I spent January of my sophomore year at the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin, Ireland. I lived in a hostel near the school that month, along with other students from various colleges across the U.S, including a small group from the Christ-centered Messiah College (PA). I thoroughly enjoyed my time training as a performer, the short-term friendships made with this random assortment of peers (even the Christians), and, in particular, the adventures I shared with one young man from Messiah College. I felt such a kinship with him, in fact, that I spent my spring break of that year visiting him in Pennsylvania.
I chose to spend my one-week vacation on a Christian college campus, and this is where I first experienced Christ in community.
Those seven days were surprising, surreal, and yet, totally comfortable for me. I spent most of my time with the two young women in whose dorm room I slept, in addition to meals with my friend and his girlfriend. They were all looking forward to getting together with a few other friends, one girl in particular, at the end of the week. They spoke about this girl in admiring tones; it was obvious that they all held her in high esteem. I, of course, was invited to attend the gathering, though I had no idea what the night would entail.
So the night before I left, about 7 or 8 college students met in the dorm room where I was staying. The young woman whose appearance was so highly anticipated had brought a video of a dance performance (that I think she had danced?) during an Easter service. We watched the video, which didn't impress me, but which obviously moved the rest of the group. Then slowly, seamlessly, my friend and another guy started softly playing their guitars. Before I realized it, this small group of Christians was singing love songs to Jesus. Nothing was planned, no one explained that this was the next part of the evening; the two guys didn't have sheet music or consult with one another. But somehow, they were playing together, and everyone was singing, their eyes closed and their hearts completely focused on worshiping God. I had no idea what was happening, but suddenly, I was crying.
It was the strangest experience. Part of me was hurt, wondering why they all thought this was an appropriate way to spend their last night with me. But most of me was in awe of what I was witnessing. Obviously, something was going on at a deeper level than I could understand, as I couldn't explain why I was so moved to tears. And this girl, this leader who they all respected, sat down next to me. She told me that Jesus was in that room with us, and that he wanted me to open up my heart to him.
I know this sounds like the classic, cheesy Christian evangelism that modern secular movies love to mock, but in that moment, I wasn't offended or humored by her directness. I recognized the sincerity of her faith and her care for me. But I was totally confused by the experience. I had no concept of God at that point in my life. I certainly didn't think of Jesus as this personal figure who had an individual interest in me, and I had never heard about the work of the Holy Spirit. So her invitation to accept Jesus into my life came way out of left field to me. I just had no construct, no context, and, as I told her, I had no reason to "believe" in Jesus.
She didn't push it, and soon after she returned to her seat, the evening shifted again. No one was visibly (or verbally) directing the group, but in a moment, everyone's hands were touching one person, and people began to pray for him or her. Even though I had never seen anything like this, I sat with the group and touched the person of the moment. When it came to my friend, I even said something like a prayer over him!
I shake my head in disbelief as I remember this night, now 11 years ago. I literally walked into a worship service, a mini-church of young people singing psalms of praise, lifting holy hands, and encouraging one another in prayer and the laying on of hands. I didn't know it then, of course, but God was chasing after me! I had locked God away in a very small box so many years before, hidden and forgotten. But he had not forgotten me. That event, on a college campus in March, unknowingly prepared me for the life-changing choice I would make just 4 months later.