Tonight a very nice man offended all of my sensibilities. I sat down on an evening train out of Munich on my way home from German class, flipping through my “German as Foreign Language” textbook and staring out the window. A few stops later, a man sat down next to me. He was reading a book, but kept glancing over in my direction. Finally he spoke. “Do you speak English?” he asked in a strong African accent. I smiled and said yes. Had I known what was coming, I probably would have lied and said no.
“I would like to invite you to a group I am a part of. It is a group for Christian people, and we believe in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins. I can give you a card so that you can find out more about this group. Are you Christian?” he asked in a mixture of English and German, as he fumbled around in his wallet for the aforementioned card.
I looked at him. Blinked once. Blinked twice. Yes, he did really just say that. I tried to formulate a tactful reply. “Thanks for the invitation, but I’m actually an atheist.”
“Well I can give you the card, where have I put it?” His cheerful determination left me stymied. “Ahh, I cannot find this card! I have lost it!” he announced with a wide smile.
“That’s ok, I really don’t need the card. Where are you from, by the way?” I was bothered on an intellectual level by his presumptuousness, but couldn’t muster any kind of aggression towards my good-natured proselytizer. He was simply too earnest to be offensive.
“I am from Nigeria. Where are you from?”
“I’m from Boston. The USA.” I always say Boston first. Half the time people here think I’m saying “Bosnien” (Bosnia), but I figure that’s just as well. This is progress though—during the Bush years I used to tell everyone I was Canadian.
At this point he turned and addressed the man sitting across from us. “You look familiar to me. Do I know you?”
The man answered in British-accented English, “Yes, you’ve spoken to me before.”
“Ahhh yes! Your name is Robert, I think? You are a Jehovah’s Witness, no?” The man nodded. Good grief, I thought to myself. I’m surrounded.
“And you’re from Britain, I’m guessing?” I asked the man across from us in an attempt to keep the conversation oriented in reality before these two got carried away.
“No, I am German. I’ve been living in England for two years though. I am back here to visit right now.” Inside my head was spinning. We had a Nigerian Evangelical Christian, a German Jehovah’s Witness, and an American atheist sitting together here? Was this the Twilight Zone or something?
After a lull in the conversation, I decided to make the situation more awkward yet. I turned back to face my seatmate. “I would like to invite you to a group. It is an atheist group. We do not believe in God. I don’t have a card, but you can find information about it online if you look up the ‘Giordano-Bruno Stiftung’. It’s an Italian name, I think.”
He was clearly unsure of how to respond. Why would you say that, knowing I am a Christian? his face said. Now you know how we feel, I thought to myself. I maintained a poker face of utmost sincerity.
I’ll give it to him, he did find a graceful way out. “Do you speak Italian?” It took a concerted effort not to laugh. Points for masterful avoidance of potentially uncomfortable topic. Someone who can believe the things he does has to be adept at that, I suppose.
We made awkward bilingual small talk until the next stop, where he got off of the train. I resumed staring out the window, pondering the irony of the situation. Someone from Nigeria had just tried to convert (or at least entice) me to Christianity. Was this yet another instance of Western imperialism coming back to bite us in the ass? The mark of successful missionary work; the converted becoming converters. People from my part of the world go to his and offer vulnerable people a myth. Now he comes to my part of the world (sort of; the West, in any case) and tries to hand me a card, and the cycle repeats.