“Okay,” I replied, uncertain of what to say next.

“Hello. I am Ilya,” he said, holding out his hand. “From Russia.”

I had a feeling he was going to teach me a thing or two about Jesus, and I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. Control is not something I surrender easily.

“I’m Shayne, from . . . well, I guess I am from Virginia now.”

Having emigrated from Russia many decades before, Ilya had raised his family in the eclectic, crowded neighborhood of Brighton Beach. We talked for more than two hours—about family and grandkids, retirement, health, neighbors, and our wives. We talked about Jesus, too. Ilya was Jewish and had heard a lot about Jesus over the course of more years than I had been alive. He had lots of questions, some of which I could answer. Many I could not, despite my advanced theological degree.

I had never had such a muddled, or meaningful, discussion about Jesus. My seminary answers often sounded platitudinous and even hollow. Yet as Ilya and I talked, Jesus was there, sitting with us in the pregnant pauses and cul-de-sacs that littered our conversation. He had never been more present and alive to me, and I found myself wishing I knew him better.

“Rain is here,” Ilya said as he raised his eyes to the gathered clouds. “I must go. We both have much to think about. Getting to know you made your Jesus more real to me, and I thank you. Good-bye, friend.” He tipped his fedora and was gone.

Who knows what ever became of that conversation in Ilya’s life, but I knew something had changed in me.

I had traveled all the way from Virginia to Brighton Beach, ostensibly to introduce people to Jesus—to change their lives by means of a carefully worded and expertly designed pamphlet—but it seemed that I was the one who needed the introduction, or at least a reunion.

I first met Jesus when I was in college, through a group of people who loved and cared for one another in a way I didn’t know was possible. Jocks and jesters, nerds and rebels, I found them to be a weird Breakfast Club community of true friendship and affection, held together by their common identity as Christians. It was weird. They were weird. But I was intrigued.

They called themselves the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and they met on Thursday evenings in the basement of one of the dorms. The friend who invited me said that only a few were actually athletes, and you didn’t even have to be a Christian to come. Nevertheless, I quickly realized that Jesus was real to this diverse gathering of college students—not in a creepy, cultish, one-dimensional way, but something deeper, like it made them better people, more peaceful and kind and full of joy. The life of Jesus just seemed to be in them, and I gradually absorbed that life into my own.

At the time, I couldn’t have given an account for the theological basis of sin, repentance, or substitutionary atonement. I would have stuttered cross-eyed if you had asked me about the factual truth of the Resurrection or the reality of the Trinity, but I knew Jesus and I knew he had changed me. I knew that God had spoken his benediction of grace over me—that he had welcomed me into his family, warts and all, and called me his own. I knew that, through Jesus, God hadn’t just forgiven me, he also loved me like his own child. This was easy for me to accept because my father had always loved and accepted me, even though I wasn’t perfect and often needed correction. I knew that nothing could cause my dad to stop loving me, and now I knew I had the same kind of love from God. It was real. Palpable. I could feel it in my bones.

Yet here I was, eight years later, on the streets of Brooklyn, relying more on propositions and formulas, slogans, and thinly veiled intimidation—“God will get you in the end if you don’t straighten up and get right with Jesus”—to try to get people’s attention. Jesus had become more of a ticket out of hell than an invitation into a rich and loving life with God. What happened to the life and the joy, the simplicity of knowing that Christ was living in me? I had fancied myself as brave and bold to venture into big, bad Brooklyn, armed with theologically sound literature. But that wasn’t courage; it was cowardice. I was hiding behind my pamphlets and the impersonal anonymity of the big city, afraid to let the Jesus within me breathe and be seen, simple and unadorned.