Jason Byassee: Spying God at Target

A “pinhead academic theologian” has to talk about God in the most public of places: the checkout line at Target.

The New South is a funny place. While people in other parts of the country might think public displays of religiosity are an everyday occurrence here, they’re actually not, depending on where you live. Even red states (or purple, in our case here in North Carolina) have pockets of blue. And the Research Triangle is the bluest of blue pockets. In 1992, our congressional district voted more overwhelmingly for Bill Clinton than any other in the state. And when my family moved back here last fall and went house hunting someone told us, “This is a fine neighborhood. As long as you have your Obama sign out front.”

Given our university culture -- with Duke, NC Central, UNC and NC State in such close proximity, and so many students from the increasingly secular northeast at each place -- we’re an odd mash. Lots of evangelicals and lots of aggressive secularists. Sort of like America. Just closer together.

Especially at the big box stores. This time last year I was at Target amidst students shopping for stuff they’ll never use (we have great second-hand shopping here). All the schools meet at Target, if nowhere else. As school logos flew by, I saw three older African-American women. They were praying, heads bowed, out loud, in front of the express aisle.

“Please help her Jesus,” one prayed. “Help her pay the mortgage. Help her find the money, Lord. We need you Jesus.” The others echoed, “Yes Lord, amen.” Others around me looked away, embarrassed, like the women had done something inappropriate at a dinner party. But for the praying women it was God’s grace. They had met this needy friend at Target, and God meant them all to pray, and others to witness it.

Fast-forward to today at the back-to-school sales. A Muslim woman in a hijab greeted me at the checkout. Then her shift abruptly ended and the man who replaced her had a religious answer when I asked “How ya doin’?”

“I’m blessed and highly favored,” he said.

Hmm. An opening for evangelism? Is he Muslim too? Or just a prosperity Christian echoing his preacher?

I tried to go positive without going too religious. The pierced people frowning behind me looked uncomfortable.

“Yeah, it’s good to be walking around above ground, isn’t it?”

“Yes indeed it is,” he said.

Then, looking me in the eye, he said, “Are you blessed and highly favored?”

I wanted to say this was surely against Target regulations. I wished I hadn’t ended my phone conversation and taken out my Bluetooth. Now I was embarrassed. Note: I’m a minister.

“Yes,” I stammered. That is the answer, after all. “God is good all the time, isn’t he?” I was too flummoxed even to avoid the gendered pronoun. Bad university-trained theologian.

“Yes indeed,” he said. And that was all he needed. “You go in peace, and have a good day.”

Then he looked at me intently again before saying, “My brother.”

And we were brothers, of a sort. And I wondered whether the answer to all the religious strife, in this country and elsewhere, isn’t the constant temptation of more secular folks: less religion. Who knows what this man was for sure? I’m a pinhead, university-trained, academic theologian with lots of letters by my name. Who knows what he is? We didn’t get all that ironed out before we talked in public about God.

To talk about God with him at Target was a way for opening, an advance, not only nothing to be ashamed of, but a spying of the divine.

And isn’t that what we religious leaders are supposed to be up to?

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.