There is a lady in my town that my children refer to as the "Jesus Lady." She gets her moniker from her habit of standing on the street corner, clutching a Bible, and calling to passersby, "Jesus loves you!" My children sometimes imitate her in a mocking way. They tell me that she often hangs out near the middle school at dismissal time, calling out her good news to the children as they pour out of the school building. My children also tell me that their Jewish friends are offended by this woman's behavior and wish there were a way to get rid of her. "She's annoying," they tell me. Is it legal, they ask, for someone to proselytize like that in a public place?
I tell them that as long as she is in fact in a public space, like on the sidewalk or on the street, and as long as she neither approaches, threatens, nor harasses anyone, she is perfectly within her rights. In fact, her behavior is specifically protected by our laws.
But I am less interested in the Jesus Lady's behavior and its legality than in the reaction it evokes in my children. We are churchgoers, but we belong to what I would characterize as a liberal and relatively reticent denomination, and my children are not particularly familiar with street preachers. We do occasionally get Jehovah's Witnesses at our door. Unless they catch me in the middle of a crazy three-kids-and-two-dogs-and-mother-in-law-on-the-phone moment, I generally accept their literature and listen to their spiel. When I worked in downtown Brooklyn, I was frequently approached on the street by members of the Lubavitcher sect, a Jewish group that encourages increased observance among members of their faith. They'd ask me if I was Jewish, and when I told them I was not, they'd smile and wish me a good day. I have no reason to wish them anything but the same.
In fact, I admire them. I admire anyone who is so sure of their beliefs, of their place in the universe, that they can confidently spend hot summer days and cold winter evenings sharing them on the streets of a city with eight million strangers in it. I admire people who have found their calling, in the truest sense of the word. I admire the absence of doubt. I don't particularly aspire to it, because I love the mental exercise a good dose of doubt can provide, but I admire it.
I would venture to say that about 50% of my friends and family are atheists. Many of them are aggressively so, posting anti-religion rants on Facebook, snickering from their seats at weddings and other religiously-tinged rituals, or making fun of people who dress differently or observe customs within their community that strike the outside world as "weird." I am trying to raise my children to be respectful of other people's beliefs, and it's hard to do so when they are surrounded by people who, frankly, aren't. Making fun of the Jesus Lady is a form of intolerance that I cannot accept. She deserves, like anyone else, a polite smile, a held door, a "good morning" or "good evening," and, most importantly, a place to stand on the public sidewalk. As do the Witnesses and the Lubavitchers and anyone else.
I saw the Jesus Lady in person for the first time this morning, as I was biking to my physical therapy appointment. She was standing on the sidewalk in the downtown area, near a busy intersection where I had to dismount my bike to cross the street. I saw her right away, but I did not know who she was. She was a pleasant-looking middle-aged woman, dressed somewhat conservatively, holding something in her hand. She smiled, waved, and called something to me, but I could not hear her over the sound of the traffic. As I got closer, I asked her, "I beg your pardon?"
"Jesus loves you!" she repeated with a cheerful smile.
I instantly knew who she was, of course. The thing in her hand, I could now see, was a heavy book. She was not at all the freak I had imagined from my children's descriptions. "Thank you," I said, getting ready to get back onto my bike.
"Do you happen to know what time it is?" she asked.
I looked at my watch. "About ten after eight," I told her.
She smiled again. "Thank you very much," she said. "Have a good day."
I think I will.