It was while getting my hair cut last week that I was reminded again of how we Christians sometimes come across to our non-Christian counterparts.
I was there to get my hair cut. That’s it. Sometimes the conversation is great, sometimes not. My “salon” of choice is called Rudy’s Barbershop. Rudy’s is a unique place, even though there are more than a dozen locations around Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland. The one I go to is in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, very near to my apartment. There are more stickers and images cut from magazines pasted to the walls than I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s one huge collage of humanity. The whole place has an air of hipster coolness that some people despise and some people love. Either way, it’s, as we like to say, “So L.A.!” It seems every hair stylist has tattoos. I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s part of the job description. I’ve never really had a bad haircut there. But truth be told, I go there for the people.
On this particular occasion my stylist was a young girl in her mid-20s with, you guessed it, tattoos. Though in this case I could still see most of the natural pigment of the skin on her arms. We began to talk about the weather, how the summer is going, how it’s been unseasonably mild this summer. The conversation always seems to turn to how much we love L.A. Most of these stylists, like most people in L.A., are from somewhere else. So, we got to talking about where we’re from.
“I’m from the Midwest,” I offered. “Cleveland, Ohio. But I mostly grew up in the IE (Inland Empire). What about you?”
“I’m from Santa Clarita,” she said.
“Oh, wow, my dad and brother live in Santa Clarita. Canyon Country, actually.”
“Yeah, me too! Canyon Country is so different from the rest of Santa Clarita, isn’t it?”
We spent the better part of the next 10 minutes parsing the uniqueness of the different communities around the Santa Clarita Valley, all incorporated into the City of Santa Clarita in the late-1980s. My stylist expressed disdain for Santa Clarita and a sense of freedom being in Los Angeles. If you don’t live in the Los Angeles area, you need to know that the Santa Clarita Valley is only 35 miles north of Los Angeles and still a part of Los Angeles County. We’re not talking about massive distances here. But that’s how Los Angeles is. Each community, even within the city limits, has a unique character. It’s all part of the wonder of Los Angeles.
Anyway, she has been cutting hair since she graduated from high school eight years ago, she tells me. For a while she cut hair in Santa Clarita. It was at this point that the conversation took a very interesting turn.
“You know what I hated about Santa Clarita?” she said. I was pretty sure she was going to tell me. “It’s so Christian!”
“Yeah, there are just so many Christians. It’s kinda scary. Do you know what they would say to me as I cut their hair?” Now this mild-mannered, quiet girl was getting animated. She stopped cutting my hair so she could focus on what she was saying.
“Almost everyday someone would say to me—and this was, like, the first thing they would say after they sat down—‘Do you go to church?’”
“Wow!” I said, “that’s quite an opening line.”
“Yeah! Sometimes if it was a really old person and I thought I might give them a heart attack I would just lie and be like, ‘Yeah.’ But most of the time I would just say, ‘No.”
“Then you know what they would say?” She wasn’t going to wait for me this time. “They would say, ‘I’ll pray for you!’ It was so creepy. I just had to get out of there. One time someone even told me that if I didn’t go to church that I was going to hell!”
All this time I’m thinking, ‘She’s going to ask me what I do for a living.’ I found myself kind of hoping she would. But she didn’t. So, I asked more questions. I said that I, too, found Santa Clarita to be a much more conservative place in almost every way and that I wasn’t really surprised by her stories. Sad, but not surprised.
Then I decided to just dive in. I said something like, “I really appreciate your stories about the Christians you encountered in Santa Clarita. I especially appreciate them because I’m the pastor of a Christian church here in Hollywood.”
“Oh wow,” she said. “I hope I didn’t offend you.”
“Not at all,” I quickly reassured her. “In fact, I agree with you completely that some Christians can be very pushy and overbearing. I wish you could tell your story to my church members because I sense that about 95% of them would feel exactly as you do, even though they’re Christians. Maybe even because they’re Christian.”
I reassured her that there are Christians out there who aren’t like that.
“Yeah, I know that,” she said. “My mom is like that. She’s a Christian but she, like…accepts gays. That’s really cool. And she’s never pushing her religion on other people. I really respect that.”
“Right,” I said. “There are lots and lots of Christians who would be just as embarrassed as you about the things you heard in those hair salons.”
The conversation took one more twist.
“Okay, so…I’m totally not into politics, but…”
Here it comes, I thought to myself.
“As a Christian,” she continued, “and someone that obviously cares about the church and stuff, how do you feel about George Bush and how he claims to be a Christian?”
We talked briefly about my sense that George W. Bush is completely sincere about his faith, but that I sincerely disagree with the way he expresses his faith in public life. Fortunately she was about done with my hair, which turned about really great, by the way. I thanked her for the great conversation, gave her a nice tip and went about the rest of my day.
I’ve been thinking about that conversation from then until now. It occurred to me again how little we Christians sometimes understand the way we are perceived by non-Christian in our neighborhoods. That conversation was a very helpful look in the mirror for me. I told the story to my church board that same night and we reflected again on what it means to be the people of God in the city. How can we be salt and light? What does it mean to reflect Christ to our neighbors?
It struck me that she was complaining to me, a pastor, about how people always brought up religion in her chair. I smiled inside and thought, “You brought this up, not me!” It never occurred to me to put my hands on the conversation to force it in a direction I wanted it to go. It was just a natural, human conversation. I wasn’t there to convert her and she knew it. If she, for one second, thought I was there to preach to her or condescend to her by saying something insensitive like, “I’ll pray for you” she would have shut down in an instant. Instead, I received a gift from her that day—the gift of a look in the mirror. Hopefully she also received something through the humor of revealing her disdain for “Christians” to a Christian pastor. I hope she’s writing her version of this story somewhere.