A tiny pamphlet is thrust into my hand by the street preacher’s confederate. Searching For Answers? it says, the question mark meaning, I suppose, ‘are you searching for answers?’, to which the answer is probably ‘no’. I’m not even sure I know the questions, which rules out, I can’t help feeling, finding the answers. It is badly printed and has a picture of a sunset on the front; inside shoddy grammar and misspelling tell me, not entirely to my surprise, that I need God.
The preacher is in full flow. Evolution, he’s saying, is a hoax, though he doesn’t tell those passing by why it is. Unless we repent of our sins and accept Christ, he insists, we’re all going to Hell and waves his Bible to prove it. A woman sitting on one of the nearby benches shouts something back at him – I can’t quite hear what, though it’s something about love – and he, with the advantage of his microphone and loudspeaker, bellows at her that there’s no arguing with God’s Word. Plus, he’s only telling her what a terrible person she is because he loves her.
I’ve made the mistake of slowing down to hear what’s going on and as I attempt now to walk on, to return to the reality of Saturday afternoon shopping, the man with the tracts catches me again.
‘So,’ he says, ‘what do you think? Will you let Jesus into your life?’
‘Not today,’ I say, ‘we’ve both got better things to do.’
‘There’s nothing better than turning to Jesus. And he likes nothing better than saving another lost sheep. Are you a lost sheep?’ he adds.
‘No,’ I say. ‘I’m not a sheep and I’m not lost. I’m on my way home right now, in fact.’
‘Ah, but do you have a home in heaven?’ he asks. He’s good; whatever I say, however light I try to make it, he turns it round into another impertinent question.
‘I thought you had all the answers,’ I say to him, glancing down at the tatty bit of folded paper in my hands. ‘Don’t you know?’
‘I’m telling you, my friend, you don’t,’ he says earnestly. ‘You are lost in your sin and because God cannot tolerate sin you have no place in Heaven. Not unless you repent and accept Christ.’
‘Jesus!’ I mutter under my breath. ‘Look, I don’t believe in your Christ or any of this stuff.” I push his tract back at him, ‘and I’m not your friend either.’ He looks crestfallen, but only for the briefest of seconds. His ally, still performing for the crowd, is shouting that Jesus is coming back soon to judge the world.
‘And you’d better be ready,’ my new best pal tells me, reinvigorated. I shake my head and step round him, apologising that I have to go; why? I wonder, when it was he who accosted me? So, despite not searching for any answers, I now have them. They just don’t seem to match any questions I might have, like why there’s so much suffering in the world and why human beings do such terrible things to each other (often in the name of religion) and what am I going to have for my tea? Now there’s a question worth answering.