I’ve long been a skeptic when it comes to “giveaway outreach.” I mean, of course you’re going to be able to draw a crowd by handing out free coffee… or pizza… or pancakes… or whatever. Especially in a collegiate environment. “But how does that lead to meaningful interaction?” I ask. “How does that create space for substantial spiritual engagement?”
“Positive public relations” is one standard response, and I get that to a certain extent. Even so, I’m not so sure about the benefit-cost ratio there. At least on a regular, ongoing basis.
“We just want to bless people,” is another rationale, and I certainly have no problem with unmerited favor or kindness. It’s the basis of Christian faith, in fact! But do we really want a cup of coffee or a slice of pizza to be the proxy for Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice, atoning for our sins? It seems a bit far-fetched, if you ask me. And besides, if we’re looking for people who need to be blessed, couldn’t we find more worthy candidates off-campus, where they don’t have meal plans and Twitter feeds announcing everyday giveaways?
For two weeks in a row, however, I’ve joined with other H2O staff and students on crisp, cool Thursday mornings to hand out coffee, tea, and hot chocolate on the Kent State University Esplanade, as students make their way from class to class. And already I’m noticing the ways that this “giveaway outreach” is having an effect. Last week, it was off-the-cuff comments about a student’s bright red “Georgia” sweatshirt; this week it was an exchange of names and a discussion of hometowns and hockey teams and hopes for the day ahead. Last week, it was refining my pronunciation of the Turkish name “Ömer” and some superficial observations about linguistics; this week it was deep discussion about the various points of comparison and contrast between Islam and Christianity. Last week it was cautious, curious glances in our direction with suspicious questions of, “Really? Is it free?” This week it was eager smiles, hands cupped around warm beverages, words of appreciation, and even a few timid, “So what is H2O Church exactly?”
I personally had at least four quality interactions with people at our giveaway this week. Conversations long enough for their coffee to cool as we talked. Conversations covering the gamut from the origin of life… to the doctrine of original sin… to Christian / Buddhist syncretism… to God’s goodness… to Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4)… to telephone numbers being exchanged for follow-up conversations.
The general level of dialogue clearly evolved from Week 1 to Week 2. We didn’t just offer a beverage service; we offered meaningful engagement with the campus. Familiar faces became fledgling friendships. And I can’t wait for the dialogue to pick up again next time.