Many years ago I heard our front door bell chime late one February Saturday afternoon. At the door was a man in his late 30's who totally fitted the stereotypical look of a born-again Christian wearing a camel-hair coat over a tweed suit, along with a grey woollen scarf to keep out the winter's chill as it was overcast and bitterly cold. Accompanying him was a young boy of about 9 years old. The lad - presumably his son - was well wrapped up but it was nevertheless evident that he was really feeling the cold. He stood back behind his father shivering - just staring at the cold concrete path with only the occasional shuffle of his feet. Sure enough the man opened the conversation by asking me if I'd ever stopped to think about what life was all about and whether I was looking for a deeper meaning to my existence. He removed a pair of smart lined leather gloves to make it easier for him to flip through a Bible he'd been carrying to find the bookmarks he'd inserted to locate his favourite morsels of ancient wisdom.
While the man started to quote Biblical platitudes, I looked down at the child and wondered whether his knitted mittens would be so effective for keeping out the cold. I wondered whether to invite them into the warmth of the house, but then - it shames me to say - was struck by an intense wave of cynical irritation. "Has this guy just dragged the poor kid along for emotional blackmail - to goad his targets into letting them into their homes?", I wondered. "Well I'm certainly not falling for that!"
So I politely but curtly explained that I wasn't interested in his religion or his messages of salvation and bade him an assertive goodbye, whereupon he and the boy trudged off apologetically and somewhat dejectedly to the next house on the street.
Almost 20 years on I still feel bad about having let this cynicism win me over. I'm sure I would handle the situation very differently today. For a start, even if the lad was being used as an emotional pawn (and there's no evidence other than my own suspicion to suppose he was), it wasn't his fault: I should still have invited them in from the cold, made them drinks, offered them food, found the lad some books to read or TV programme to watch whilst I patiently listened to the man's beliefs before calmly explaining to him how much more meaning I find in the world by accepting - indeed relishing - its godlessness. I'm sure it would have given them both some cheer on that bleak afternoon even if they had struck zero on their successful conversion rate.
What is particularly poignant to me now is the fact that of all the Bible stories I was told during my childhood, only one really struck me as truly worthy: that of the good Samaritan. It's a story that really has nothing to do with God - it's just a simple tale of human compassion and how kindness to strangers can overcome adversity. I'd always believed that I would have been like that good Samaritan and extended the helping hand of friendship. Well hopefully next time...