confession, and interpretations of the Bible. Again, their questions were asked rather intelligently (not that we expected them to be dumb people) and their kindness was overwhelmingly inspiring. Both parties, though somewhat different in their religious views, maintained a friendly atmosphere without any attacks, name-calling, or disrespect of any kind. They were genuinely interested in learning about the Catholic faith and we eagerly listened to their take on the mysteries of the universe.
When it was finally time for us to go, the Tennessee guys looked me in the eye and shook my hand the way so few teenage boys still do nowadays. We thanked them for their hospitality and a few of us even exchanged Twitter names to stay in touch. As we drove away, our whole car got all giddy as we replayed how smoothly and inspiring the conversation went; none of us felt attacked or disrespected and we hoped the same was felt by our Tennessee friends.
This was a prime example of taking what I learned at the conference and applying it to “real life”. Keep in mind, when Mary and I turned around to talk to the Tennessee kids, we had no intention of talking about our religious differences (a topic that is highly discouraged to be brought up in public these days). The reason a conversation that could have gone ugly went so well was because we started off by treating them with respect. Throughout the conversation, we weren’t addressing the Tennessee Baptists as people on opposite ends of a spectrum, but rather as brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s what we need to do folks; recognize that Christ is present in every individual, regardless of their faith or lack thereof. Our duty is to treat others with the same love and respect that our Lord not only talked about and preached as I’m doing, but also applied it to real life as our group just did.
We were thankful for the Southern Baptist’s hospitality and hope they never forget the love shown to them by their brothers and sisters in Christ, the Northern Catholics.