I've already talked about how I moved around a lot while I was in elementary school, and how that experience made it difficult to make lasting friendships. That does not mean, however, that I had no friends. A month or two before Christmas of my second grade year, I moved with my family to Walnut Creek, CA, where I made a friendship that was to have a profound impact upon my life.
She was the daughter of the pastor of a church that was down the street from where I lived at the time, and was in my class at school. I don't actually remember how we actually started spending time together (this was over 20 years ago!), but I expect I discovered her playing outside her father's church one day as I walked home from school. (It's probably worth noting here that this was the only place in my entire career of school-hopping that I had to walk to school. Everywhere else, I used the bus.)
Anyway, I would often walk down to the church to see if she was there, and we would play together. Occasionally, during these times, she'd talk about God. I particularly remember being taught the Ten Commandments, and being somewhat shocked to learn that saying "Oh, my God!" was not a good thing. We'd talk about God in other ways, too. As I noted earlier, partly because of our constant moving around, my family did not regularly attend church at this time. I had never learned anything like this. I wouldn't accuse my friend of having used the tactics of "evangelism" we often talk about needing to use as adults. I don't remember any language like "accept Christ as your personal savior" or the usual stuff. She just talked about things that were important to her, and because of our friendship, I listened.
Sadly, just after third grade had started the following year, my family had to move away again. A few years later, my family did get involved in church, and the conversations of that summer began to take on new meaning for me. I certainly don't claim to have become a Christian that summer, but because of that friendship, seeds were planted. As a result, I've always remembered that time fondly. About three years ago, when my girlfriend (now my wife) and I went with some friends to San Francisco, I took a day to catch the BART train to Walnut Creek and relocate my old neighborhood. The apartment I lived in is still there, as is the elementary school, and I walked the distance to and from it just like I used to when I was a child. The church building is still there, too, although it is no longer connected to the same congregation. I took several pictures to share with my friends.
God works in mysterious ways. I was shocked a couple of years ago to find a new student at the seminary where I work, with the same name as my second grade friend, which I expect to be a not-uncommon name. However, I couldn't shake my curiosity, and so after an Arts event in which she had participated, I asked her if she had lived in Walnut Creek, and if father was a pastor. Over 20 years later, we had met again! I've asked her permission to share this story, which she kindly granted. It seems odd to think that we known each other now, in our adult lives, longer than we did as children, given that I've lived with the memories of second grade for so long.
It has long been a conviction of mine that, if we truly seek to "win people over" (to use the "evangelical" phrase) for Christ, we will have far more success just by being the kind of people that others would want to spend time with, and that others would want to be like. Having "right doctrine" and so on may have its place, but pales in importance to just spending time with people. There are certainly lots of people throughout my life who have been an influence, simply by being good friends.
But that's a story for another time....