Monday, July 21, 2008

The Homeschooling Convention (part 1)

Last Friday I traveled to Phoenix's downtown district -- now called "Copper Square"-- to do a booth for VOM's "Kids of Courage" products at a large homeschool convention.

Part of the front of of the Phoenix Convention Center's west building:

A bit of the exhibit hall's (basement's) 42,000 square feet:

Of the many interesting people we met, of the many old friends we spotted again, of the many things we learned about boothmanship, I cannot now speak in detail.

I will restrict myself to sharing about four interesting events related to this trip.

First, how this trip even came about is somewhat remarkable. I had assisted Kids of Courage director Brad Heil and his wife at last year's booth here, but only for one of the two days. I wrote him again this year -- twice -- to see if we were going to have a booth again this year but never heard back. When I was at the VOM National Conference last month, I had the unexpected chance to have lunch with Brad, one on one. (Read more details about our lunch in my blog entry about that day.) At the end of our meal, I asked him about whether we would be doing a booth at the Arizona homeschooling convention this year. He told me basically, "I am so swamped that I don't have time to plan it, but if we are not too late to get a booth and you can plan it, I'll be happy to back you!"

This was on June 28th, leaving less than 3 weeks before the convention. As it turned out, I was just barely in time to get a booth.

I had a choice between a corner booth and a non-corner booth. The non-corner booth was cheaper. I was thinking “corner booth” meant in the corner of the room, which would be less traffic so I couldn’t understand why someone would pay more for it. I picked a non-corner booth. Then after mailing the check I was remembering last year that our booth was at the “intersection” of two aisles. It hit me that that was what they meant by a corner booth, and why they would charge more for it. (You get traffic from two directions instead of one.) I figured, “Oh well, too late now, lesson learned… and prayed that the Lord would send us the traffic we need anyways. A couple days later I got word in the mail that we’d been given a corner booth area… apparently they'd run out of the cheaper spaces and had to give away the corner booths at non-corner prices.

On Friday of the convention I overheard people saying that there was going to be a ballgame that night at the Chase Field, very close to the convention center. I had heard so many people (like Mark Cahill, Tony Miano, and Steve Sanchez) talk about the joy of evangelizing at ballgames that I decided to give it a try. It's not every day you find that many people together in one place, particularly when you live in Rimrock, Arizona. I had no idea when the game would start or end and I didn't get over to the ballfield until about 8 PM.

The game, which turned out to be Diamondbacks versus Dodgers, was already well underway when I arrived. Right as I got there, about 10 police officers or security guards came running from all directions towards the ticketing gates. I mean running, not jogging. Even though whoever they were after was a long ways from me, it was still a sobering sight. I asked another bystander what was going on and he told me he'd heard they were after someone who had drunk too much.

It was ironic to think of all the thousands of people gathered in the stadium enjoying a game, while for those police (and the drunk) life was more serious and potentially deadly than ever.

As it turned out, the area of the building I had come to was a place where people would come outside to smoke during the game. (Smoking is not allowed inside the stadium.) There was a small but constant stream of people coming out to smoke and a small but constant stream going back inside. I started handing out copies of my favorite tract to them. (The cartoon format makes it ideal for people with low literacy levels--which is becoming more and more of the US!)

I got a lot of rejections--people saying "No" or just walking by pretending not to see me. More than normal. But afterwards I figured out a lot of it probably was because they were beginning to feel grouchy from nicotine deprivation. Some of them were somewhat inebribriated. One guy I saw was especially pathetic, laughing hysterically with a few of his buddies, but his face was totally wasted looking. Despite the fact they'd come to a game to be entertained, I don't think I saw anyone who actually looked happy. Profanity was as prevalent as the cigarette smoke.

I found the contrast striking between the nice, friendly homeschoolers I had been with earlier in the day and the ragged, coarse ballfans. But I was glad to be there. In a way, what I was doing was the natural outcome and goal of being homeschooled. Our parents don't go to all the trouble to teach us at home to isolate us from interaction with the world, but to prepare us to go into the world and change it for the glory of Jesus.

Some people threw the tracts on the ground or put them in the ashtrays. I retrieved most of these and gave them out to other people. (For one thing, why waste a good tract, and for another thing, I didn't want to get in trouble with authorities for the litter.) I kept moving slowly around the area so I couldn't be accused of loitering and kept out of the gateway so I couldn't be accused of blocking it. (I'm not sure if I would have gotten in trouble for either of those, but I didn't want to risk it, especially since I wasn't sure what the rules of the park were.) As it turned out, the gatekeepers left me totally alone even though they saw what I was doing.

I had three fairly good conversations. One was with a Christian from Casa Grande who had brought 37 kids from the youth group up from the game. We had a nice chat and I couldn't help but wish they were all outside telling people about Jesus instead of inside watching the game. Nothing wrong with baseball in itself but it was sure a lot more fun and meaningful (and less expensive) doing what I was doing than what they were doing.

A second conversation was with a friendly but lost guy who was very talkative and allowed me to go through the 10 Commandments with him. His friend got impatient and went back in to the game. My guy yelled to him really loudly, "I'll be there in a minute, I'm going through the 10 commandments right now and I'm on 4 of 10!" (I think perhaps he had had a few to drink too, and just had not yet reached the slurry stage.) When we got through he said, "Well, I'm batting .500 and I don't think that's too bad!" I was not quick enough on my feet to handle all of his erroneous reasonings and he went back inside.

The third conversation was with a young man (about 17?) named Nate who was really searching for answers. I answered them as best as I could but I didn't do as good as I wish I had. I really enjoyed talking with him. The hungry look in his eyes will remain in my memory for a long time. His parents came over eventually and they went back inside.

I left to return to my hotel about 9:20, knowing I had to get a good night's rest to be ready for the second day of the convention. On the way back to the hotel, I passed out a few more tracts to some people outside a nightclub and to some KISS characters (creepy looking people) handing out fliers about their upcoming events in Phoenix.

There was a good police presence (even a cop on horseback!) so I didn't really feel scared during my time "out on the street". In total, I was able to distribute about 150 tracts that night. Praise the Lord, it was really enjoyable!

I realized that if Christians want an easy place to evangelize, the ballgames are definitely one good place. Especially if they could be there when people are going in and coming out at the beginning and end of the games. A well-organized team of Christians could share the good news with more people in a single night than many churches do in a year. Later I learned that there are over 2000 events every year in Copper Square. Obviously, not all of them are this big, but still, what a great place to meet people who need to know about Jesus!

You'll have to wait until my next installment to hear about the other two things that happened the next day!

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