New Avenues for Today's Missionaries
His appearance is haggard. Hair overgrown and tangled, clothing torn, and with two front teeth missing. He shouts at the commuters who rush by without glancing as he stands at the subway turnstiles. But he isn’t angry. Vincent King’s shouting about Jesus, and inviting people to come and talk to him about Christ’s love. He hands me a pamphlet that says he works for the King James Bible Baptist Church on 42nd Street. But he is a messenger of God, he tells me. “I’m staying here until Jesus rises again.”
Seeing a man like King in New York City is by no means a rare experience. Evangelists are a regular fixture in the subways. Whether they represent Scientology, Jews for Jesus, or “hellfire” Christian evangelicals, the number of people seeking converts in the subway seems to have risen. For the last several summers, groups of young “Jewish believers” have traveled to New York City for the Jews for Jesus Summer Witnessing Campaign. The six week campaign specifically targets the two million Jews living in the tri-state area. During their New York City summer campaign of 2007, Jews for Jesus handed out 462,900 tracts to “both Jews and Gentiles,” or so says their website.
But are these groups finding converts? Over the course of the summer campaign, about 500 people gave Jews for Jesus volunteers their contact information. That does not seem like a lot in comparison with almost 500,000 leaflets dispersed, especially since it’s unknown how many of the 500 converted. Some probably hoped to do no more than continue an argument with the missionary they met. As I did with Karol Joseph.
Joseph is the Branch Director of Jews for Jesus in Brooklyn, raised Conservative Jewish and refers to Jesus as Yeshua. She celebrates Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur but doesn’t consider them binding in that if she doesn’t observe them, she’s kicked out of heaven. Some Jews for Jesus keep kosher and the Sabbath too, but Joseph does not. Unlike critics of her organization, she differentiates between Jews for Jesus and Christians. She feels attached to Jewish history and culture.
She contacted me after I asked a few questions of a Jews for Jesus missionary in the Atlantic Avenue subway station. I left my email for further contact, hoping to spark a debate. As missionaries go, Joseph is the opposite of King. She is professionally dressed, petite, has short blond hair and carries not a Bible but a PDA with several translations of the Old Testament that she can call to the screen in a flash. Her purpose is to proselytize, and she’s well prepared.
After a brief conversation about her own personal religious history, Joseph starts throwing out quotes from the “Old Testament” that prove Jesus was the messiah. The favored targets of Jews for Jesus are those who believe in God but lack the textual background to refute her points. She cites Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, and even Sanhedrin 43a from the Talmud to make the case that Jesus figures in Jewish texts prominently. She displays the text in full on her PDA to make it more believable. The texts read slightly differently in Hebrew, but when looked at through her eyes, they are very convincing.
It’s clear that Joseph is a firm believer, and her determination is to save people. “You can’t evaluate success by numbers,” she says. “We’re successful in helping Jewish people know that there are Jews who believe the Messiah has come.” If the goal is to raise awareness, then Jews for Jesus has met success. Every Jew in New York knows their name, even if many react with instinctive recoil.
Missionaries in New York and nationwide run the gamut from disheveled street-dwellers like King to brisk and professional women like Joseph. When I mention that I’m Jewish, they light up. Jews are a preferred target, especially young ones. As leaders of both the Taglit-Birthright Israel program and the year-long post high-school programs in Israel know, young adulthood is a time of change. High-school, college, and post-college-aged young adults are more likely to change religiously, and according to the Pew Institute, they are also likely to be unaffiliated with any particular religion. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe in God, however. It is this population segment of unaffiliated but spiritual people who modern missionaries are seeking out.
The Messianic Jews, Mormons, and other Evangelicals patrolling New York have faith in themselves and their beliefs and feel that they know their place and mission in the world. This faith leads them down paths others would think were crazy.
“I gave up my apartment, I gave up everything to follow the Lord,” King told me. “I’ve been dead for three years now. I’m crucified with Christ. I don’t even know who I am.” But apparently, this is okay with him. When people focus on themselves, they can’t worship God, he says. “I’d rather dedicate myself fully to God than turn in on myself.”
In contrast to the generation of Jews who published derisive pamphlets and conducted campaigns to fight the influence of missionaries, I don’t fear them. The automatic tension between traditional Jews and Messianic Jews is still there, but the saturation of Jews for Jesus in New York counteracts that. Younger Jews, who are more likely to try to find their own religious paths, don’t find it strange to engage in conversation with missionaries, even if we don’t agree with them. Our religious choices are in our own hands, and we are less worried about being swayed or sucked in by other groups.
Missionaries are aware of this as well. Instead of arguing her points, Joseph handed me “evidence” and urged me to contact her again if I had any questions. When I met with Mormons, they simply requested that I pray, confident that my path to Mormonism would open that way. The disputations our parents published hardly apply in the face of this lack of confrontation. All that’s left in our arsenal against conversion is the conviction that our choice is our own, guided by a healthy sense of skepticism.
Laura Berger grew up in Minnesota, attended university in New York and Argentina, and is currently studying in Jerusalem at Pardes.