My family recently took a road trip to Florida, because we thought logging over two thousand miles in a car with five kids would be fun. It was fun, actually—not without hiccups, as all road trips are, but even the hiccups were fodder for many family memories.
One of the hiccups I wasn’t prepared for, though, was all the billboards. I texted a friend from on the road (I wasn’t driving at the time) that the billboards we passed could roughly be broken down into three categories: South of the Border, “adult” novelties, and Jesus. This seemed to me an unlikely assembly.
As we drove past the first few “Heaven or Hell?”-style billboards, I found myself unconsciously praying that none of my children would comment on them. I couldn’t articulate why—but something about the billboards made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want to entertain them in discussion.
Like many of my low-level prayers related to my offspring (please don’t let him throw up, please don’t let her arm be broken, please don’t let the principal call again) this one was answered in the negative: “Mommy, why does that sign say that?”
Why didn’t I want to talk about them? We’re Christians; the billboards were put up by Christians. So why my unease? Is it because I don’t see myself as the kind of Christian who would put up a billboard? Perhaps I was afraid that, should I actually dial 855-FOR-TRUTH, I would find the Christian on the other end of the line a very different sort of Christian from me. We might have different interpretations of various scriptures, for example. Or different views on who is going to heaven or hell. We probably voted for different presidential candidates. We would almost certainly have marked differences in the churches we attend, our preferred forms of worship, the type of sermons we regularly hear.
Perhaps I was afraid that, should I actually dial 855-FOR-TRUTH, I would find the Christian on the other end of the line a very different sort of Christian from me.
But we would still both be Christians, no?
Part of my role as a parent, as I see it, is to teach my children to tolerate—even love—people we might perceive as “different” from us. We frequently talk about how God created everyone equal, but how as people we haven’t treated everyone equally, and how that’s a problem. We talk about ways we can show God’s love to people who might look differently, act differently, or believe differently than we do. We talk about how God wants us to love our Muslim neighbors and Syrian refugees. We talk about how, no matter how much we may disagree with someone, she or he is still made in the image of God.
So why can I teach my children to love our Muslim neighbors, but I shy away from teaching the same lessons about our brothers and sisters in Christ? Can I stick to my message of “God’s love is for all,” extending it even to those who sometimes spew hatred? I don’t honestly know.
What began with my children as an observation as fleeting as a billboard sighting blossomed, over the course of our trip, into a longer, ongoing conversation. We talked about why sometimes, Christians disagree—and not just over little things. We talked about swearing, ordaining women, the military, the roles of icons in worship. We talked about loving our sisters and brothers in Christ, even when we don’t even want to be associated with them. Our conversation eventually led to me picking up the phone, and dialing 855-FOR-TRUTH, to tell the person on the other end of the line that, as a fellow Christian, I appreciate them. If we met face-to-face we might have deep divisions in our shared beliefs. But the man on the other end of the line is my brother in Christ. I don’t want to lose sight of that truth.
Elrena Evans is Editor and Content Strategist for Christians for Social Action. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Penn State, and has also worked for Christianity Today and American Bible Society. She is the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night, and co-author of the essay collection Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. She enjoys spending time with her family, dancing, and making spreadsheets.