The first time the evangelist came up to the booth, he made a rhetorical move he probably thought was clever: “You know what’s the worst climate anxiety? Heaven and Hell. You end up in the wrong place, there’s no counseling that’s gonna help you.” Later in the 20+ minutes of that encounter, he told the story of a similar rhetorical move he made to a woman he met on the street at night in Providence, right before he asked her how she’d feel if someone came up behind her, doused her with gasoline, and set her on fire.
That first encounter was mostly him telling stories he thought would move me–presumably to convert to Christianity right then and there? I’m not sure what I could have said to make him walk away satisfied, but I know what I did say to make him walk away: “I need a break from talking to you right now,” and then, when he kept talking, “You need to listen to me. I’m done talking to you.” He walked away, calling out, “You’ve received a warning today.”
Two days later as I was setting up, he came back, already talking. “If you pay attention to this foolishness,” indicating the booth, “instead of heaven and hell…”
“Please leave me alone,” I said. I kept saying it, over him, rhythmically and at high volume, though not actually shouting. A woman I didn’t know walked out of the park toward the bus station saying to him, “Leave her alone, she said to leave her alone, that’s harassment.” He kept talking and so did I, until a man I didn’t know took him by the elbow, gently, and led him away.
The people who intervened on my behalf were just people, as far as I could tell–no uniforms, no official status. I’m immeasurably grateful for their help, and relieved that they recognized me as helpable. I’ve seen people do worse things to other people in Kennedy Plaza with no intervention from anybody.
Gasoline story notwithstanding, I don’t think I was in any physical danger from this man, partly because of where I was–in broad daylight in a public place with many people passing by–and partly because of who I am, a white cisgender woman with the exterior trappings of someone who has a home to go to. My sister Rachel pointed out that while the evangelist was irritating, the people who stepped in may have recognized that he wasn’t likely to physically hurt them for intervening–like them, he had no official status, no state sanction.
There’s a resemblance between the evangelist and me. Like me, he is telling stories to strangers, stories that he hopes will change the way they think and behave. He offers what he sees as hope and transformation, and so do I. There are real differences between the evangelist and me, too, but I think those are easier to see and I won’t belabor them here.
Where is the place for the evangelist in the world I want to help to make? I’m not going to shed any tears over him–he’s an aggressive jerk who doesn’t listen to women. In that world, which is this world, he can’t have the place he wants. But there must be some place for him, because everyone has to be somewhere. If we are serious about this world, we have to think about the people in it: what will we do with people whose differences from other people seem to them to be an excuse for aggression? How do we take care of each other when “each other” is the source of menace?
There is a difference, too, between someone who will continue to talk at, or over, another person against their wishes, and people who will step in to defend those wishes. I’m grateful that the two people who spoke up for me saw my wishes as defendable. Maybe they see everyone as worth protecting. Maybe they “go out of their way”–maybe that is their way, as they see it. I hope I would spring to their defense, if someone were troubling them in my line of sight. I hope I would recognize that trouble when I saw it.
To learn to recognize, assess, respond to threats that aren’t directly to the self–that seems key, it seems central, to shifting the balance of this world. A transphobic attack, a trumped-up arrest, a wall of flaking lead paint, a flood of poison into a body of water: if the threat is not to you, how can you usefully interpose yourself, without yourself being destroyed?